SchoolArts Room

Visiting Robert Tenorio, Famed Santo Domingo Potter

By Nancy Walkup, posted on May 15, 2018

Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit Santo Domingo Pueblo to witness a firing by Robert Tenorio, a highly esteemed potter, along with a group of fellow docents from the Indian Arts Research Center in Santa Fe.


When we arrived, the fire was hot and pots were ready to go over it resting on a metal grate. Mr. Tenorio wanted us to see how the painted lines look very faint before the pots are fired. The details are painted with a solution made from wild spinach. These lines will turn black in the fire.

Traditional Pueblo pots are not made on the wheel or with commercial clay and glazes. They are made with thick coils and scraped. Everything needed is gathered with thanks from Mother Earth. Mr. Tenorio told us the reason for the plain red bottom is to allow the potter to hold it in the hand while painting without damaging any detailed areas.

The grate is placed over the hot coals. Other random pieces of metal were also used to support the pots. These pots can touch each other as they are not glazed.

Cottonwood bark is layered over the entire assembly and set on fire. 
Once the fire burns down to ashes, after only about an hour and a half, the pots are pulled out and allowed to cool a bit. Only a very few pieced were broken. The clay Mr. Tenorio makes can survive this hot, short firing because of the addition of temper, usually sand. Our pre-mixed school clay would never work in this situation. We also learned that Pueblo clay does not work for throwing on the wheel.
You can see how the painted lines have turned black. The white areas were first painted with slip and the decorations painted over the white. Mr. Tenorio was also using slip made from red clay gathered nearby.
In this pot by Mr. Tenorio, he pointed out to us that you can tell if a piece was traditionally painted by areas of black that did not completely fill in. If it were painted with a non-traditional paint, the black would be filled in completely. He also painted his designs free-handed, using no pencil at all to guide him.

When the pots are cool enough to handle, Mr. Tenorio wipes his pieces with egg white for a final finish. He said that we could also wipe them with canola oil.

Mr. Tenorio provided us each with a small pot to paint and fire. It was an honor to be with him and learn from him for most of the day. He is an amazing man.