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margaret tafoya, pueblo potter whose work found a global audience,

updated tue 6 mar 01


Lois Ruben Aronow on mon 5 mar 01

Dies at 96

=46rom today's NY Times

Margaret Tafoya, Pueblo Potter Whose Work Found a Global Audience,
Dies at 96

Margaret Tafoya, whose nimble, ingenious hands turned the
chocolate-colored clay of her New Mexico pueblo into black-on-black
and red- on-red pottery of such profound and graceful beauty that it
acquired a global reputation, died on Feb. 25 at her home in Santa
Clara Pueblo near Santa Fe. She was 96.

Her name in Tewa, the language of seven Southwestern pueblos, six in
New Mexico and one in Arizona, was Corn Blossom. She was the matriarch
of Santa Clara Pueblo potters, who are more numerous and produce more
pottery than those of any other pueblo.

Her work, known for exceptionally large vessels, is exhibited in
public and private collections around the world. She was named folk
artist of the year by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1984.

The art form she practiced has long been dominated by women, and Corn
Blossom was the last of a group of women who attained fame through
their mastery of it. Gone are Blue Corn and Maria Martinez of the San
Ildefonso Pueblo, Christina Naranjo of Santa Clara and Grace Chapella,
a Hopi.

Today Indian arts command astronomic prices and space on museum
shelves in faraway cities, but fewer and fewer Pueblo Indians can
speak or even understand Tewa. Mrs. Tafoya, though, was rooted in the
old ways.=20

She spurned inventions like the potter's wheel. She kept chickens,
milked her own cows, churned her own butter and rejected natural gas
heat in favor of the traditional beehive fireplace.

After a brief fling with an Apache, she married a young man from the
home pueblo, a distant relative with the same last name.

According to the Web site of the National Museum of American History
(, Santa Clarans use the same word for clay
and for people: nung.

Mrs. Tafoya always prayed to Mother Clay before working. "You can't go
to Mother Clay without the cornmeal and ask her permission to touch
her," the museum Web site quotes Mrs. Tafoya as saying. "Talk to
Mother Clay."

Though she was one of the last to make pots with handles and
criticized others for adding semiprecious gems to pottery, she also
liked to experiment.

She used different colors of slips, or thinned clays applied to the
outside of her vessels, and her later forms were thinner, lighter and
more graceful. Her shiny finishes became ever more polished. She even
adapted Greek and Roman forms to classic Santa Clara shapes.
Mrs. Tafoya clearly loved her art, but it was also how she supported
her 10 children who survived their first year; 2 others did not. As
she said, "I have dressed my children with clay."

Maria Margarita Tafoya was born in her pueblo on Aug. 13, 1904. Her
mother, Sara Fina Gutierrez Tafoya, or Autumn Leaf, was "undoubtedly
the outstanding Tewa potter of her time," Mary Ellen and Laurence
Blair wrote in "Margaret Tafoya: A Tewa Potter's Heritage and Legacy"
(Schiffer, 1986).

Her father, Geronimo, or White Flower, was mainly concerned with
raising food for the family, but he was also the main marketer of his
wife's pottery. He would load up his burros and make sales trips of up
to 500 miles.

=46ive of the couple's eight children became excellent potters, driven
and inspired by their perfectionist mother. Margaret's rigidly
traditional approach was suggested by her insistence on using corn
cobs, rather than sandpaper, for polishing.=20

She and her siblings made their first pottery when their mother tossed
them pieces of clay. "We get a piece of her clay and try to make
animals or maybe bowls," Margaret said. "We make these just for fun."
Her mother allowed the young girl to sell her first piece of pottery
to a Santa Fe dealer. "I sure don't remember how much I got," she said
in an interview in the book. "It was a small piece, you know. It made
me feel good. I felt I should make some more."

Margaret attended the pueblo elementary school and went to Santa Fe
Indian School.

She had to drop out of high school to help her family during the
devastating flu epidemic of 1918. In 1924 she married Alcario Tafoya,
a professional cook who was also related to famous potters. He carved
decorations on Margaret's works but never signed them.

In the 1930's and 40's the Tafoyas often exchanged pottery for
children's clothing. Mrs. Tafoya returned to work as soon as possible
after the birth of each of her children.

At first she and her husband took her pottery to cities and fairs to
sell. Then, tourists arrived in buses and cars to buy it directly. In
the 1950's the family become friends with the owner of a resort at
Royal Gorge on the front range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. He
persuaded them to be resident Indians each summer. They would dance
and sell pottery.

As the value of Indian art skyrocketed, such direct selling was no
longer necessary. Dealers today place blind orders for anything they
can get by the best-known potters. But Mrs. Tafoya enjoyed attending
group shows simply to see what others were doing.

In 1977 she visited a gallery show in Santa Fe that included 51
potters from 11 tribes. Afterward she invited the great Hopi potter
Grace Chapella, then 103, to her home. The two conversed in old Tewa,
which is to today's Tewa what Elizabethan English is to modern

"The Tafoya daughters were told that it was rude to interrupt with
questions, so they missed much of the conversation," the Blairs said
in their book.

Mrs. Tafoya once said that she learned to make pottery "just by
watching my Grandma," and most of her own children and grandchildren
learned the same way.

She is survived by six daughters, Virginia Ebelacker, Jennie Trammel,
Toni Roller, LuAnn Tafoya, Mary Esther Archuleta and Shirley Tafoya;
three sons, Leonardo, Wayne and Phillip; 30 grandchildren; 45
great-grandchildren; and 11 great-great-grandchildren.

Mrs. Tafoya never used the words "when I die," saying instead, "if I

And she does live, in clay and in blood. "The children, I'm proud of
them because they like to do this pottery," she said.