Tony R. Chavarria

Santa Clara Pueblo

Curator Tony R. Chavarria (Santa Clara Pueblo) has more than thirty years’ experience collaborating with tribes and curating Native material culture. As Curator of Ethnology at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture/Laboratory of Anthropology, Santa Fe, he has curated many exhibitions, including Comic Art Indigène and What’s New in New 2, and in 2018 he was co-curator of Creating Tradition: Innovation and Change in American Indian Art, the first Native exhibition at Epcot in Orlando, Florida. He is an occasional potter and artist.


Tribal Affiliations:

Artwork Affiliations:

Tony chose the following for the Grounded in Clay exhibit:

Santa Clara jar

Santa Clara water jar
c. 1900
11 x 13 in. (27.9 x 33 cm)
Collection School for Advanced Research

Pottery as Memory

This olla, a fine example of stone-polished blackware, is not extraordinary or signed. Yet for me it evokes people and places from bygone days.

My journey with clay is unusual because my three siblings and I initially grew up away from Santa Clara, and were not around many other potters and local sources of clay and paint. My first memories of pottery are of my parents making small bowls and figurines in our house in Denver. They would sell most of their work at a place called Orly’s. Over time, we were allowed to work the clay, and made little figures and models such as snakes and canoes. On school field trips to the Denver Museum of Natural History, I would show my teachers and classmates pottery jars made by my grandma.

Frances Mirabal Chavarria, my maternal grandmother, was from Nambé and moved to Santa Clara when she married my grandpa Antonio. She taught all her children and many others how to make pottery. “One day you might need to make a living from it,” she would say, as she talked about how we and clay are both of the earth. For most of her life she made pottery, from jars to salt-and-pepper shakers.

When I was the inaugural Harvey W. Branigar Jr. intern at SAR’s Indian Arts Research Center, I had the opportunity to work with Daryl Candelaria, a potter from San Felipe and currently the Pueblo’s tribal administrator. As artist coordinator, he would bring in groups of potters to visit the collection and have lunch, usually at Furr’s, a cafeteria popular with Pueblo families. I helped set up a visit from Santa Clara. It was a great day; my grandma and more than a dozen other people visited. Everyone was excited to see the works from our village and beyond. My grandma was especially pleased to see pottery made at Nambé from the time she was born to the present day.

At one point, I asked my grandma if she wanted a notebook to sketch any designs or shapes. She said she did not need one because her notebook was in her head. As we looked at a large polychrome olla, she told me that her family had one like it when she was a girl, but it broke when her younger sister Julia was playing inside it. I think of that story every time I see large Pueblo pots displayed grandiosely, and imagine their earlier lives as part of a family.

This jar reminds me of my grandma and all the other grandmas who have left testaments of their lives and generous spirits. Clay Mother smiled upon them and encourages us to follow their example. My grandma’s favorite underdress, a garment worn under the manta, was a vintage handmade white dress with slightly flared sleeves and a high-necked, gently ruffled collar. I see the collar and high neck in this jar, in the way its rim flares out. I see my grandma in the beauty from the earth.