Kathleen Wall (Jemez Pueblo and Chippewa), a Pueblo potter and winner of a New Mexico Governor’s Award, conjures happy feelings through her human forms in ceramics.
During my visit to the studio of Kathleen Wall (Jemez Pueblo and Chippewa), the first things I notice are the alluring faces in her clay creations, which shine underneath luminescent studio lights. Nearby, several beautiful clay sculptures in progress rest on top of her work table—although unpainted, the raw refinement of her pieces reflects the amount of thought and detail she puts into her works.
The warm smiles on Kathleen’s figurative, human-like sculptures, which have attracted admirers and renown over the years, evoke feelings of joy and happiness. A similar feeling exudes for the artist when she’s working from her Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico, home studio.
“It’s so comfortable at home,” says Wall, who received the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2021. “That’s how many Pueblo people work—in the kitchen. Many of us are moms. I’m a mom.” Working in a cozy environment allows her to be with her family and carry on with her parental responsibilities.
Next to the working space sits a large room filled with her paintings and charming bronze-bodied sculptures of Pueblo women in traditional clothing. Natural light pours in from the ceiling and through her large windows. Outside lies the natural beauty of Jemez Pueblo, with a mesmerizing panorama of towering mesas, fields, and adobe homes in a high desert setting. Wall’s work is deeply embedded in her Pueblo heritage from which she draws inspiration.
Wall collects and processes her own clay, an arduous practice that involves digging source lands for clay. The processing stage takes several days as she mixes, soaks, and sifts the clay until it is ready to work with.
“The majority of the clay I work with is made with Jemez Pueblo clay,” Wall explains. “My mother taught me how to dig clay and harvest the pumice which I use for my temper. It’s something I’ve grown up doing and something I really enjoy doing.”
Wall has passed on the knowledge of collecting and processing clay to her children—at times, they will accompany her during this laborious activity.
“I like trying new things, such as seeing how things react to native clay. Acrylic acts a lot different on native clay than it does on gesso. It’s fun to play around with materials. I will dabble with underglazes and acrylic paints to enhance my work,” says Wall, who adds that she uses a kiln in her firing process.
I felt honored that Wall gave me a glimpse of her large-scale sculpture project depicting Pueblo men and women in a procession on a saint’s day when her Pueblo holds traditional dances. Contextualizing the piece, she says that “the work speaks to the syncretic culture of Pueblo traditions and Catholicism.”
She is also painting a series of floral designs created by her beloved late Chippewa grandmother. “It embraces my Anishinaabe side,” says Wall, who comes from a long family tradition of ceramic artists.
As we chatted about her current projects, I quickly grasped her busy schedule, whether she is filling custom orders, creating new works for upcoming art shows, traveling, making art for museum exhibitions, or being a mother. “I have a dual career,” she asserts. “I do market pieces and pieces for museum exhibitions.”
Her face lights up when telling me about her upcoming shows in 2023, in anticipation of the joyful times ahead, seeing friends and family, and engaging with her art admirers. Wall, fresh off participating in the annual Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market in Phoenix, is set to exhibit later this year during Native Treasures in Santa Fe on May 27–28 and Santa Fe Indian Market, August 19–20.
In addition to partaking in art market shows, Wall is heavily involved in noteworthy museum projects. Recently, she served as a co-curator in a large community collaboration project involving Pueblo artists, community leaders, and museum professionals. The resulting exhibition, Grounded in Clay: The Spirit of Pueblo Pottery, opened July 2022 at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, and has plans to travel nationally to New York, Houston, and St. Louis. Wall selected a Pueblo nativity scene created by her aunt and wrote a heartfelt entry about how the pottery reminded her of her family member and the blending of two cultures. Viewing her entry and reading its description in the exhibition catalog are truly invigorating experiences.
Wall is one of three Pueblo potters, along with Jody Naranjo (Santa Clara Pueblo) and Judy Tafoya (Santa Clara Pueblo), exhibiting new works in a show currently on display through April 29, 2023, titled Mother Clay: The Pottery of Three Pueblo Women at the Reeves Museum of Ceramics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. In addition, Wall mentions she will be engaged in future projects for the Pembroke Museum and the North Carolina Museum of Art.
The accolades, which include a MIAC Living Treasure award in 2020-21—an honor also bestowed on Roxanne Swentzell (Santa Clara Pueblo), Tony Abeyta (Navajo), Maria Samora (Taos Pueblo), and Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti Pueblo)—encourage Wall to continue to express herself through her media. Wall even jokes about how little she leaves her studio.
“I just love to sit and work. It brings me a lot of joy to be in my studio working.”