Brian Vallo


Brian D. Vallo is a member of the Pueblo of Acoma tribe in New Mexico, and served as Governor in 2019–21. He has more than thirty years’ experience working in areas of museum development, cultural resources management, repatriation of ancestors and cultural patrimony, historic architecture preservation, the arts, and tourism. He currently serves as an advisor to the Field Museum, Chicago, and the de Young Museum, San Francisco. A self-taught painter and potter, he is inspired by the natural environment and elements, which he incorporates into his multimedia paintings.


Tribal Affiliations:

Artwork Affiliations:

Brian chose the following for the Grounded in Clay exhibit:

Acoma water jar

Acoma water jar
c. 1920–30
Clay and paint
10 ¼ x 12 in. (26 x 30.5 cm)
Collection Vilcek Foundation

The “Zuni Fat Tails”

My late paternal grandmother, Juana W. Vallo, was of the Zuni Eagle Clan, one of the last clans welcomed to old Acoma. The Zuni Eagle Clan families settled on the western side of the mesa top, a location gifted to them by the Antelope Clan, as prescribed by the hierarchy of our clan system. A known master potter, my grandmother often incorporated Zuni pottery design motifs into her water jars, including what she would jokingly refer to as the “Zuni fat tail” birds. Her “fat tails” would be represented in orange (as they are on this jar) or in a deep red made from a rare pigment that is hard to find today. Her placement of the birds would be either in the same format as that seen here, which is a Zuni-inspired design scheme, or in a continuous band around the central body of a jar. When I first saw this water jar, it reminded me of my grandmother and of a similar jar that is still used today in our family home.

The construction of the water jar and the execution of design are exquisite; this is a fine example of traditional Acoma pottery-making. The form is quite feminine, and rightly so, because this jar was probably made specifically for the potter or for another woman of the household who would have had the responsibility of, and been skilled in, collecting rainwater from one of the naturally formed cisterns on the mesa top and transporting the jar on the top of her head back to the family home. As I often hear from Acoma potters, the characteristics of a water jar depend both on its use and on the user. This jar also reminds me that my grandmother always said a good water jar should be somewhat bulbous at its center and have a neck that reduces splashing and controls the movement of water—a scarce resource. The three design panels are positioned evenly across the jar’s surface, another indication of experienced craftsmanship. The views from the bottom and top of the jar reveal precision in design execution probably achieved by measurements provided by the potter’s hand and fingers, which is how my grandmother and many of her contemporaries worked. The birds and other design elements are truly Zuni-inspired and beautifully represented on this classic, thin-walled Acoma water jar.

Another familiar design of traditional Acoma pottery is the parrot, painted in many forms and colors. Recently, on a trip to the Field Museum in Chicago to view the collection of Acoma materials, I was drawn to a small water jar featuring an unusual parrot design; it was like the “Zuni fat tail,” but, in this case, the entire bird was quite chunky. The collections staff at the Field Museum now refer to the design as “chunky parrot.” Clearly, my grandmother has influenced my visual interpretation of things.