Margaret Tafoya

The artist Margaret Tafoya was born on August 13, 1904, in Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico. Tafoya was noted as a potter, and for her unique approach to pottery. Tafoya only made hand-coiled vessels, and she only used one medium: clay dug from deposits on the Santa Clara land. However, while her work was unique in modern art, it was actually the continuation of a centuries-long tradition among the Pueblo people, and Tafoya’s artwork was as much about this tradition as it was about the pots, themselves. As a result, while Tafoya was referred to as the “Matriarch of Santa Clara Pueblo pottery,” this moniker did not reflect the huge role that tradition played in her art and in her life, because she was not the creator of the tradition, merely one of its preeminent practitioners. (Holmes Museum of Anthropology). For example, Tafoya was insistent about getting her clay from her ancestral lands stating: “We get the clay where our ancestors used to take it…My girls are still doing work from the clay that my great-great-grandparents used.” (National Endowment for the Arts, quoting Margaret Tafoya). Furthermore, she not only fired her pottery in the same manner as her ancestors, in an open fire, and finished them in the traditional way, by rubbing them with a smooth stone; she also insisted that her descendants do the same thing. (National Endowment for the Arts).

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It is very clear that Tafoya’s experience as an artist was greatly influenced by her cultural tradition. Santa Clara was a small Pueblo village in New Mexico, with about 3,000 people living in the village. “Among the Pueblo, pottery-making was not taught at schools, but learned as daughters watched mothers, aunts, and grandmothers pinch pots.” (Gaffney). In fact, the Rio Grande pueblos have used pottery as a trade commodity for more than $1,000 years. Moreover:

For more than 1,000 years, pottery had been an important trade commodity among the Rio Grande pueblos, and archeological evidence demonstrates its widespread use among people of the region. With the coming of the Spaniards and other Europeans in the sixteenth century, pottery commerce continued; after the opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821, however, utilitarian pueblo-made pottery was gradually replaced by machine-made products. By the turn of the twentieth century, pueblo pottery was beginning to be identified as an art form in its own right and to be collected by anthropologists, historians, artists, and patrons of the arts. (National Endowment for the Arts).

More specifically, even in a region widely recognized for its pottery, the people of the Santa Clara Pueblo have received special acclaim. This acclaim extends back as far as a.D. 500, “when the pueblo people developed agriculture and adapted a more settled lifestyle than those of their hunting and gathering ancestors.” (National Endowment for the Arts). Since that time, the pueblo people have been passing their pottery tradition down from generation to generation.

Margaret Tafoya, herself, learned how to make pottery from her mother, Sarafina Guiterrez Tafoya, continuing the pueblo intergenerational tradition. “The Tafoyas, like many of the pottery-making families among the Pueblo, have a tradition of pottery-making that reaches back centuries.” (Gaffney). Like her daughter, Margaret, Sarafina was well-respected among the Sara Clara and was even considered the leading potter during her time period. In fact, Sarafina’s acclaim extended beyond the Sara Clara Pueblo. According to Dennis Gaffney:

Perhaps the most influential potter among the Pueblo in the early 1900s was Sarafina Tafoya, who is often credited with developing the style now associated with the village. She made highly polished red or black monochrome pots decorated with modeled, impressed, or deeply carved designs. (Gaffney).

Margaret was not only influenced by her mother, but by the other women in her family, who had passed down the pottery tradition. Moreover, it would be incorrect to assume that only women were potters among the Pueblo. On the contrary, Margaret’s father, Jose Geronimo Tafoya, also helped with the family pottery tradition. “Margaret’s father was primarily concerned with raising food for the family but he was also known to make pottery and helped Sarafina with many aspects of her pottery production.” (Holmes Anthropology Museum).

In fact, Tafoya’s own family had been making pottery for all of their discoverable history:

1983 exhibition at the Denver Museum of Natural History included more than 100 pots by six generations of Tafoya family potters, the earliest made by her great-grandmother around 1934. But it was her mother, Serafina Gutierrez Tafoya, who was her greatest influence. Both Serafina and Margaret were best known for their ability to make unusually large pots — 30 inches or more high. These pots necessitated the digging of a special clay, months of careful drying of the unbaked body, a meticulous firing to achieve a uniform color and to prevent cracks, and many hours of polishing to achieve the desired, mirrorlike finish. (National Endowment for the Arts).

Therefore, for her to have learned the craft from her mother and father, comes as no surprise.

In addition, like her parents before her, Tafoya approached her art as a family project:

In 1924, Margaret married her husband Alcario Tafoya (1900-1995). Alcario and Margaret worked together making pottery just as her mother and father had done. Margaret and Sarafina’s husbands both helped with the tasks of digging and preparing the clay and the firing of the pots. Alcario also helped Margaret with the creation and carving of designs on her pots. (Holmes Anthropology Museum).

In this manner, Tafoya’s husband was intimately involved in her artwork, in every single stage of its development. Though he may not have had creative input or control on all of her pieces, he was known to have creative input on some of the works. In addition, his physical labor contributed to Margaret’s ability to continue to create pottery in the traditional Santa Clara Pueblo method.

While Tafoya’s artwork was replete with the tradition of the Santa Clara Pueblo people, it was also very original. First, she brought back the use of polychromes, which her people had abandoned in the late 1800’s. Next, she changed the shape of the pottery; instead of making strictly utilitarian she used animal forms in her jars and bowls, and also used other unusual shapes and designs. In fact, Tafoya became famous in the 1920s, for blackware that was highly polished and had molded and carved surfaces. (Kirkham, p. 112). However, she did not work exclusively in blackware. Instead:

She created polished red and black ware, decorated with impressed and carved (intaglio) designs, highlighted in matte buff, red, or black against the polished surface. Unlike some of her contemporaries, who painted designs in matte black, buff, and orange on black vessels, and red, tan, ochre, and blue-gray on red vessels, Tafoya always preferred the intaglio method. She often carved a “bear paw” design, introduced by her mother, on the neck of each large storage vessel. “It is a good luck symbol,” she said. “The bear always knows where the water is.” (National Endowment for the Arts).

Perhaps more significant is the fact that Tafoya helped begin an important circle of southwest potters, which included the members of Tafoya’s family. For example, her granddaughter, Nancy Youngblood Lugo, continues to be an influential potter. Though Lugo does not imitate her grandmother’s style, she learned pottery from her grandmother and continues innovation while adhering to traditional Santa Clara methods of pottery; therefore, by not adhering to Tafoya’s tradition, Lugo actually pays homage to and continues that tradition.

Tafoya’s pottery featured different aspects of traditional Native American lore. For example, she decorated her pots with Santa Clara Pueblo symbols of survival, including water serpents, rain clouds, and buffalo horns. (National Endowment for the Arts). However, she became famous for her “bear claw” motif and deeply carved pueblo symbols. (Holmes Anthropology Museum). These symbols, along with the kiva steps around the shoulder of her jars became trademarks for the Tafoya family pottery, and people continue to recognize Tafoya pottery by looking for some of these trademarks. (Holmes Anthropology Museum).

Tafoya was not only noted for her artistry, but also for her role as a teacher. Not surprisingly, her most noted pupils were in her family. “Her daughter, Toni Roller, and her grandchildren, Cliff Roller, Nancy Youngblood Cutler, and Nathan Youngblood, have all been recognized for their pottery, and they too utilize traditional methods and at once preserve and broaden the scope of the tradition.” (National Endowment for the Arts). In fact, Tafoya’s method of learning and teaching artwork has even been noted by educational experts. She taught by incorporating her family members into her artwork. In Tafoya’s own words:

My girls, I didn’t teach them…they watched and learned by trying. I was taught to stay with the traditional clay designs, because that was the way it was handed down to my mother and me. I am thankful to my mother for teaching to make the large pieces (which require special skill and understanding). I watched her and tried to do like she did. and, I did. (Gallimore and Tharp, p. 178, quoting Tafoya).

Tafoya taught her own children and grandchildren in a similar fashion. Even at the age of 95, Tafoya was continuing to make pottery and passing:

her knowledge on to her descendants. Among them is her grandson Nathan Youngblood… [who] describes learning from Tafoya. “My grandmother and I would sit directly across from each other,” he says. “I would mirror everything she was doing.” Although Youngblood’s pots contain traditional Santa Clara symbols, he has incorporated innovative forms, such as an egg shape, into his style. (Brown).

In this way, Tafoya’s descendants not only continued the traditional Native American art form, but also her flair for innovation.

To truly understand how Tafoya approached making pottery, it is useful to study how her granddaughter, Nancy Youngblood, describes the pottery-making process. The family gathers to dig up clay in the fall. “The clay is spread out, broken into small pieces, dried thoroughly, and then put in trash cans to soak in water, which causes impurities to rise to the surface to be skimmed off.” (Youngblood). The clay is run through mesh to remove pebbles and other impurities. The clay is mixed with volcanic ash that is collected at Pojoaque Pueblo. “The clay and sand are mixed in traditional proportions and then stored in plastic to maintain a proper degree of hardness.” (Youngblood). This clay is squeezed and pounded to remove air bubbles before the artist starts a pot. The artists “rolls coils of clay between her palms and starts the base of the pot over a shallow bowl called a puki which is removed when the finished pot begins to harden.” (Youngblood). After the pottery is coiled, it can be shaped with a wide-range of tools. Then the pot is wrapped in plastic, to pull out moisture, and stored until it reaches the hardness of leather. The artist then draws the design for her carving onto the pot, and then commences with the carving stage. They can use a variety of tools to carve the pot. The pot is completely dried before sanding. “Although corncobs were the traditional sanding tool at Santa Clara, Margaret Tafoya began using sandpaper years ago which the family potters continue.” (Youngblood). Once sanding is finished, the piece is cleaned with a damp sable brush, dried, and then painted with several coats of slip. Next, the piece of polish, a “tedious stage of intense concentration,” because “the pot must be handled with extreme care due to its fragility before being fired.” (Youngblood). Polishing is done with stones, and a polishing stone that belonged to Sarafina has been passed down through the generations. The pieces are fired on an open pit, resembling a campfire.

Because so much of what Tafoya did was create traditional pottery, it seems difficult to understand why she is considered such an innovative artist and given such respect and renown. However, the quote above reveals that Tafoya was instructed to stay with traditional clay designs, but she did not do so. Tafoya “was a traditionalist, but also an innovator in the making of wedding, storage and water jars, plates, vases, lamps, candlesticks, and other distinctive forms.” (National Endowment for the Arts). It was this innovation that differentiated Tafoya pottery from the other pottery of the Santa Clara Pueblo, and even from the pottery of the rest of the Southwest. In fact, along with a handful of other artists, including Maria Martinez, Lucy Martin Lewis and Helen Cordero, Margaret Tafoya was a centerpiece of the revival of traditional clay pot-making among the Pueblo in the 1920s and 1930s. (Gaffney). They did this by returning to traditional methods of clay-making, which allowed them to make large vessels:

Rather than making their pots on a potter’s wheel, they built them by stacking one “sausage” of clay upon another, as it had been done for centuries among the Pueblo. When the coiling was completed, they smoothed the interior and exterior of the pots, coated them with a slip — a watery clay substance — and then polished, decorated, and fired them. Margaret Tafoya was known for the special attention she gave to creating an unusual polish, a finish that resulted from the local clay and ash she used, the kind of slip she added, plus many hours spent polishing the pots with stones. To get the black finish, which is another feature associated with both Santa Clara and San Ildefonso, Margaret fired her pots with pine slabs and horse manure. (Gaffney).

In fact, her innovation was not limited only to her artwork; she was part of a revival of Native American culture. In fact, one of Tafoya’s early accomplishments was to help create and establish a marketplace for traditional Native American artwork:

In 1922, a group of Native American craftspeople gathered in the old National Guard

Armory behind the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe to display their works. This was the first Indian Market. One of the early participants in the exhibit was a young potter from Santa Clara puebl0 named Margaret Tafoya, who went on to become a renowned artist and win the Best of Show award at Indian Market twice in the 1970s. (Brown).

Eventually, Margaret became a world-famous artist. People would come from around the world to meet Tafoya, who continued to travel to markets and shows until late in her old age., and she continued her work until late in her life. Though she began her life as a serious artist in the 1920s:

By the 1960s Margaret’s pottery had become famous. She received the Best of Show

Award in 1978 and 1979 at the Santa Fe Indian Markets. In 1984, the National Endowment for the Arts elected her Folk Artist of the Year in recognition of her accomplishments. She was also recognized and received an award as a Master Traditional Artist in 1985. (Holmes Anthropology Museum).

Though she received worldwide acclaim as an artist, Tafoya never abandoned her Native American heritage and culture.

Works Cited

Brown, Margaret. “Reinventing Tradition.” 2008. Southwest Art

Magazine. 8 Mar. 2008

Gaffney, Dennis. “The Tafoyas: Legends of Pueblo Pottery.” Follow the Stories. 2005.

Antiques Roadshow. 8 Mar. 2008

Gallimore, Ronald, and Roland Tharp. “Teaching Mind in Society: Teaching, Schooling, and Literate Discourse.” Vygotsky and Education: Instructional Implications and Applications of Sociohistorical Psychology. Ed. Luis Moll. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. 175-205.

Holmes Anthropology Museum. “Margaret Tafoya.” Southwest Pueblo Indian Pottery. 2005.

Wichita State University. 8 Mar. 2008

Kirkham, Pat. Women Designers in the U.S.A.: 1900-2000. New Haven: Yale University Press,

National Endowment for the Arts. “Margaret Tafoya.” Lifetime Honors: 1984 NEA National

Heritage Fellowships. 2008. National Endowment for the Arts. 6 Mar. 2008

Youngblood, Nancy. “The Old Ways.” NancyYoungbloodInc.Com. 2008. Nancy Youngblood

Pottery. 8 Mar. 2008