Lucy M. Lewis was a potter from the Acoma Pueblo (New Mexico) who took inspiration in archaeological ceramics which she adapted and reinterpreted. In doing so, she pioneered contemporary Acoma pottery. From museums throughout the United States to Obama’s Oval Office, Lucy M. Lewis’ work has been recognized and exhibited widely. Blending tradition and innovation, contemporary Acoma pottery can be seen as a substitute for the controversial display of archaeological ceramics which were looted from burials.
Lucy M. Lewis (1898? – 1992), indigenous artist and revered matriarch, is considered the mother of modern Acoma pottery. She found inspiration in ancient Puebloan ceramics made by her ancestors, and in turn gave birth to a new tradition in accordance with her heritage and personal affinities. Since then, the matriarch has influenced generations of Acoma potters who continue to honor her work. Lucy M. Lewis became so revered that Barack Obama had one of her jars on display in the Oval Office during his presidency.
Lucy M. Lewis was born in the Acoma Pueblo, an American Indian tribe established 60 miles west of Albuquerque. In that society, women are the head of the households and pass on their clan to their children. They are also potters, learning from the other women around them and transferring their knowledge to their children.
The traditional method used to make Pueblo pottery consists of foraging clay and pigments locally. The paste is made by mixing the raw clay with already fired ceramic fragment of their own pots. It is shaped into coils that are superposed then smoothed together to form a vessel. To decorate her ceramics, Lucy M. Lewis used the same tools and resources as most Puebloan potters: yucca brushes, black paint made of bee weed plant, and red paint made with hematite.
However, Lucy M. Lewis broke with tradition in that she would use sherds from ancestral Puebloan ceramic to make her own paste, as well as for inspiration for her designs. She found particular interest in Mimbres pottery (c. 900-1150 C.E.), which is characterized by its simple forms and black and white geometric motifs, animals, and human silhouettes. Inspired by the Ancestral Puebloans, Lucy M. Lewis developed a new style which incorporated their symmetry, straight lines, and simplified dark designs on a white background.
The sale and exhibition of Mimbres pottery is highly controversial today on the art market and in museums. Indeed, it is well known that these objects were directly taken from burials by non-indigenous individuals who appropriated both the good and the bodies they found in the tombs. Most Mimbres bowls have a “kill hole” at their center, which is characteristic of vessels placed upturned on the face of the deceased. For that reason, the ownership and display of Mimbres ceramics by non-indigenous individuals and institutions is seen as deeply problematic, and tribal descendants ask for the return of those works to their original homes. That is made possible thanks to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) passed in 1990 in the United States, which “has provided for the repatriation and disposition of certain Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony.”[i]
In that context, the work of Lucy M. Lewis and her followers offers a unique avenue to support indigenous artists as well as to put an end to the wrongful holding of Mimbres ceramics. Innovative Acoma and other Pueblo ceramics inspired by ancient Puebloan pottery of the style could be displayed where Mimbres objects once stood, as artworks in their own rights, but also as ways to engage the conversation about looting and the colonial roots of our cultural institutions.
Peterson, Susan. Lucy Lewis: American Indian Potter. 2nd Rev. Ed. Tokyo, Japan: Kodansha International, 2004.
Angeleti, Gabriella. “Minneapolis art museum criticized for keeping ancient Indigenous objects,” The Art Newspaper, November 9, 2020: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/minnesota-art-museum-criticised-for-keeping-indigenous-objects
Oliveri, Myrna. “Lucy Lewis; Acclaimed American Indian Potter,” Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1992.
“Lucy M. Lewis,” National Museum of Women in the Arts: https://nmwa.org/art/artists/lucy-m-lewis/
“Lucy M. Lewis,” Smithsonian American Art Museum: https://americanart.si.edu/artist/lucy-m-lewis-2919