The University Record, October 9, 2000

Ortega brings traditional pottery-making methods to U

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

Felipe Ortega, master potter in the Jicarilla Apache tradition, trims one of the micaceous clay pots he will be demonstrating during classes beginning this week in the Art and Architecture Building. The pots are strengthened and insulated by tiny flakes of mica. Photo courtesy Sunday Eiselt
Hundreds of pounds of clay from New Mexico have been shipped and driven to the University for a course in pottery-making as employed by the Jicarilla Apache nation at the end of the 19th century. U-M anthropologist Richard Ford has been transporting much of the clay from northern New Mexico for this joint venture of the Institute for the Humanities and the School of Art and Design.

Felipe Ortega, recognized as a master potter in the Jicarilla Apache tradition by the Smithsonian Institution and U-M’s Norman Freehling Visiting Professor, will be teaching a mini course in micaceous clay pottery making. The classes will extend over five weeks beginning 3–6 p.m. Oct. 13 and held each Friday in Room 1269 of the Art and Architecture Building.

The clay is self-tempering with tiny but abundant flakes of sparkling mica. These strengthen the clay body of the pot and insulate the walls for superior cooking performance.

“Once fired, the mica pots are strong, and if cared for properly, will outperform any favored cast-iron skillet,” says Sunday Eiselt, a U-M graduate student with the Museum of Anthropology and a student of Ortega’s.

The harvesting of the clay itself is a lengthy and spiritual process involving prayers, the sprinkling of corn meal in the four geographic directions, and several sessions of removing unwanted debris from the mixture. Although Ortega takes advantage of modern technology to process greater quantities of clay more effectively, the process of cleaning micaceous today is very similar to that practiced prehistorically by the Jicarilla.

The pot, formed by coiling the clay, is dried, sanded, covered with a wet slurry, buffed with a dry, clean cloth sprinkled with a hint of oil, and dried again before firing in an open, rock-lined pit.

While Ortega shapes his vessels to meet current cooking trends, such as electric and gas stoves, the techniques he uses are virtually the same as his ancient New Mexican ancestors.

The students in Ortega’s class will become involved not only with micaceous clay and the resulting pots but also Jicarilla Apache philosophy and its artistic understandings and culture.