Passion with pottery

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An encounter with a famous Native American potter on a lonely highway north of Española was serendipitous for Tomé potter Vilis Shipman.

It was one of those chance meetings — a fated event. Shipman was a teenager in search of himself while hitch-hiking around the country and Canada, trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: Micaceous pottery has mica within it that conducts heat evenly throughout the pot.

One spring back in New Mexico and headed to Taos, Shipman caught a ride with internationally-renowned potter Filipé Ortega.

“At the time, I didn’t have much … I had my T-shirt, a pair of jeans and a pair of shoes. That was it,” Shipman remembered. “Filipé Ortega told me if I continue toward Taos with nothing but a T-shirt, it was still cold enough in the mornings that I was going to freeze to death.”

Ortega offered him some work helping the potter prepare for Santa Fe market.

Ortega teaches micaceous pottery techniques in Switzerland and Mexico. He’s been on the Food Network, and sells his work out of Café Pasqual’s Gallery in Santa Fe.

Named for the folk saint of Mexican and New Mexican kitchens, San Pasqual, the historic pueblo-style adobe café cooks in mica clay cookware.

Micaceous clay pottery is an ancient tradition used as early as 1300 A.D. by Pueblo, Apache and Navajo Indians.

If you’ve ever seen stones and rocks with little silver specs that sparkle in the sun, you have seen mica.

Micaceous clay’s unique properties allow it to conduct heat evenly throughout the pot because of the mica.

In modern times, mica is used in the electrical industry because of its unique combination of physical, chemical and thermal properties.

Another interesting feature is that the pot only gets hot to the level of the liquid within it.

Cooking in pit fires, the Indians made their pots with long necks so they could remove the pot from the fire without burning themselves, Shipman said.

“When the Spanish came, they brought wood-burning stoves and the design for hornos (outdoor adobe ovens). Then pottery was designed to have handles to remove the pot from the hornos,” he said.

Because shipping and moving pottery by wagon was expensive, the Spanish used Indian pots and learned to construct them. As the cultures melded, so did the styles of pottery.

“There was a lot of Spanish influence in micaceous pottery at that point,” Shipman said.

In the 1800s, when the Santa Fe Trail and railroad brought cheap goods from the East, micaceous pottery fell out of use, he said.

Luckily, the tradition wasn’t lost, but making the unique pottery is an arduous process.

First, from secret locations around the state, Shipman digs for his own clay.

Back at the studio, it has to be churned to loosen stones, roots and pine needles from it, which Shipman does using a cement mixer.

Next, it is screened to remove the stones and other debris, and poured through a sheet draped over a long rectangular wooden box to slowly separate the clay from the water.

“As that happens, the clay forms two layers; the bottom layer is the heavy clay — the stuff that we form the piece out of,” he said. “The light clay that rises to the surface is the creamy slip clay that we use to finish the piece.”

The traditional pottery-making method rolls out long ropes of clay to coil in the shape of a pot, but Shipman is one of the few micaceous potters who throws on the wheel — almost all micaceous potters use the hand-building method, he said.

“It’s not an easy clay to throw. It takes on water very quickly, so it loses structural integrity if you over-work it,” said Shipman.

It’s very gritty, so it’s hard on your hands if you’re throwing over a long period of time.

“I started doing it because Filipé told me it couldn’t be done,” he laughs.

Now Shipman is an expert and fast on the wheel. He can churn out a small pot within a couple of minutes. But the time-consuming process for micaceous pots involves several repeated steps.

Once the pot is formed, it must be scraped for rough edges and sanded repeatedly with four different coats of slip applied in between. Only then is it ready to fire.

The pottery’s terra cotta color is accented by black designs called “fire clouds.” These occur naturally in the firing process and give each piece a unique design.

“These are all stone burnished. It’s all natural clay. There are no commercial products used in making micaceous pottery,” Shipman said.

Prices vary by size with a base line of $65 per quart.

Seasoning a new pot is similar to curing a new cast-iron skillet.

“The more you use it, the more the starches and oils will seal the pores,” he said.

Shipman, a native New Mexican and a graduate of Los Lunas High School, says after staying with Ortega, he returned to Valencia County and enrolled at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus.

He studied theater art, and for awhile, taught children’s theater at the campus.

“I really wasn’t interested in pottery at all,” he said.

He took every art course he could, but never pottery until a potter friend, Tommy Caruso, convinced him to take a class.

The work with Ortega and watching Caruso on the pottery wheel were instructional.

“Because I sat there and watched him for so long, I picked up on it pretty quickly,” Shipman said.

Amassing a huge collection of pottery in the process, he had a ready product to sell when his future wife, Brenda, became pregnant.

It wasn’t a career he planned. Instead, circumstances pushed him.

“That’s how I became a potter; I needed the money,” Shipman says with a smile.

When potter Jan Pacifico, the artist-in-residence of Tomé Art Gallery, retired in May, Shipman leased the studio and took over running the gallery.

He teaches most of the pottery classes that include both hand-built pots, and wheel throwing pottery as well as techniques in micaceous clay.

His classes are Wednesday through Friday. Toni Edwards also teaches pottery classes, and both potters offer private lessons.

For information, visit the Tomé Art Gallery website, www.tomegallery.net, or call 565-0556.


-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.