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Lucy Lewis (1898-1992)

Jar, c. 1981
Lucy Lewis (1898-1992); Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico
Clay and paint; 5 x 10 1/4 in.
F81.61.1
Gift of the Artist
Potter of the Century
Photograph of Lucy Lewis painting a vessel.
With the influx of western products that the pueblos of the American Southwest saw during the 19th Century, many traditional Native American art forms such as pottery only narrowly escaped disappearing entirely. The utilitarian need for vessels which required up to three weeks to make was threatened with extinction by cheap, factory-made containers from back east. In the face of this potential loss, it was Pueblo women who independently began revitalizing traditional Puebloan designs and bringing back a culture of pottery making—though now as an art form instead of a craft. This International Women’s Day, the Bowers Museum Collections Blog focuses on one of the most influential of these women and arguably one of the greatest potters of the 20thCentury, Lucy Lewis.
Cloud City
Lucy Lewis was born in the Acoma Pueblo on Sky City Mesa, just west of Albuquerque, New Mexico. At a time when pottery was most at risk of falling into irrelevance, a young Lewis studied her aunt Helice Vallo as she mixed clay with temper, a material added to strengthen clay during the firing process; shaped it into perfectly formed ollas; applied a slip; hand-painted designs and finally fired them. By the age of eight Lewis was already making her own pottery. The secluded upbringing in the literally-named Sky City Mesa set her apart from many of the other pivotal potters of this period. Rather than being inspired or influenced by tourists and academics, Lucy Lewis spent her free time scouring the nearby terrain for potsherds which could be used for design inspiration or ground into one of the best available tempers.
Jar, c. 1960
Lucy Lewis (1898-1992), Acoma; Southwest
Clay and paint; 8 × 6 in.
94.35.2
Gift of Sylvia and Frederick Reines
Outside Acoma
Lucy Lewis began selling her pottery to tourists at a roadside stand outside of the Acoma Pueblo as early as the 1920s. Collectors and fellow potters were impressed by her craftsmanship, and marveled at her unique designs. Only later, when complete examples of the same Mimbres potsherds found by Lewis entered museum collections, would scholars begin to discuss Lucy Lewis’s style as a revitalization of Mibres-style pottery. Over the decades her renown grew. By the early 1950s Lucy Lewis stole the courage to submit her works to events like the Annual Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial where she garnered the blue ribbon. This effectively launched her into fame as a potter, and she spent the next forty years organizing shows, winning awards, or conducting workshops like the one she and her family organized at the Bowers Museum in 1981 where she donated the jar with the deer motif to us.
Detail of  F81.61.1
Not Easily Mimbres-ed
The Mimbres-style pottery of Lucy Lewis’ invention was pieced together from the potsherds Lewis found in the areas surrounding the Acoma Pueblo at Sky City Mesa. There is evidence that Acoma pottery dates as far back as 1750 AD, but the original Mibres culture’s pottery is much older, hailing from 1000-1250 AD. The signature black-on-white pottery is defined by the human, animal and geometric forms detailed in black paint against a white slip. Particularly the thin vertical lines and bulkier geometric forms of the taller jar evidences the incredible work Lewis did in breathing new air into a style of pottery that had been buried for 700 some years. The deer with a “heart line” design on the other jar may aesthetically appear to be in-line with her Mimbres-style pottery, but the motif was borrowed with permission from the Zuni who used it in both their pottery and petroglyphs.
 
Alternate view of 94.35.2.
All and More
Just as pueblos themselves are cut into rock, Lewis carved time to define herself as one of the most important potters of her generation from an overwhelmingly active life farming with her husband and raising a family of nine children—each of which she insisted go to school to get a proper education. Of the nine children, four continued in her legacy of pottery and she inspired many others to carry the torch for an art which might otherwise have disappeared among the Acoma. Her lifetime of work was honored before her passing in 1992 by the Women’s Caucus for the Arts and her works are now celebrated in museums across the county such as the National Museum of Women in the Arts. To see these jars from the Bowers Museum’s collections, be sure to visit our upcoming First Americans: Tribal Art from North America exhibition, opening April 7!

Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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Wednesday, 23 October 2019

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