Robert Tenorio is one of the
foremost pueblo potters. He wins ribbons regularly at Santa Fe Indian
Market and other prestigious competitions.
His work is among the most traditional of any potters working today.
All of his pieces are hand coiled and fired outdoors with cottonwood
bark. He is especially well known for creating some of the largest
pieces produced by any pueblo potter.
Robert began his career by
studying jewelry making. In 1968, he enrolled at the Institute of
American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. Learning to make jewelry "was the
popular thing then," he recalls, plus "I wanted to make jewelry to
help with the family." Robert, however, soon found himself next door
in the ceramics class, "stealing their clay and potting away"
Robert began by making stew bowls for his mother. When other women at
the Pueblo saw them, they wanted bowls too and so Robert's mother was
constantly at the school asking him to make more bowls.
In those days, Robert's bowls were made from stoneware, a type of
processed clay that is fired in a kiln. Today, Robert uses native
clays and traditional firing methods.
The black on Robert's pottery usually comes from the Rocky Mountain
bee plant. "We boil the whole plant," he says, however he has
discovered that boiling almost any kind of plant will produce a black
juice. Robert prefers the bee plant because in the old days "it was
our people's food, and it's still present in our food. We call it wild
In thinking about his distinguished career, Robert observes: "I don't
ever want to become too famous or too rich. We're all striving for
life, and pottery is bringing me and my family life. I feel I was put
in this world to revive Santo Domingo pottery. And now that I've done
that, I feel good about it. I'm content. Everybody living will go, but
my pots will stay here on this earth forever."
before the people of Santo Domingo Pueblo began making the exquisite
stone, shell and silver jewelry for which they are now known, they
were making pots. The potters of Santo Domingo delved for the red and
white clay in secret places in the hills along the Rio Grande and
deftly shaped clay and water into ollas and cooking bowls.
started his career by studying jewelry making, Santo Domingo native
Robert Tenorio discovered that he couldn't keep his hands out of clay.
As a result, he became one of a handful of Santa Domingo artists who
have stimulated the revival of the ancient art of pottery making at
he enrolled at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe to
learn to make jewelry. "It was popular then, and I wanted to make
jewelry to help with the family," says Tenorio. "Instead, I was always
next door in the ceramics class, stealing their clay. Next thing, I'd
be potting away." Tenorio made stew bowls for his mother, and when
other women at the pueblo saw them, they wanted bowls, too. "My mother
would constantly come to the school and ask me to make more bowls," he
time, Tenorio made his bowls of stoneware, a type of processed clay
that is fired in a kiln. Now he uses native clays and traditional
firing methods like those used by his Pueblo Indian ancestors,
creating polychrome jars, pots and canteens with the geometric
classicism that characterized Santo Domingo ceramics for centuries In
the Tenorio family, siblings Robert, Mary Edna Tenorio, Hilda Coriz
and her recently deceased husband Arthur, and Paulita Pacheco are all
potters (as well as Paulita’s son Andrew and Hilda’s daughter Ione).
However, few other artists at Santo Domingo are making traditional
pottery. "People tend to get into pottery once in a while and then
forget about it the following week," Tenorio says. "They find out it’s
canteens, like the double one featured on the 1988 Santa Fe Indian
Market poster, are a case in point. Like his other pots, coiling
strands of clay from bottom to top makes this type. Then Tenorio
smoothed the coils to create a smooth surface. Next comes the slip.
Ten or twelve coats of a soupy mixture of clay and water are applied
to the pot. Between each coat, Tenorio allows the pot to air dry, and
then he polishes it to a satiny luster. The surface of the pot is very
fragile during this stage; even a fingerprint left behind would show
up after firing.
a black on red pot, Tenorio must combine white and red slips in the
right proportions, then apply the mixed slip to the pot. The designs –
geometric patterns and stylized images of birds, flowers and animals –
then are painted on with a watery brown liquid made from the juice of
the Rocky Mountain bee plant. "We boil the whole plant," Tenorio says.
"We found that boiling almost any kind of plant will produce a black
juice, but we use the bee plant because in the olden days it was our
people’s food, and it's still present in our food. We call it wild
spinach." The bee plant "paint" looks brown before firing, but in the
fire the juice is carbonized. "That's the magic part that turns the
paint black," Tenorio says, smiling. The paint won't work on red clay
alone; the red slip must be mixed with white. "After firing, we put
egg white on it [the pot], or grease, to bring out the sheen," Tenorio
says. "It's something that our potters in the past did." His designs
and shapes are traditional, a reflection of Tenorio's reverence for
the past. "Some artists say they dream of designs and then get up and
do them. For me, I'll save it until the next day, and when the time
comes to start designing, it just disappears. But when I start to
paint, it comes, all free-hand."
has won a string of awards at Indian Market, among them the Potcarrier
Award for the Best Large Traditional Jar or Bowl in 1982, 1983 and
1984, and the Indian Arts Fund Award for Overall Excellence in a
Traditional Craft, in 1988. His work is in museums, including the
Museum of Mankind in London, and with private collectors all over the
globe. He even gave a pot to Britain's Prince Phillip when Tenorio was
in London. He says he doesn't know what the prince did with the pot,
but he does like his creations to be useful. "Presently it’s for
decorative purposes, but I'd rather see my pots being used, so I still
make stew bowls and water jugs that you can actually use and wash. I
try to keep my prices reasonable because I do not spend any money on
materials. It comes from the earth and I have to share it. We ’re all
striving for life, and pottery is bringing me and my family life. I
feel I was put in this world to revive Santo Domingo pottery. And now
that I've done that I feel good about it. I'm content. Everybody
living will go, but my pots will stay here on this earth forever."