ÌÐa tiny woman, an exceptional potter, a compulsive artist, who is a giant in the history of Hopi ceramics' ~ Barbara Kramer, Nampeyo and Her Pottery
Nampeyo was born around 1860; the exact date and year are difficult to pinpoint because the lives of the Hopi and Tewa were governed by the 'position of the sun and the rhythms of nature' rather than being marked off in 'numbered segments.' Her mother was White Corn, a Tewa woman of the Corn clan, and her father, Quootsva was of the Hopi Snake clan from the First Mesa village of Walpi. The Hopi and Tewa are matrilineal and matrilocal, meaning the house belonged to the woman and when a daughter married her husband moved to her homeÌ_as the size of the family increased rooms were added to the home outwardly and upwardly around a dirt plaza. Thus, her parents lived in what the Tewa call Tewa Village, but is more commonly called Hano; the village of Nampeyo's birth where she lived for her eighty years.
The well-known artist was named 'Nung-beh-yong' which means Sand Snake in Tewa, later pronounced 'Nam-pay-oh' by outsiders. In her youth, Nampeyo's days were 'filled in the old way. Where adults went children always followed, absorbing, listening, and watching in preparation for their future responsibilities.' From an early age Nampeyo showed interest and talent in potting which she learned from her mother. As a girl she was referred to by some Hopis as 'old lady' because she was making pottery rather than grinding corn or making piki. Over time this insult became a term of affection and respect.
Nampeyo was courted by a Hopi man of the Cedarwood clan from Walpi named Lesso. Around 1878, the two married when she was about twenty. Together for nearly half-a-century, they had five childrenÌ_three daughters and two sonsÌ_Annie, William, Nellie, Wesley, and Fannie.
In the 1880s, Nampeyo hoped, like other potters, to barter her wares to travelers from the East (Kramer). During these years she became very well-known in the East and her work became very popular. She and Lesso sought old shards of pottery to inspire her work. As she began to turn away from the 'Zuni-like pottery, common within the Mesas,' her inspiration included Sikyatki and other designs from the shards found near ruins (Kramer, ASL). She discovered the clay used by those cultures of the previous three centuries, learned how to form it, and paint it with vegetal and mineral paints. Her style was later called Sikyatki Revival, even though her work was inspired by more than just the shards found at the Sikyatki ruins.
Between 1890 and 1901 Nampeyo's eyes were treated by Dr. Joshua Miller, presumably for the early stages of Trachoma, the disease believed to have caused her blindness (Kramer). Her sight became severely impaired around 1915 and by 1920 she was no longer able to paint the 'graceful curvilinear lines' and religious symbols in the designs of her smoothly textured pots (Nampeyo). Though Nampeyo still shaped her vessels by knowing the feel of the clay, her daughters and even her husband, Lesso, painted the vessels for her.
In her life, she only left the mesa three times in order to exhibit her work. In 1942, shortly before her death, she was cared for by her son Wesley and his wife, in her government home in the village at the base of First Mesa. On the night of July 20, 1942, she was bathed by her daughter-in-law before she went to bed. She died that evening (Kramer).
This expert potter is credited with beginning the revival of Hopi pottery; some believe that without her influence 'Hopi pottery may have been only an art form of the past.' She was influenced by prehistoric designs, not only of the Hopi, but other cultures as well. She is also credited with 'the birth of contemporary Hopi pottery, now called Hano Polychrome.' Her work is still highly prized today and can be viewed in several museums in the Southwestern United States. Many of her descendants have adopted the name Nampeyo and, in tribute, inscribe the name on their work because she was neither able to read nor write and her work had no inscription (Kramer).
I see thy busy fingers mould the desert clay.
Where are thy models?
Thy eyes so dimÌ_what inner vision do they see?
So I watch.
It seems to me that all around
Thy room are the silent workers of thy artÌ_
The last ones of thy race.
What work in bits is strewn across
the desert waste is comingÌ_one by oneÌÐ
I seem to hear them speak in whispers lowÌ_
'NAM Ì± PEY Ì± O!'
'Fashion well and strongÌ_thou last of our
famous GuildÌÐand paint the symbols of our
faithÌÐthe Gods of Rain and Air!'
~ Carl Oscar Borg
Written By: Virginia F. Holmes