I'm Lisa Falk and I'm at the home of Marilyn Ray in Acoma, New Mexico, on a beautiful July day in 2008 and we're talking about her pottery.
Lisa Falk: Hello, Marilyn
Marilyn Ray: Hello
Lisa Falk: Thank you for having me and for showing me your beautiful collection of pots. It must feel good to be surrounded by so much artistry.
Marilyn Ray: Oh, yes, it is. I come from a big family. And my grandmother is the peerson who inspired me the most with my pottery. I have five sisters, three brothers — all who are potters. We all have our own style. I do the figurines and my other sisters do regular olla pots and some do the seed jars.
So, the figurines are what I started with. My grandmother introduced me to the pottery world when I was around twelve and she let me mold my little animal figurines and I sold them alongside her pottery, which were beautiful. She did the large olla pots and she made a living off of it. And she always stressed to me and my other sisters that pottery was a beautiful art to learn and she taught me everything from collecting the clay to making the paint, where to collect them and how to process the clay, so I got started when I was around age twelve. So, I continued from there.
I really didn't take interest in doing it full time until I was around maybe nineteen years old. I had to have means of support. I had two children and that's when I started. So, back in 1979 was about the year that I started my art and I continued from there. In 1981, I made a nativity set which I entered into the New Mexico State Fair and I got an Honorable Mention ribbon on that. I really was proud of myself and I made a set for my grandmother, my maternal grandmother, who taught me. She loved it very much. She gave me a special stone to make the black paint on. It's a hematite stone that you grind and you add bee weed juices to it as a stabilizer because the hematite stone is very chalky and you need something to stabilize it as you're painting the pottery.
I think I entered my first Indian Market, the famous Indian Market in Santa Fe in 1982, and I received an award, a second place award on a, well it was a storyteller, a female storyteller with twelve children on there. From there on I did the Santa Fe Indian Market every year and have to this day gotten an award every year. I've done many shows, well various shows, like the Eight Northern and then the Gallup Ceremonial and little shows at certain pueblos.
My sisters and l encouraged each other. We gather the clays, and process the clays on our own, as to how our grandmother taught us. I really enjoy my art because it gives me pleasure to pass on the art to my younger children. My grandchildren, my other sisters, I keep encouraging them to use the natural clays and colors on their pots and have our grandchildren and other nieces and nephews try to carry on that tradition.
To me, being an artist with clay gives me great pleasure. It gives me the opportunity to carry on the tradition which at Acoma is sort of being lost because there's so much greenware floating around now. There's too much greenware and I wish a lot of people would go back to the traditional ways, but I think that the reason they're going on to the greenware is because it's so hard to collect the clay. It's getting more dangerous and more scarce.
The clay is hard to mine. My husband and I do the mining. We do the processing. He does all the grinding and sifting, and collects my clays, sandstone that we use for color. I use the electric kiln now because a lot of the pieces, well my figurines have a lot of little ladybugs, butterflies, and they were getting knocked off during the firing. To me it was hard to let them go because a lot of pieces were being broken. So that's my main reason for going to the electric kiln.
I think ninety percent of the people around here do use electric kiln. I see no harm in that, but I know maybe a pot would be more valued if it was fired in the traditional way. And that's my main goal now is to try to do everything traditional. I want to be able to collect the cow dung. I want to fire just as my grandmother taught me. I would like to try that. I'm still experimenting as to how I can make a special place where I could do my firing. I want to build something, or make it easier to where I can put my pot in there and be assured that it’s not going to break in the firing. I know it’s not 100% but I still want something to be built around it so my pieces won’t get broken.
Lisa Falk: You said you learned from your grandmother. What’s your grandmother’s name?
Marilyn Ray: My grandmother's name was Dolores S. Sanchez.
Lisa Falk: And how did she learn to make pottery?
Marilyn Ray: It was passed down from her mother. Her mother and grandmother did pottery. They made a living off of that.
Lisa Falk: When you say you sold your pots alongside of her pots, where were they being sold?
Marilyn Ray: Here at Acoma. And that was her main living. She always taught us, encouraged us, y'know you have to have some kind of talent and I think that she emphasized that because she made a great living off of it. My grandparents owned cattle. That's all my grandfather did was raise cattle and all she did was her pottery. They made a great living off of it.
Lisa Falk: If somebody wanted to buy a piece of your work, do they need to either come out here to Acoma, or go to one of the fairs, or are there galleries that also carry your work?
Marilyn Ray: The way I’ve been getting a lot of orders, since we do not have the Internet or a website is through business cards and I give them my phone number on there and that’s how I’ve been in contact with numerous people who collect my work and of course they do go to the famous Indian Market and that’s where I get a lot of my collectors and other people.
And so for the past two years, since they built the new Acoma Cultural Center, I’ve been able to display my work there frequently. There’s a place in the back where they set up for vendors. So, I do show my work there at least five days a week and that's where you'll find me most of the time, if not at the shows. I really love the way they set up the place to where we can show our work and we can even actually do demonstrations there. If anybody wants to see us demonstrate you can just call and make a date to where we can have our clays ready.
Lisa Falk: What do you enjoy about showing people about how you do your work and talking to them about your work?
Marilyn Ray: I just want people to know that everything is natural. That's the main thing that I would like people to see, that there is a lot of natural colors out there. You just have to search, collect, experiment with them. Everything from the clay to the colors. The only thing I regret doing is the kiln firing. But like I said, I'm working on that to where I can actually do the traditional firing.
Lisa Falk: Can you remember back to when you were learning from your grandma, where would she be teaching you and what would you be talking about?
Marilyn Ray: The main purpose of us coming and living with her during the summer months was to help her with the cooking and cleaning. And after we did our chores then we had the clay handed to us and says, well you can get your hands in this clay. Whatever you form, whatever you make, I'll sell it for you, is what she said. And I'll save your money so you can buy your school clothing with it. So that's exactly what we did.
And she would talk to me as to how to pack the clay, make sure you don't have any air bubbles in there, and how to form them, that you pinch here or use your thumbs, and she says eventually, you can feel everything with your fingers, and I know exactly what she means now because when you're forming a pot, you know exactly where to emphasize the gourd that you use. You know how much pressure to put on there, you know exactly when to pull the pot, you know exactly how much pressure to put on your figurines. Just different things. You can feel it all in your hands. My hands are so special to me.
Lisa Falk: What were some of the first pieces that you made? Do you remember?
Marilyn Ray: I made little animals. Little birds, little skunks, little turtles. Those were my first pieces. And little hats. I made a lot of little piggy banks. So, those were my first pieces.
Lisa Falk:And those piggy banks were the animals?
Marilyn Ray: They were hats.
Marilyn Ray: (laughs)
Lisa Falk: Oh, they were hat piggy banks. What kind of hat?
Marilyn Ray: Like a baseball hat. 'Cause you could make the piece flat and form like a dome shape and put it on there. And I would make little lines on there and a little thing on the top. Those were my first pieces. A lot of animals. My grandmother made a lot of little owls. I couldn't make owls. She made a lot of little skunks, so I made a lot of little skunks. I made a lot of little turtles, birds…
Lisa Falk: You still have a lot of animals on the storytellers and the pots you make. I see birds and dogs and kitties. Lots of butterflies.
Marilyn Ray: Yes, I just love the little animals. They remind me of my childhood. The friendship bowl is where I like to put my little animals.
We used to collect rain water after it rained and all our dogs would follow us. There would be a lot of birds. The guys would go bird hunting. That's where I picked up the idea for the friendship bowl. It reminded me of a water cistern. We'd get rainwater for household use for that. Now it's not really used for drinking anymore, it's just more washing dishes and washing clothes. So, that's what the friendship bowl reminds me of and that's where I picked up the idea.
And the little plates are the little shallow caves. We have many shallow caves around here, so that's what the plate represents. And my drums. My drums represent to me the heartbeat, and also an Indian circle of life. So that's what the drums represent. And then my turtles represent longevity and also the six directions. The feet are north, east, south, west. Head is up, tail is down. The Natives pray in all six directions. So that's what the turtle represents.
Lisa Falk: When did you start making the storytellers?
Marilyn Ray: Back in 1979.
Lisa Falk: And how did you come up with that idea? What was your influence for that?
Marilyn Ray: I used to admire all the little animals that my grandmother made, and I couldn't do that. I couldn't form pottery. I don't know for what reason. But I made a little man, a little figurine, and from there on, I made figures. I couldn't do pots, so I stuck with figures, and I stuck with animals, and that's been what I do best. I can't do large pots. I tried to do -- my largest piece is about eight inches. And that's about my largest pot, bBut I do try to make something larger.
Lisa Falk: Well, your storytellers are much larger.
Marilyn Ray: Yes, I was asked to do a large piece for the cultural center here at Acoma. You'll find my largest male storyteller there. It has large figurines on it and it's sitting on a chair which my husband built for me. They gave me this little niche to work on and it's so narrow but it's tall so I had to figure out what kind of storyteller I could put in there because a lot of my storytellers sit flat on their legs and I had to figure out how to get one to fit in that little certain space. My husband says, well I'll build you one that can sit. And he built my chair and from there I figured out how to make it. It was a challenge, but I did the best that I could.
Lisa Falk: They're very playful. What do you think of when you're forming the faces?
Marilyn Ray: I always try to figure or think of what they might be thinking, like, "I'm trying to catch this cat," or “this butterfly is beautiful,” or I try to think of what the mother is trying to tell the children, y'know, this pot is to collect rain or to use as a storage jar or it could be a canteen that she's holding and she's telling the story about...because everything is passed on orally here at Acoma, so I think the storytellers are more like oral tradition that we're trying to express to people, to say that everything is passed on orally.
The parrot design has been here since I can remember. My grandmother painted them and she says they represented prosperity because the parrot feathers were highly sought after when the Spaniards came along. They used to trade for the beautiful parrot feathers which were used in religious doings, and that's where they honored the parrot. That's the story she gave me.
A lot of the colors that I use, I personally put meaning into them. The green will represent vegetation, the yellow will represent corn, the red will represent the earth. The orange always represents the sun. The black represents the clouds, and any lines you see represent rain. The gray represents the sky. The beige represents the pueblo homes.
Acoma is very well known for their three basic colors, the white, black, and orange. And I just got tired of painting my storytellers with the three colors and I needed color in them. So, my husband and I went out and my sisters and I went out to collect the different colors of clay and sandstone and we experimented with them and in about nine years we came up with about at least a dozen colors. So that's what I use on all my figures and my pottery, and I think we're the only family that has that many colors that are natural.
Lisa Falk: You find them on Acoma lands?
Marilyn Ray: Yes. All the colors...
Lisa Falk: When you're looking for clay or you're looking for colors for the slips, your eyes are trained to look, what are you looking for in the ground? What indicates that you've found something useful?
Marilyn Ray: Basically, just color. We've experimented with so many sandstone to where it will burn off when you paint it on the pot. The whole color will peel off and some will turn a totally different shade of color than you expected.
Lisa Falk: and what do you paint your designs with?
Marilyn Ray: I use regular commercial brushes, but a lot of people still use the yucca, but somehow I prefer to use the regular commercial brushes.
Lisa Falk: When you're making your pots, what are you thinking about?
Marilyn Ray: That's about the best time for me. I think of nothing but making the piece. I take great pleasure in making my pottery because I don't worry about anything. But then after I make the piece it's like, I feel kinda guilty because people are out there working, you know, doing labor work, and while I'm making my piece I didn't even think of other people and how hard it is to make a living and I have so much pleasure in doing my work. I almost feel guilty because I just feel so blessed to have this talent and to be able to support my family and not have to have set hour to where I have a boss. I just get up and start making whenever I want or I can take off a few days and not feel guilty about it. It's just been a blessing for me to have this kind of talent.
Lisa Falk: Are you passing it on or teaching it to anybody? Do you have anybody learning from you?
Marilyn Ray: I have two grandsons. I wish I had a granddaughter. But they've taken interest in it. They make butterflies. They make butterfly pendants. They paint ornaments. That’s about the extent that they’ve gone to. My oldest grandson is 20, he turned 20 this year, and the other one is 15 now. I have one daughter who took interest for a while, but she's in her own world. She works for an optometrist in Albuquerque, so her emphasis is on her job and my son, too. He's an electrician, so they do their own jobs. My son started forming little figures, but just never really took it seriously.
Lisa Falk: You and your husband collaborate a lot.
Marilyn Ray: Yeah, my husband has really been a great help to me in making the clay. He's gone to get the clay. I don't have to do that anymore. Before I did everything from start to finish. But he's been a blessing to me. He's collected my clay, he’s ground my clay, sifted my clay, done everything, all the processing. The only thing I do is do the work after he makes my clay, which is molding, painting, but it's been a great help, we collaborate in that way.
It means so much to hold on to traditional ways. A lot of our language has died out and I don't want the tradition of pottery making to die out. I just would like for the tradition to carry on. I would like to have more young artists. We have certain pottery classes that go on, but not very many people take interest in it and I'm not sure why. I'm just blessed to have been raised and had been taught at a young age as to how to process the clay and collect the materials.
I think maybe that's another reason why people don't carry on the traditional way of molding and making the clay and grinding your own paint is ‘cause nobody taught them. My sisters and I were thinking about it about a year ago, saying we need to introduce the art to the newer generation, to our young children, our grandchildren, so it can carry on.
A long time ago, they said that the Spaniards came looking for gold. And little did they know that our traditional clay was the gold. The clay that they bypassed is so precious to us as Acoma people.