Cherokee potter Anna Mitchell has worked hard for more
than 30 years on her pottery and has done much research to make it
She is known today for creating Southeastern and
Eastern Woodlands-style pottery, but faced a few obstacles when she
began making pottery 34 years ago.
There was no guide on creating Cherokee pottery, and
few Cherokees were making pottery when she began creating objects from
clay found in a pond near her home in Vinita, Okla., in 1967. After
creating these small objects, including a pipe for her husband, Robert
Clay Mitchell, she became curious about clay and how her Cherokee
ancestors created their pottery.
"I knew Cherokees hadn't really done pottery since
removal, there wasn't anyone doing it or people who knew how to do
it," Mitchell said. "But I thought surely it could be done again."
When she realized the art of making Southeastern
pottery was in danger of being lost, she became more determined to
help preserve it.
"I believe without art you don't have culture and
without culture you don't have art," she said.
Mitchell began studying tribal cultures and their
artwork searching for instructions on making Southeastern pottery.
There was very little. The knowledge of creating Southeastern-style
pottery had lain "dormant" for many years, she said. She continued her
studies and creating pottery through trial and error with
encouragement from her husband.
is thankful for her late husband's encouragement and help.
"He was my partner in this when he retired from his
job. He was very proud of his Cherokee culture and very helpful; the
whole family was supportive. They all respected the fact that it was
something I wanted to do.
"My kids were in school, so I could spend time on my
pottery during the day and on weekends, but I didn't do it every day,"
she said. "I really didn't know I was talented until I began doing
Mitchell said there were times when she nearly walked
away from making pottery, but "kept getting pulled back into it." She
continued searching for information on Southeastern native peoples. A
break came in 1973 while she was showing a few pieces of her pottery
at the Indian Trade Fair in Tulsa. It was the first time she had
publicly shown her work. At the fair she was introduced to Clydia
Nahwooksy (Cherokee), then director of the Indian Awareness Program
for the Smithsonian Institution Folklife Festival, who encouraged her
to continue her work. Through this meetings she also gained access to
the Smithsonian archives.
Mitchell said it is likely she would have quit pottery
if not for the encouragement she received at this time from Nahwooksy
Eventually she found a book entitled "Sun Circles and
Human Hands," while doing research at the University of Arkansas in
Fayetteville. This book provided background and knowledge to create
Mitchell became an authority on Southeastern and
Eastern Woodlands art. She learned Southeastern art had been dormant
long before the Cherokee removal and other tribes' removal to the
west. This was likely because these tribes had assimilated with their
white neighbors much earlier than tribes in the west. Before contact,
many Southeastern tribes traded and shared artwork designs, so she
also realizes not all of her art may represent Cherokee designs. Too
much knowledge was lost through assimilation to know for certain what
were truly Cherokee designs, but she knows her designs are of the
Southeast and Eastern Woodlands.
She creates her pottery in a small studio near her
home, and only works on her pottery in the warmer months, saving the
fall and winter to spend time with her family. She usually works on
three pieces at a time, working on them at different stages. Depending
on the size of each piece of pottery, she said she can usually prepare
a piece for firing in two weeks. She fires her pieces using wood
behind her studio in an area surrounded by bricks. The clay pieces are
placed on a metal sheet above the fire for an entire day. The pottery
hardens over the fire and gradually cools as the fire cools
"I try to follow as much as possible what my ancestors
did," she said.
She decorates her pottery with leaves and other
ornaments, which are placed on the outside of her pottery before
firing. She has also created her own unique fired-clay stamps, which
she uses to stamp different designs on her pottery before firing.
Central American Indians used similar stamps, she said.
She shows her creations at various art markets and has
been traveling to the popular Santa Fe Art Indian Market in Santa Fe,
N.M., for the last 14 years.
In 1982, then-Oklahoma Gov. George Nigh, named Mitchell
an Ambassador of Goodwill for the state because of her pottery work.
"Things just happened" after that she said. She and other Oklahoma
artists were invited to the Smithsonian's annual Folklife Festival the
A few years later, the Cherokee Nation named her a
Living Treasure, and in 1988 a bronze likeness of her was dedicated at
the annual Northeastern State University Indian Symposium to
commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Trail of Tears. She was
featured in a book by Lois Sherr Dubin entitled "North American Indian
Jewelry and Adornment from Prehistory to the Present" in 1999. The
book featured Indian artists from throughout the country, and Mitchell
was featured in the Oklahoma and the Southeast artists section.
All of these honors do not include the numerous awards
she has won for her pottery over the years. She has placed in all
pottery categories or has received honorable mention at the Santa Fe
Indian Market each of the 14 years she has attended, which is no small
feat considering the number of skilled pottery makers in the
"I've received honors for something I really enjoy
doing," she said.
Mitchell is hopeful the pottery making she reclaimed
from her studies will continue with the next generation. She has
taught pottery in schools through the Title IV Indian Education
Program and has been a cultural consultant at times. She has taught
apprentices over the years, first a nephew who will attend Yale
University next year to study medicine, and Cherokee artist Jane Osti,
who is now a well-respected artist herself. Mitchell has also shared
her artistic skills with her daughter Victoria Vazquez-Mitchell, of
Welch, Okla., who, in the two years she has concentrated on pottery,
is beginning to win awards for her own creations. She won a third
place ribbon for one of her pieces at last year's Santa Fe Indian
"I want students to learn culture when I am teaching
them. I insist they learn it. They all have," Mitchell said.
"She's easy to learn from, she's a very patient
person," Vazquez-Mitchell said. "If you really want to do this it
takes patience and some skill. It's not something you do in a hurry."
What started from a lump of clay from a pond has opened
many doors for Anna Mitchell. As much as she enjoys creating art and
learning more about her culture, she cherishes the things that have
come with being a recognized artist.
"It's been the most wonderful adventure because I've
met other people I never would have met otherwise. I've also met
people from so many other tribes and got a chance to get to know other
artists," she said. (from: http://www.cherokee.org/Phoenix/XXVno2_Spring2001/ArtCulturePage.asp?ID=1)