Mohawk ceramic artists create pots and vases using modern techniques and ancient designs from the Iroquois
By Janice Mawhinney
Talking Earth Pottery moves to its own rhythm.
Ceramic artists Steve Smith , Leigh Smith, and their daughter Santee do what they love to do, what they were taught to do by Steve's late mother Elda, who pioneered it. They use contemporary techniques to create pots and vases reflecting ancient Iroquois designs and symbols.
There's no advertising and no trendy urban location. Their clients find them by word of mouth, and make their way to the studio on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford.
There in the small gallery adjoining the Smiths' light-filled studio, about 10 pieces are displayed at any given time. Each is handmade and hand-painted. Each has its own pattern of symbols, usually animals or plants or people, sometimes shapes. Each is a unique and beautiful work of ceramic art.
There might be a circle of women representing the earth in spring, or an owl as the peaceful guardian of the night. Perhaps a vase shows hummingbirds, or a wolf as the main image. Each one is somehow both simple and intricate. Each is meaningful.
Elda Smith, who researched ancient Aztec, Mayan and Iroquois pottery extensively as she devised this system, was asked to create a piece for Queen Elizabeth in 1967. She presented it herself to the Queen at Expo 67 in Montreal.
Steve, 53, Leigh, 51, and Santee, 31, have been asked to create pieces for many celebrities since, from Wayne Gretzky to the Dalai Lama. Leigh has made pieces for Margaret Thatcher, Roberta Bondar and Princess Margriet of the Netherlands.
The Talking Earth studio and its unusual pots are a treasured secret among several collectors.
"They're very spiritual pieces," says Brenda Wival of Brantford, who has eight of her own and has given others to friends. "Steve has an innate ability to understand the human soul and to put that in his art and it's all rooted in Iroquois tradition.
"The pieces I live with have weight and balance and lovely shapes. There's a wholeness about every one. I come out here (to the pottery studio) for my own spiritual renewal."
Steve says he began making pottery at age 12, and fired his first pieces in the ground. Most of them cracked or broke.
He started Talking Earth Pottery in 1976. He and Leigh sold all of the vases they made, and didn't keep any of their early work for themselves.
"I wish I had," says Steve. "I saw some of my early ones at an antique market, but they were too expensive for me to buy."
The Smiths are a Mohawk family, of the Turtle clan. Steve says Iroquois pottery was a lost art for four centuries, since Europeans brought kettles into the area. In the early 1960s, the Ontario Arts Council sent a potter named Tessa Kidick from Vineland Station to teach pottery to six or seven Six Nations women who were interested.
It was difficult. They dug their own clay out of the ground, and they had no electric kilns. "There were a lot of catastrophes," observes Steve.
Elda Smith was totally engaged with the process, and had a profound sense of its roots.
"My mother did research through museums and archeological works to study the ancient Indian designs," says Steve. "I remember as a child going with her to dig for pottery bits at an archeological site. Today that would be against the law."
Elda and her friends founded a studio called Mohawk Pottery, which continued to operate into the mid-'70s, when Elda died, her husband Oliver retired, and the others involved started their own studios.
Elda taught her daughter-in-law Leigh what she had learned, and Leigh worked in pottery while Steve worked in construction, doing high steel beam work. During a three-month strike, Steve began to make Iroquois clay pipes, and ultimately found that he preferred pottery to high beams.
Their style is influenced by traditions of Mayan, Aztec and southwest American Indian pottery, which includes colours lacking in traditional Iroquois pottery.
Each piece they make is thrown on a potter's wheel or formed by hand, usually by Steve. It is then dried slowly by air over six hours or more, and sanded smooth with steel wool. One of the three Smiths will then draw a layout, picture or design on the pot, and etch or score it.
They then paint the colours on in the form of liquid clay slips in earth colours, and polish each layer of slip, up to 15 layers, to achieve the desired shiny finish. They fire the work at 2300F.
"Each of us chooses our own designs," Steve says. "Mine are abstract and a little coarser. I do some very stylized traditional ones. Santee does intricate detail designs. Leigh does wonderful people.
"Leigh and Santee both do hummingbirds and butterflies and all kinds of elaborate work. I've never seen work in clay just like theirs."
Works in progress are kept on a plate in a pail with water at the bottom. This keeps them humid enough to continue with later.
While each piece is an original, some are part of a series, such as the marriage and anniversary vases that have become a popular order at Talking Earth Pottery.
The original marriage vase was commissioned by a friend of Wayne and Janet Gretzky as a gift for their wedding. A man and a woman are silhouetted on the vase turned to face each other, and a turtle symbolizes patience. "Any marriage needs a lot of patience," observes Steve, deadpan.
Sometimes a heron will also represent patience, a wolf will stand for nurturing and family, or an eagle strength, vision and guardianship. The tree of life is another common design on the marriage vase, but each one has a different aspect. These particular vases range in price from $100 to $400 depending on the size and intricacy.
Ceramic art from Talking Earth generally sells in that same price range, although Steve says very small simple pieces may cost as little as $25, and especially large elaborate once with several people in the design may run up to $1,700.
One piece can easily absorb the work of one person for a week, and a highly detailed one can take longer. For this reason, and because Steve, Leigh and Santee are the only artists involved, there are only ever a handful of vases on display for sale in the gallery at any given time, on average 10.
It's hard work, but they love the creativity.
"When I have the time and freedom to work on my own ideas, I love it," Leigh says. "We're trying to use our hands to create what is in our heads. We want to make ideas real.
"My major criterion is: Does it move me? Does it give me inner satisfaction?
"Often it does."
Steve likes solitude and quiet in which to create. He enjoys socializing, but not when he has a vase to work on.
"To do fine intricate work, you need to be alone," he says. "I can't concentrate with people around. It's nice to have people around, but not when you're trying to use your creative energy."
Leigh says each piece of work has its own personality.
"Some pieces have especially moved me," she says. "Just now I'm thinking of the ones with women on them. Sometimes you do a piece, and feel especially glad that it's going to a certain person."
She is aware of an inner struggle while she works, between the physical, technical side of it, and the indefinable spirit of it.
"Everything you do on your pot, it comes from the gut," she says. "We really do care about what we create."
The Smiths will fill special orders, but prefer not to be restricted in how they make a pot.
"We do orders if people don't get too specific with size, dimensions and colours," Steve says. "I need to create them the way I feel."
The colours don't always come out as expected, and a piece will occasionally break in the kiln, but the experience never loses its appeal for the Smiths.
"After a firing, we rush to the kiln, all excited when the work comes out," says Leigh. "We're holding our breath.
"There are high points and there are disappointments, but we are really striving for something every time. Perfection is out of reach, but we are always striving."
The Smiths' work is close enough to perfection for him, says Charles Pickett, a retired physician and part-time coroner in the Brantford area.
Pickett says he and his wife Dorothy have bought several pieces from Talking Earth Pottery for their own home, and also enjoy giving them as gifts.
His personal favorite is a small piece Leigh made, with a delicate and beautiful butterfly on it.
Another memorable work for him is a travelling communion set Steve and Leigh made for the Picketts' son, an Anglican priest.
"They're an interesting and talented family," Pickett says. "We admire them, and we admire their work.
"They've taken their art to a very high level."