Josie Seymour walks into my house and immediately it’s a better place for her presence. She laughs—all teeth and joy—happy to meet me, happy to meet my family, happy to share her story. Seymour is a potter and jeweler from Seama Village in Laguna Pueblo, approximately 45 miles west of Albuquerque. (There are six villages in all—Seama, Laguna, Mesita, Paguate, Paraje and Encinal—each with unique Feast Days, celebrations and ceremonies). She’s nationally and internationally renowned: her family was highlighted in the documentary Grab: Indian Giver Redefined, a special selection for the 2011 Sundance Film Festival; her pottery has been featured in art shows in Manhattan; and most recently, she’s been invited to a gallery in Melbourne, Australia, to give a lecture on Pueblo pottery. Nobody seems more delighted or surprised by this than Josie, who began her artistry painting river rocks as a hobby and giving them as gifts for people to use as doorstops for their front doors. Her mother-in-law, who is from the neighboring Pueblo of Acoma, noted her skill and took it upon herself to teach Seymour, telling her, “I’ll teach you so my granddaughters will know,” thus instilling the first lesson: this skill, the knowledge, the tradition and the prayers are meant to be shared.
Seymour says she wasn’t raised in the traditional Laguna way and when she was growing up celebrations like Christmas were all about Santa and gifts, but after she married and her family grew—she has two sons, two daughters and a three-year-old granddaughter—they went back to the traditional ways and it’s given her family a new sense of meaning. Now, she says, “It’s family, and what we teach our kids is it’s the memories we build. We don’t remember the big ol’ presents we got last year, but it’s the time we’ve spent together as well as preparing for our Deer Dances.” Laguna has Feast and Saint Day celebrations that are open to the public, mainly the Harvest Dances (on September 19 and March 19 of each year), but the four daylong Deer Dance, which begins on Christmas Eve, is only for Laguna tribal members. “The difference with our Deer Dance,” Seymour explains, “is that it is held in our kiva and it’s done in prayer and that’s all done in thanks. The men have gone hunting for deer, and the ones that are successful, it’s always shared with the community. The prayer of being thankful, the prayer of community, the prayer of togetherness and the well-being of our people is what this is about to our family and community.”
In addition to the ceremonial preparation, there are also preparations to be done as a potter. For Seymour, the sharp chill in the air means it’s almost time to go get the clay needed to keep her busy with her pottery during the winter months. The “right” time is not one set by the calendar, but noted by observation of nature. Seymour was taught that by this time, “we hope the snakes are all away,” she says, “and we always try to collect the clay before the first snow, and never to go after it snows because you’re disrupting Mother Earth, and that’s her time for quietness.” Her children play a big part in helping her obtain the clay and in its subsequent preparation, and she makes a point of teaching them all she has learned. “We don’t go and get as much as we can, we only go and get what we need. I was always taught, ‘Don’t be greedy, only take what you need’ and to always do it in prayer.” Since 2006, Seymour has also shared these lessons with her students as a pottery instructor for a cultural enrichment program held at the Kawaik Center in Laguna Pueblo (Kawaik means “Laguna” in her native language, Keresan). There’s belt weaving, moccasin making, classes for making traditional attire as well as instructors who teach Keresan. At times, Seymour and the Keresan instructor will team up, so as she is teaching students the skills, meaning and prayers, these lessons are being translated into their native language.
Her children and her students learn to create the different traditional vessels. On the wedding vase, always put two designs—one for the man, one for the woman—on either side for balance. On the water jugs, vessels made specifically for men, the only design necessary is that of the sun. All the lines on the pots represent rain, so as she is painting those lines, she’s praying for rain. The triangles represent mountains, and those prayers go to the hunters for their success, or in gratitude towards those mountains for providing a home for our animals. The leaf designs represent all plant life, so these prayers are for the farmers that they may have a plentiful crop. The colors of the pot are also specific and significant. “The white represents day,” she explains, “the black represents night and always the earth tones represent Mother Earth, where all of our materials come from—and again, giving thanks as we use those colors.” The paints are made from the terrain as well—black from a combination of wild spinach and rock; reds, browns and oranges from different clays and sands found in deposits throughout Laguna Pueblo. “Our most famous paint,” Seymour says, “is one that falls from a cave—a sandstone cave. We have to wait for it to fall in a yellow pile of sand. We call it ‘Paint from the Sky’ and that’s the gold paint that we use.” In each of Seymour’s creations, she was taught, an important characteristic that needs to be included is what’s called a “spirit line,” a deliberate break in the design. After she completes a pot and paints it, “I open a line and that allows the prayers that went into the pot to flow and not be trapped in one pot. So if someone were to buy a pot from me, my prayers and all the blessings that went into that pot may flow into your home.” These prayers and blessings are varied; they are individual to the artist, but their presence is constant, driving the purpose, gratitude and humility of the potter.
Even with an artist as skilled as Seymour, with as much as she learned over the years, much of the creative process is still trial and error. One year in December, she ran out of clay and, being the type of person who needs to keep busy, decided to use her artistry to make earrings instead. She cuts different geometric shapes from thin pieces of wood and hand paints stunning designs on them similar to her pots. Many have encouraged Seymour to modernize her vessels and designs, but she isn’t inclined to do so. “I’m not one to chase my customer. They’ll see in the vessels what I was taught, just the traditional vessels—the water jug, the seed pots and the wedding vases. They’ll see my beauty and everything that goes into it. I’m not out to go contemporary—I’m going to keep it traditional.”
story by by Emily Beenen