Santa Claran potter Linda Jo Povi Askan laughs when she remembers her first firing without the supervision of her grandmother. It was just Linda and her uncle out there. They were pretty nervous. “There we were, hovering over the fire, worrying, holding our breath. Would we do this right or would it all break or burn up? And when we took it off the fire and lifted the cover, all our pieces were perfect, every single one! We were so happy we just stood there, admiring them all. And just then a big gust of wind came along and blew a bunch of leaves across them! They were all marked up! We thought, ‘Oh, no!’ But Grandma came out, and she looked at them all, and she said, ‘It’s OK, we’ll just fire them again.’ And we did, and they came out fine.”
Pottery making was the fabric of her family’s life from all the way back to when Linda was very young. “That’s what they’d be doing at our house—and at all our relatives’ houses—so it was everywhere we went, from house to house. When I was a child, I played with broken pieces of clay. And then they started me polishing the broken pottery pieces with stone. As we got a little bigger, all the children helped. We would fire together at my grandparents’ corral.”
The traditional firing technique Linda learned from her grandmother is done outside. There is no kiln, no tracking the time or temperatures. “We do it over an open fire,” she says, “using materials we gather ourselves—cottonwood or pine and dry horse manure. Sometimes a storm blows in, and we have to wait for the clouds to break, then hurry up and fire before they blow back in. We experience firing visually, paying attention to the fire, making sure it’s evenly burning, being aware the whole time. We get our clay down at the river. That’s what Grandma used to do. This is my family heritage,” she explains. “It’s not foolproof, but it’s the way that I learned and I’m comfortable with it.”
Besides pots, her grandmother favored making animals, Linda says. “All kinds of forest animals, and dinosaurs, alligators—always with a touch of whimsy. She made plates, too. She worked for as long as she could. You can trace when she started to become ill from looking at her pieces.”
Linda inherited this passion for making pottery from her grandmother and her own mother. She’s been doing it for over 45 years: black-on-black and red polychrome traditional pots, intertwined figurines, carved wedding vases, storytellers, plates, animals. And hand-coiled miniature nativity sets. “My mother started making those sets. Hers were more the kind with a sheepherder holding a cane, and his sheep, with trees and a camel, a cow or donkey. She inspired me with her work, so I tried it and it just grew from there. For mine, I was looking for something different.”
The style of her nativity sets has evolved over time. Because she’s half-Navajo, Linda’s little Mary and Joseph figures sometimes resemble those Arizona relatives—Joseph, for instance, with a little bun. Mary may have braids or she may wear her long black hair flowing down her back. The family might be wrapped in blankets with traditional Navajo designs. Linda’s baby Jesus is sometimes swaddled to a cradleboard.
And then she experienced something that inspired a radical change to her wise men. “I danced the Santa Clara Pueblo Buffalo Dance. Actually doing it was a very special time for me. I felt the dance. It was very different from watching—more uplifting to your spirit.” Consequently, she began modeling her wise men figures as buffalo, deer and eagle dancers, each wearing his traditional headgear and robe or blanket. “All their faces are different, if you look at them closely. This one’s singing; this one’s playing his drum.” Each wise man exudes his own particular wisdom, a believable authority that’s amazing for a figure the size of your thumb.
Some of the sets are done in black-on-black style; the others are red polychrome. Each figure is elaborately painted, carved, detailed. Some hold intricately carved pots the size of a small button, complete with tiny round opening. “I get the idea for each one, and then I just start working, pinching here and there. The clay starts taking the form and I just go with it. Their heads might be in different positions, or the way this mother is holding her baby—not all do it the same. I see that in the clay.” It’s as if she spends quality time with each one, focusing on them her generous attention, her sense of wonder and delight. As a result, Linda’s nativity figures possess a quiet majesty, a grace, a distinct feeling of the great Southwest, from whence they came. And they also, like her grandmother’s animals, impart a childlike sense of whimsy.
“Last night,” she says, “my granddaughter was looking at some little plates I’d made for the sets. Before I knew it, she picked one up and put it in her mouth, real fast.” Linda laughs. “She likes the taste of the clay. We all do. Everyone eats a little of the broken pieces.” The clay itself comes from right there in Santa Clara. “The process of mixing it I learned from my grandmother and am passing onto my daughter and grandchildren. We all go out together and just start walking, to gather what we need. It’s fun; we enjoy being outside as a family, the kids picking up whatever they find along the way to bring home—dried flowers, stones. Cornmeal plays a part in this, too.” She always includes a little ceremony, she says, giving thanks for her life, her children and her healthy family.
“Pottery’s been good to me. I make my sets in miniature, because it’s a size people can afford. I sell them all, but some I have kept a little bit longer than others—I’m guilty of that! I like to set them on my table, turn them, look at them, admire them until it’s time to send them off,” she admits, sounding like a proud mother.
Linda has fond childhood Christmas memories. “My mother liked to cook. We’d push all the tables together in the living room, and she’d invite all the relatives. The whole table would be full of food grown in our fields. My grandfather grew his field every year—blue corn, melons, my parents grew all kinds of vegetables—and we’d harvest fruit from the trees that my mother, my grandma and me canned.
“We had a Christmas tree. My mother was active in the Catholic Church so we’d go with her. And my grandfather, every year, would light those little bonfires, made with pitch wood that would burn brighter in the days leading up to Christmas for the coming of Christ. I’d stand around the fire with him, feeling nice and warm.”
Asked what makes her nativity sets special to people, Linda says she believes they really enjoy something different, the sense of what is sacred in the Native perspective combined with the familiar story of innocence and light that we connect with the nativity scene.
Because Linda digs the clay from her native pueblo land, works it by hand, letting it inform each figure, and fires it outside, her nativity sets carry a powerful, and simple, message. It’s a message of our sacred relationship with the land, the sky, the animals and the elements, passed down through the generations from grandmother to daughter to granddaughter.
Linda Jo Povi Askan’s Nativity scenes and other works in clay can be seen at Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery, located at 100 West San Francisco Street in Santa Fe. 505.986.1234. andreafisherpottery.com.
Story by Gail Snyder