The Black Pot
Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong 

Winter, 1987.  The black clay pot had been sitting inside a glass cabinet for many years on the second floor of the Snohomish Antique Mall near Seattle when Kuro-e spotted it one cold wintry day. The pot was painted with symbols of corn plants and kiva steps. It looked old and appeared not to have been well care for, its shiny black surface marred by smudges, its interior scarred by scratches. Still, it showed a fine form and elegance of the work by a master potter. Kuro-e decided to purchase it.

Summer, 1926.  Mrs. Margaret Murphy arrived at Santa Fe while traveling with her husband by the Santa Fe Railroad from Chicago to Los Angeles. They stayed at the luxurious Harvey House (later renamed La Fonda Hotel). The next morning, Mrs. Murphy went sight-seeing around the Santa Fe Plaza. In the portal of the Palace of the Governor, she met a handsome Native American couple with their small son selling some unusual pottery. Their pots were polished to a shiny black, she had never seen anything like it. She bought a cylindrical pot with ‘Indian’ motifs from the couple for $5. She learned that the wife made the pot, her husband painted the motifs, and both signed their names on the pot bottom.

 

Three years after that trip, Mr. Murphy went bankrupt. The family sold everything they owned to an auction house. In 1939, a young navy officer Lieutenant Logan bought the black pot for his fiancée’s birthday, before he was deployed to Honolulu. The woman used it as a key and pencil holder for many years, until she married another man and sold it in a garage sale.

Native Couple   Pastel on paper  Akiko Hirano

Spring, 1908.  The founding director of Museum of New Mexico Dr. Edgar L. Hewett unearthed some unusual black pottery shards while excavating the large ruins in Frijoles Canyon, which became the Bandelier National Monument in 1916. The black shards were unlike anything previously found in the Southwest. Dr. Hewett wanted to find a Native potter who might be able to duplicate the unusual pottery. Someone recommended Maria Martinez in the nearby San Ildefonso Pueblo. Maria experimented with different firing methods, she not only uncovered the secret of how the ancient black pottery was made, but also refined the techniques with her husband Julian to produce magnificent black-on-black pottery that had become a hallmark of her pueblo. Her work made her famous internationally; she was invited to the White House by four different presidents and visited by renowned potters, including British ceramist Bernard Leach and Japanese Living Treasure Shoji Hamada.

1896.  The story of Maria and her black pottery might never have happened. When Maria was nine years old, she contracted smallpox, a devastating disease that had killed millions of Native Americans. Lacking medical facilities in the pueblo, her mother walked to El Santuario de Chimayo 30 miles away to seek some holy dirt reputed to have healing power. There, she prayed for her daughter and made a vow. If Maria would survive, she would send her on a pilgrimage to the Santuario. After many days tethering between life and death, Maria recovered. She kept her mother’s promise and made the same pilgrimage. Today, hundreds of thousand devotees from all over the world make the pilgrimage to El Santuario during the Holy Week.

El Santuario de Chimayo   Pastel on paper  Akiko Hirano

Summer, 1990.  On a sunny day, Kuro-e made her first visit to El Santuario de Chimayo. The small chapel surrounded by tall evergreens was nestled in a beautiful valley in the Sangre de Cristol Mountains north of Santa Fe. Not many visitors on that day. She walked through the weathered wooden gate framed by an adobe arch into the courtyard and immediately recognized the large cross photographed by famous photographers like Ernest Knee and Ansel Adams. The interior of the chapel was similar to other Spanish colonial mission churches in the area, down to the cast iron wood-fire stove heater next to the choir corner. What Kuro-e wanted to see was in a small room off the side of the altar. She entered that room and almost stepped into a shallow round hole on the ground. Pilgrims with various ailments had come to gather the holy dirt from this hole to rub on their bodies. The walls of that room were lined with clutches of all sizes, left behind by those pilgrims believing that they were miraculously cured. Kuro-e imagined a mother once walked with her little daughter from San Ildefonso Pueblo into this room almost a century ago.

Spring, 2021.  While cleaning the cabinet full of mementos, Kuro-e took out the black pot she bought long ago. She thought about the layers of serendipitous happenings that allowed that pot to be made and for her to chance upon it. The smudges and scratches told of where it had traveled and what it had held. She turned the pot over to look at the two inscriptions which had taken on deeper meanings: Marie & Julian.

The Black Pot   Photo  Tim Wong

To be continued

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