American Indian artist lives through his work

Sometimes Dave John gets design ideas for his pots in dreams.

John, from Spanish Fork, creates and sells American Indian pottery. He was taught by his parents.

His Pueblo mother’s family has been making pots for generations. His Navajo father’s family picked it up over the years, but John isn’t sure when.

He was in the Union Building this week selling his artwork along with many others for American Indian Autumn Fest.

American Indian pottery is an art form that mixes history with personal expression.

“Each family had a design and could be identified by it,” John said.

As families intermarried, designs were combined until the family variations were no longer distinguishable. But the mixing of styles resulted in each community developing a recognizable style.

Pottery in the Four Corners area-where Utah, Colorado, Mexico and Arizona meet-began with tribes using the clay they had locally to make vessels for holding water or seeds. As communities interacted with each other, ideas were exchanged.

Southern Pueblos are believed to be the first to make white pots. White pottery is made by mixing crushed pumas with red clay.

But the Navajo do it too. It’s difficult to say if the Navajo developed the idea independently or stole it, John said.

Another example is the black hair designs on white pots. The design is done by dropping horse hair onto the pot, immediately after taking it out of the kiln. Navajos and Pueblos both take credit for the discovery.

The habit of communities borrowing ideas is still alive today. The most obvious is the industry itself.

Tribes that didn’t originally make pottery, like Colorado Utes and the Shoshone, started when they observed how much money was being made by tribes like the Navajo and Pueblo.

But those people aren’t copycats since they made their own additions to the art form, John said.

He said the first brightly painted etched pots-which are extremely popular-he ever saw were made by Colorado Utes.

He then borrowed the idea and now makes brightly painted pots himself.

But sometimes people get protective of their ideas. John has a Navajo uncle who began mixing Pueblo designs into his work with great success. When Pueblo people noticed, they were jealous and upset, he said.

Designs are etched into the pot after it is painted and before it is fired.

The designs are usually patterns portraying mountains, sagebrush, feathers, water, stones, animals and anything else the artists observe in daily life, he said.

When people whose tribe doesn’t have a tradition in pottery pick up the art, they often use images or symbols from their tribal art to etch the pots.

A Shoshone artist may etch the butterfly image typical in his or her tribal art or use the Shoshone symbol for water or fire.

Some people use drills to etch the pots, but John won’t, as he says he feels it’s cheating.

“I could do the mass production, but it’s not my style,” he said.

Recognizing the market for American Indian pottery, some people mass-produce pots using molds and then drill the same design onto each of them, putting out maybe 50 a day, he said.

“Some people just crank out quantity, looking for profit,” he said.

John is one of those who does it for the art. “People who enjoy it care about it. It’s part of themselves in there, part of their ideas,” he explained.

He said he loves meeting customers who can identify that quality.

Some will pay top dollar for it, too. John explained that sometimes, celebrities form within the industry and can easily sell tiny pieces for hundreds of dollars.

But John is careful to point out that the fame comes from the work they put into their pots.

John, like other American Indian craftsmen, has attended 25 to 30 shows already this year. He plans to attend many more before the end of the year.

Because he spends his time running his own business, most of John’s pieces were made by his aunts and uncles in New Mexico.

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