Russell Sanchez

San Ildefonso Pueblo

Curator Russell Sanchez (San Ildefonso) is a potter and tribal leader. He is a traditionalist at heart and believes that part of “tradition” is moving forward and not being stuck in the past.


Tribal Affiliations:

Artwork Affiliations:

Russell chose the following for the Grounded in Clay exhibit:

San Ildefonso storage jar

Ignacia Sanchez | San Ildefonso
Storage jar
c. 1880–1900
Clay and paint
19 x 22½ in. (48.3 x 57.2 cm)
Collection School for Advanced Research

Large San Ildefonso Storage Jar by Ignacia

Seeing, holding, and examining my great-grandmother’s jar is like staring at a family photo album. Just as she saw and painted them on this jar, I see the same mountains to the west of the village in the fall light, the hills rising and falling, the dried leaves swirling in the wind. I can still smell the water that this pot once held.

Saya Nacia’s line work is unique; she was the only San Ildefonso potter to use horizontal, vertical, and parallel lines as design iconography. She was creative, but we could say that about any of the San Ildefonso potters because to be recognized as a good potter requires absorbing elders’ ideas and designs, ingesting them, and with our breath creating renewed life.

There was a time in our history, not so very long ago, when we were literally and metaphorically a community of potters. We did everything together; women sat together, worked together, and shared ideas. Children were present and learned not by instruction, but by observation. We often talk about our first clay as being something we ate.

When I look at this jar, I see our community of potters. Women and men, families, young and old, all working together for the common good and well-being of the Pueblo. The designs relate to the universe as we experience and imagine it. We sing and pray for its continuance and its beauty, and for the nourishment of rain. In times past, potters did not have the conveniences of today. I learned how to make pottery by walking with my aunt Rose to get clay, and, once her shawls were filled, we walked back to the village. I have a bucketful of scrapers, some I made, others I purchased or were given to me. Ignacia used only the gourd scrapers that she made. If one person fired, others would fire too, to help with the arduous labor and to preserve the precious resources, such as juniper wood, cottonwood bark, and animal dung, used to fire pottery.

Growing up, I listened to the old people and learned from them how our people have successfully lived for generations. I like old pots because they remind me of our community’s old-timers. Molded in the shapes and painted on pottery are stories of how we came to be and how we continue to find strength in our culture and traditions. By looking at old pots, we see and learn about our community, its values, its trials and tribulations, and we discover how to move forward—not by walking in the footprints of the past, but by applying ourselves to the world in which we live today.

In our way, working harmoniously as a community is beautiful. The beauty of community is the same beauty we create, practice, dance, and sing. It is beauty that brings fertility and rain to our village. It is what sustains us as a distinct people. It is a good feeling because it is communal.