How a native American potter continues the tradition of horsehair pottery in the 21st century

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Native American Potter Eric Louis brings together traditional Acoma Pottery with Horsehair firing
Eric heats his pottery to 1200 degrees Celsius and then has seconds to place horsehair on the piece
Once cooled, Eric stencils in traditional Acoma designs onto the pots.
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Narrator: These clay pots have been fired to about 1,200 degrees Celsius. And Eric Louis has about 30 seconds to precisely place this horsehair to create the background design for ceramics that’ll end up looking like this. Fired any hotter, and the horsehair would burn off, leaving no marks. And in a few seconds, the pot will be too cool for the horsehair to carbonize and create an imprint. Eric combines traditional techniques with some new ones to continue the centuries-long history of Native American horsehair pottery.

Eric: It reminds me of, of course, grandmothers that have passed on. I just felt like it was more of a responsibility. Because I don’t want any of this to be a lost culture, a lost art.

Narrator: For generations, the process has always started the same, with collecting and sourcing materials locally.

Eric:My grandmother used to ask me to collect pottery shards, so I would go around atop Sky City there and actually collect pottery shards for her. And so, that’s something that always kind of sticks with me. And it gives you an appreciation for gathering your own materials, because you don’t let any of the material go to waste.

Narrator: The base of his pots consists of two types of clay. These two get mixed with water to create a substance called slip.

Eric: One thing that’s nice about using a local clay is it can break down fairly easily.

Narrator: From there, he pours the clay into a plaster mold, a technique called slip casting. This method allows the slip to conform to the shape of whatever mold Eric decides to use. After the slip in the mold dries, Eric will separate it, revealing the pottery shape. Instead of slip casting, Eric’s mother and grandmother created traditional Acoma pottery using a coiling method. This is where clay is rolled into long, snakelike logs and placed on top of each other to create a pot. But pouring the slip into molds gives the clay a different feel.

Eric: The reason why I have to actually use this method in particular is because I need a very fine type of clay. Originally, we did try it with the earth clay pottery, the traditional Acoma pottery, but what happens is the actual clay is going to flake apart. You won’t be able to see any of the etchings. Once a pottery has actually been taken out from the slip cast mold, I actually set it out to dry. I try not to rush any of the pieces. So I can actually set it out because of the dry climate here.

Narrator: Once dry, Eric needs to polish the pots. This process is called burnishing.

Eric: This is actually an older traditional method that was taught by Grandmother. The white stone has been handed down from Grandmother. And basically what I’m doing is giving the clay itself a smooth surface. You’ll see it progress here. Once we get that nice finish, and I’m able to fire it inside an electric kiln — I don’t use the older method of the pit fire now. I have to use a more modern version of the kiln, only because it’s more of a controlled firing.

Narrator: The electric kiln needs to be heated to about 1,200 degrees. If Eric was making traditional Acoma pottery, the pot would be painted with designs and shapes before the firing process. But soon, the horsehair will come into play instead. Once the pot is heated in the kiln, Eric uses raku tongs to take them out. He says he knows that the piece is at the right temperature simply by feeling the heat radiating off of it. Next, Eric quickly adds wood chips to the piece.

Eric: The purpose of the wood chips is to create that background effect and create smoke clouds, but also to keep the clay at a good amount of temperature that the horsehair is actually going to melt onto the surface.

Narrator: Using combustible materials like wood chips to change the color of heated ceramic is actually a technique based on a 20th-century version of Japanese raku pottery. Once the wood chips are properly burning, Eric uses his other hand to lightly place the horsehair onto the piece. Instantly the hair carbonizes, and the clay absorbs deposits of carbon and smoke from the hair. As the hair curls and moves along the pot, a thick, dark line is left on the surface.

Eric: Sometimes I have a predetermined design I want to etch onto a pottery. So what I’ll do is put a little bit more horsehair in that area of the pottery itself. If it’s more of an open shape that I don’t want to add too much etchings, then I’ll actually put just a few strands, just to create a darkening effect. So it really depends on the piece that I’m going to be etching.

Narrator: Eric must move quickly, because he doesn’t have much time to place the hairs. The combination of the wood chips and hair burning together gives the pottery more dimension than just paint would and creates a canvas for Eric’s next step.

Eric: So, when you get that contrast in color, I’m able to etch certain designs onto the pottery, which, some of them actually remind me of rain clouds. Because of the dry climate, we’re constantly praying for rain back home in Acoma.

Narrator: Native American horsehair pottery goes back centuries, but the exact origins are unknown. It’s said to have been discovered by a woman pulling hot pottery out of a kiln. According to a story that’s been passed down, a piece of her own hair dropped onto one of the pots, leaving a thin, dark line. Artists then began using horsehair because it leaves a darker effect than human hair, with hair from a horse’s mane creating finer lines, while hair from the horse’s tail created thicker ones. Using the hair of a favorite horse became a way to commemorate the animal. Eric’s family began using hair to decorate pottery in almost the same way. As they tell it, 35 years ago, a strand of Eric’s mom’s hair fell on a pot, which led them to start decorating with human hair and eventually horsehair. And the similarities to the ancient tradition don’t stop there.

Eric: I have actually gotten orders for folks who own horses and ask if we can incorporate some of the horse that they used to have onto certain pieces.

Narrator: Once they’re cooled, Eric uses a stylus to etch designs into the pottery, which typically have a traditional meaning.

Eric: So, all these different geometric designs that you’re seeing, we’re taught. There’s no stencils; it’s all just freehand and basically carved out by memory. It takes a lot of time.

Narrator: When Eric has finished etching these designs by hand, these pots are ready to be sealed to preserve the quality. Once his pieces, along with the pieces his parents make, are finalized, he sells them on Etsy. And he’s in the process of passing Acoma Horse Hair Pottery onto the fifth generation of potters, his daughters.

Eric: What I’m able to do is give them a piece of the pottery, give them a tool, and they’re able to etch a design onto it. And that’s one thing that I remember doing for my grandmother, was actually selling her pottery and telling her story.

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