Albuquerque artist Jami Porter Lara’s formative trek through the borderlands
Jami Porter Lara came upon the map with no border line in 2011, during a trip to the Paquime archaeological site in Chihuahua, Mexico. She was a BFA student at the University of New Mexico, traveling with photographer David Taylor and a group of students as part of the Land Arts of the American West field program.
“In the museum at Paquime, they had maps on the wall denoting different cultural regions,” Porter Lara says. “We were in a place that was called Gran Chichimeca, and it did not acknowledge the border. There was no national border indicated on it.”
The document wasn’t a sunny denial of current geopolitical realities but evidence of the age-old regional links that the U.S.-Mexico border fence ostensibly severs. The land between Paquime and Chaco Canyon is known among archaeologists as the Chaco Meridian, a north-south axis of Ancestral Puebloan sites with strikingly similar architectural elements.
“Paquime was connected culturally to Chaco. The same people were moving through that region,” says Porter Lara. “It got me thinking about how recent an imposition the border is, and what an abstraction it is. It’s so expensive and so defended, but it’s still permeable.”
Days earlier, the Land Arts group had camped in the borderlands of Southern Arizona and discovered piles of plastic water bottles and other objects discarded by Mexican citizens heading north. In Mexico, they came upon the pottery shards of prehistoric travelers and learned the centuries-old process of making reduction fired pottery from Graciela and Hector Gallegos of Mata Ortiz.
There was an unbroken chain, from the ceramic vessels up to the water bottles
To Porter Lara, who spent most of her childhood in New Mexico and lives in Albuquerque, the material culture of the region started to seem like a tightly woven tapestry that easily traversed the border and stretched far into the past. “There was an unbroken chain, from the ceramic vessels up to the water bottles,” she says.
Six years later, Porter Lara is deep into a body of work inspired by that fateful journey. Her series of jet-black ceramic vessels resembling warped two-liter plastic bottles has landed in prestigious museums and galleries from New Mexico to Washington, D.C. On September 8, Porter Lara’s latest sculptures will appear in a solo exhibition at Peters Projects, her first in Santa Fe, titled In Situ. The artist’s experience in the borderlands continues to inform her artistic practice—and her evolving perception of her own identity.
Following her Land Arts trip, Porter Lara made two ceramic vessels for a group exhibition with the program’s participants. One of the works resembled a two-liter plastic bottle, onto which Porter Lara carved images referencing Paquime and the U.S. Border Patrol.
“I was originally thinking about drought, which was the reason I wanted to depict containers that held water,” she says. “There are all of these people and species moving north, driven by drought, by the way that the climate is changing. Instead of vilifying them, maybe we need to look at them as survivors.”
The works were an unexpected starting point for her thesis project, a series of hand-built, reduction fired water bottle forms. “At the time, I wasn’t very good at working in clay,” says Porter Lara. “It was a lot easier to make an organic form than it was to make a symmetrical form.” She turned the limitation into a strength, folding the graceful, undulating lines of the human figure, plants, and historic ceramics into her “mutant” water bottle sculptures.
I was originally thinking about drought, which was the reason I wanted to depict containers that held water… There are all of these people and species moving north, driven by drought, by the way that the climate is changing. Instead of vilifying them, maybe we need to look at them as survivors.
The vessels blurred the barrier between the past and present, employing the two-thousand-year-old pottery technique that the artist learned in Mexico to depict a survival tool used by modern migrants. They also challenged other divisions: between trash and treasure, the natural and the artificial, the familiar and the alien.
The water bottle forms populated Porter Lara’s first major solo show at Albuquerque’s Central Features Contemporary Art in 2014, where she is represented. She has since exhibited the ongoing series in an Alcoves show at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe and a solo exhibition called Border Crossing at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in D.C. Santa Fe artist Susan York introduced her work to Mark Del Vecchio, curator of the ceramics and design program at Peters Projects. Del Vecchio invited her to join the gallery’s stable in 2016 and offered her a solo exhibition.
It’s a stunning rise for an artist with a brand new BFA, but Porter Lara’s success follows decades of hard work. Born in Washington State in 1969, she spent her early childhood in Puerto Rico and moved to Albuquerque with her mother at eight years old. After leaving high school at sixteen and earning her GED, she enrolled in the women’s studies program at the University of Massachusetts. There, she took two drawing classes and fell in love with the medium.
“I wasn’t an artistic kid at all, so I sort of had to encourage myself through sheer force of will to learn how to draw,” she says. “I had believed until then that artistic talent was something you’re born with: either you have it or you don’t have it. Something clicked in my brain, and all of a sudden I could perceive value and understand how that informs the way you make drawings.”
She returned to Albuquerque and started a career in software development, and met her partner of nineteen years, Kathy Brown, a few years later. The couple circled the globe on rugged outdoor excursions, and Porter Lara filled stacks of travel journals with writings and drawings. It wasn’t until the late 2000s that the idea of going to art school resurfaced. Porter Lara had worked for nine years as a developer and seven years as a consumer advocate fighting for energy affordability for low-income New Mexicans. She and Brown had invested in land and constructed a straw-bale house at the height of the recession, and they weren’t shackled by a mortgage or other debts.
“At 40, I started with all of the eighteen-year-olds at UNM,” Porter Lara says. “It was really liberating, because how often when you’re at that age do you just get to start something new like that?” She found that her life experience gave her an edge as she charted a course towards a full-time art career. “In my job [as a consumer advocate], I had to testify and be an expert witness and get cross-examined by five lawyers in front of hostile committees in legislature,” she says. “In comparison to those experiences, talking to people about my art was so easy and fun.”
That’s what eventually lead Porter Lara to the weeklong pottery course in Mata Ortiz. The Gallegos family taught the Land Arts students how to dig clay, prepare it, build forms with coils, burnish them with stones, and fire them in a covered outdoor pit. The covering causes a “reduction” process, by which the ceramics are kept away from direct flames and oxygen, allowing carbon particulates to bond to their surfaces. The result is gleaming, obsidian-colored pottery. Porter Lara has repeated this method countless times since then, digging clay from an arroyo and bringing it back to her home studio to make pottery.
“The technique itself is a border crossing, because the earliest blackware is from Mexico,” Porter Lara says. “San Ildefonso black-on-black pottery is a relatively recent innovation. Maria Martinez started making it in the 1920s, after archaeologists found some blackware shards in Frijoles Canyon on an excavation. They brought it to her and said, ‘Can you make this?’”
I feel very aware of that requirement, that artists with non-mainstream identities are supposed to perform those identities as a way of invisibly shoring up the center
When the topic of cultural appropriation comes up, Porter Lara’s thoughts are nuanced and highly personal. She recalls the time a museum expressed interest in her work but fell silent after they learned she was not from a pueblo. “In that moment, I know that there was something I could do that would satisfy them,” she says. “I could say, ‘Well, I’m half Mexican, and black pottery is originally from Mexico.’ In fact, my dad’s extended family is from the part of Mexico, near Oaxaca, where that originates.”
Porter Lara instead took some time to think over the situation and decided not to reach out to the museum again. “I feel very aware of that requirement, that artists with non-mainstream identities are supposed to perform those identities as a way of invisibly shoring up the center,” she says. “It’s like another kind of border work, where we make sure to authenticate the people at the border so that we can validate the difference.”
As Porter Lara knows, there are some precious, intricate, and unclassifiable things no border can divide. “Even if it’s a fifteen-foot-tall wall,” she says.