Robert Vigil, zzna3d180, Bowl with avanyu design


A micaceous black bowl with a sgraffito avanyu and geometric design above the shoulder

In stock

Dimensions 5 × 5 × 5 in
Condition of Piece


Date Born



Robert Vigil Nambe


Vigil, Robert

Nambe Pueblo potter Robert Vigil "I just sit down and start and the clay forms itself through my hands."

Half Nambe Pueblo and half Non-Pueblo, Robert Vigil was born to parents Joe and Alice Vigil in 1965. He first learned the method of making pots with clay coils while in high school in Texas. Then he returned to the pueblo and began to learn from folks like Virginia Gutierrez, his cousin Lonnie Vigil and then from Juan Tafoya of San Ildefonso Pueblo. Robert has been active as a Nambe potter since 1990 working with micaceous jars, bowls, vases, figures and polished redware.

Robert doesn't create giant storage jars like his cousin Lonnie. He much prefers to work on a smaller, more intimate scale. He colors his micaceous pots with fire clouds and other variations produced by the method of firing. There is an elegant purity to his simplistic and understated forms, a deep reflection of his soft spoken manner and gentle spirit.

Robert has told us he prefers the simple shapes and forms and even his carving is gentle. He gets his inspiration from the clay: "I just sit down and start and the clay forms itself through my hands." He's lately been teaching others at his pueblo how to make pottery the traditional way as he doesn't want to see that tradition get lost over time.

Robert has participated in shows at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, at the Eight Northern Pueblos Arts and Crafts Show and at the First Micaceous Pottery Market and Symposium in 1995 in Santa Fe. Pieces of Robert's micaceous pottery are on display at the Minneapolis Art Institute in Minneapolis, MN, and at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, CA, among others.

About Nambé Pueblo

The main kiva in the plaza at Nambé Pueblo
Nambé Pueblo's main kiva

Nambé Pueblo was settled in the early 1300s when a group of Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi) made their way from what is now the Bandelier National Monument area closer to the Rio Grande in search of more reliable water sources and more arable land.

At first they settled mostly high in the mountains, coming down to the river valleys in the summer to grow crops. Eventually, they felt safe enough to stay in the valleys and slowly abandoned the high mountain villages.

When the Spanish first arrived, Nambé was a primary economic, cultural and religious center for the area. That attracted a large Spanish presence and the nature of that presence caused the Nambé people to join wholeheartedly in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 to throw out the Spanish oppressors.

When the Spanish returned in 1692, their rule was significantly less harsh. However, the Spanish brought horses into the New World and as the number of Spanish increased, so did the number of horses. That brought more and more raids from the Comanches as they came for horses and whatever else they could carry away. The Comanches were finally subdued by Governor Juan Bautista de Anza in 1776 but by then, the impact of European diseases was being strongly felt. A smallpox epidemic in the late 1820s virtually ended the making of pottery at Nambé.

Map showing the location of Nambé Pueblo relative to Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Gallup, New Mexico
The location of Nambé Pueblo

For more info:
Nambe Pueblo at Wikipedia
Pueblo of Nambe official website

Photo courtesy of John Phelan, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License

Tewa Design Sources

The Northern Tewa people are mostly from the villages of Ohkay Owingeh, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Pojoaque, Nambé and Tesuque. The Hopi-Tewa of Arizona are descendants of the Southern Tewa. The Tewa share a common heritage from back in the 1200s CE, when their ancestors lived in the canyons and valleys west of Mesa Verde. When the Great Drought hit (around 1276 CE), they were already on the move because of other recent bad weather events. The kachina cult was developing around the same time and however it worked out, never took hold among the Tewa. The Tewas did incorporate the Medicine and Sacred Clown societies into their religious activities. Archaeologists have traced their tracks east from the Four Corners to the South San Juan Mountains, where they turned south and first built homes in New Mexico around Ojo Caliente. From there, they spread further south into the valley of the Rio Chama and then spread out there for a hundred years.

As more and more Dineh and Apaches came into the area in the 1400s, the Tewa moved downstream along the Chama. Some of them moved up onto the Pajarito Plateau while others sorted out into small villages on the east side of the Rio Grande. Shortly some of them came to the southern edge of the Santa Fe River Basin and found the Galisteo Creek Basin on the other side populated by Eastern Keres people. It was the same when they came to the mouth of the Santa Fe River at the Rio Grande: further south along the river was populated by other Eastern Keres people. And just upstream across the Rio Grande was the outlet of Frijoles Canyon, home of many Eastern Keres people in the 1400s and 1500s.

There were indigenous Tanoan people already living throughout the Rio Grande area and the two groups merged reasonably well. Somewhere in this time period, sodalities came into being: the Summer People and the Winter People. Some archaeologists believe the incoming Tewa became the Summer People and the Tanoans became the Winter People, based on the fact the incoming Tewas brought new seeds, new agricultural and ceramic technology, new dances and new religion. When the Spanish first arrived in the area around 1540 CE, the Tewa Basin was well occupied by the merged Tewa/Tano people. Those Tanoans who preferred not to merge built separate pueblos for themselves in more marginal areas in the Santa Fe and Galisteo River basins. Depopulation began after the Spanish left and didn't take their various diseases with them. It was after Don Diego de Vargas arrived in 1598 that the survivors were separated into their separate villages and restricted to those.

The Northern Tewa

The Northern Tewa design pallette contains a number of motifs common to many puebloan societies: hummingbirds, turtles, tadpoles, quails, owls, deer, hands, hoof prints, bird tracks and more. It's easy to see how many evolved from designs from the Flower World Complex of central Mexico. The Santa Clara and Nambé avanyu is a winding serpent with usually, one or three feathers on the top of its head. The San Ildefonso avanyu usually has a three- or five-pronged plume on its head. The avanyu itself is evolved from images of Quetzalcoatl. While the avanyu is the protective spirit of water and springs it also represents what happens when there's a heavy rain in the desert: flash floods that can wipe out whole villages.

Most San Ildefonso potters paint their decorations, only a few work with sgraffito decorations and a few work with inlaid stones and heishi beads. At Santa Clara, potters carve, scratch and paint their pieces, then sometimes reheat them with a blowtorch and mount stones on them... almost anything goes. The design palette is traditional to trend-setting contemporary, although the subject matter is usually the avanyu, or hummingbirds, turtles, quails, fish, deer, bear paws and bear claws, etc.

Because they had easy access to micaceous clay, the people of Nambé and Ohkay Owingeh built a brisk business in making micaceous pots and cookware, similarly to the people of Taos and Picuris at the time. More recently, Lonnie Vigil and Robert Vigil have produced micaceous pottery at Nambé while Clarence Cruz has been producing micaceous cookware and utensils at Ohkay Owingeh.

The people of Ohkay Owingeh decided to start over after essentially losing their pottery tradition in the 1800s. They never stopped making utilitarian pottery but even that declined in the late 1800s. In the 1920s, when it was decided they would work to revive a purely Ohkay Owingeh tradition, they settled on the designs found on some prehistoric pottery that had been found while digging in an old Tewa pueblo on Ohkay Owingeh land. The pottery was dated to the few decades before the Spanish arrived, hence: pre-contact and innocent of European influence. Their definition of Potsuwi'i pottery is very specific as to the colors and textures of the clay used and the designs carved, scratched or painted on them. Many of the design patterns are reflective of rock art from a thousand years ago.

The Southern Tewa

The Santa Fe Basin is where the Southern Tewa settled. They seem to have followed the idea that "further south is a better life," and they kept going south until they came up against other relatively entrenched people (migrants spreading out from Santo Domingo into the Galisteo Creek Basin). The Santa Fe Basin showed signs of having been occupied by the Tanoan people off-and-on over the centuries. It was a marginal landscape for farming but it was up against the Cerrillos Hills where they found turquoise, silver and lead ore. The turquoise trade was very profitable for some but the lead ore made possible different design techniques to use on fired pottery. The potters of the village did well producing lead-glazed pottery (not sealed, glazed only where the lead paint was applied and then ran in the heat of the fire).

In 1692, when the Spanish arrived in full force to reconquer northern New Mexico, most of the Tewa people in Tewa Basin gathered atop Black Mesa, a volcanic plug that sits between Santa Clara and San Ildefonso Pueblos. They stayed up there for months, almost impervious to Spanish attack. Eventually, though, they made a deal with the Spanish and returned to their various pueblos.

Shortly after that, the Spanish issued an order limiting access to the lead mines at the Cerrillos Hills to Spanish citizens only and, with that, the Southern Tewa lost their last possibility for remaining in a parched landscape. Because of the boundaries imposed by the Spanish, they all ran north in the night to the area of Chimayo. That didn't work out quickly, so they moved to the area of Santa Clara, again during the night. That didn't work out either as they were challenged by a Spanish priest and they killed him. From there they moved quickly to the area of Zuni, then up to First Mesa where they made a deal with the people of Walpi and were shortly living in their own village near the base of First Mesa. Over the centuries they came to be known as the Hopi-Tewa. In that same time period many of the religious aspects of Hopi society have made their way into Hopi-Tewa society. The Hopi-Tewa design pallette consists mostly of designs revived from potsherds found around the ancient pueblos of Awatovi, Sikyátki, Payupki and Kawaika'a, all of which are in the vicinity of the Hopi mesas.

About Bowls

The bowl is a basic utilitarian shape, a round container more wide than deep with a rim that is easy to pour or sip from without spilling the contents. A jar, on the other hand, tends to be more tall and less wide with a smaller opening. That makes the jar better for cooking or storage than for eating from. Among the Ancestral Puebloans both shapes were among their most common forms of pottery.

Most folks ate their meals as a broth with beans, squash, corn, whatever else might be in season and whatever meat was available. The whole village (or maybe just the family) might cook in common in a large ceramic jar, then serve the people in their individual bowls.

Bowls were such a central part of life back then that the people of the Classic Mimbres society even buried their dead with their individual bowls placed over their faces, with a "kill hole" in the bottom to let the spirit escape. Those bowls were almost always decorated on the interior (mostly black-on-white, color came into use a couple generations before the collapse of their society and abandonment of the area). They were seldom decorated on the exterior.

It has been conjectured that when the great migrations of the 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th centuries were happening, old societal structures had to change and communal feasting grew as a means to meet, greet, mingle with and merge newly arrived immigrants into an already established village. That process called for larger cooking vessels, larger serving vessels and larger eating bowls. It also brought about a convergence of techniques, styles, decorations and design palettes as the people in each locality adapted. Or didn't: the people in the Gallina Highlands were notorious for their refusal to adapt and modernize for several hundred years. They even enforced a No Man's Land between their territory and that of the Great Houses of Chaco Canyon, killing any and all foreign intruders. Eventually, they seem to have merged with the Towa as those people migrated from the Four Corners area to the southern Jemez Mountains.

Traditional bowls lost that societal importance when mass-produced cookware and dishware appeared. But, like most other Native American pottery in the last 150 years, market forces caused them to morph into artwork.

Bowls also have other uses. The Zias and the Santo Domingos are known for their large dough bowls, serving bowls, hair-washing bowls and smaller chili bowls. Historically, these utilitarian bowls have been decorated on their exteriors. More recently, they've been getting decorated on the interior, too.

The bowl has also morphed into other forms, like Marilyn Ray's Friendship Bowls with children, puppies, birds, lizards and turtles playing on and in them. Or Betty Manygoats' bowls encrusted with appliqués of horned toads or Reynaldo Quezada's large, glossy black corrugated bowls with custom ceramic black stands.

When it comes to low-shouldered but wide circumference ceramic pieces (such as many Sikyátki-Revival and Hawikuh-Revival pieces are), are those jars or bowls? Conjecture is that the shape allows two hands to hold the piece securely by the solid body while tipping it up to sip or eat from the narrower opening. That narrower opening, though, is what makes it a jar. The decorations on it indicate that it is more likely a serving vessel than a cooking vessel.

This is where our hindsight gets fuzzy. In the days of Sikyátki, those potters used lignite coal to fire their pieces. That coal made a hotter fire than wood or manure (which wasn't available until the Spanish brought it). That hotter fire required different formulations of temper-to-clay and mineral paints. Those pieces were perhaps more solid and liquid resistant than most modern Hopi pottery is: many Sikyátki pieces survived intact after being slowly buried in the sand and exposed to the desert elements for hundreds of years. Many others were broken but were relatively easy to reassemble as their constituent pieces were found all in one spot and they survived the elements. Today's pottery, made the traditional way, wouldn't survive like that. But that ancient pottery might have been solid enough to be used for cooking purposes, back in the day.

About the Avanyu

The avanyu is a mythical water creature likened to the feathered and plumed serpents of Mesoamerica. The design is primarily part of the design palette of Tewa potters from the Tewa Basin, and even there it varies by pueblo and artist. Wherever the artist is, the avanyu design generally represents the spirit of water rushing through a village after a downpour. The avanyu is also seen as the Keeper of Springs and Guardian of Water. The image is a prayer for rain with the realization of what a downpour can do when it falls on the hard soil of the arid and semi-arid Southwestern deserts.

Artists from San Ildefonso Pueblo generally use an avanyu design with a three-plumed head while Santa Clara Pueblo potters generally use an avanyu with three feathers hanging off the head. The avanyu always has a forked tongue, signifying the lightning bolts that herald its arrival. Some have simplified the design to one feather or plume while others have stylized the design and almost made it cubic or Oriental in design and layout.

Hopi-Tewa potters generally use a somewhat similar Hopi version of a flying, feathered serpent named kwataka. The Zuni version is Kolowisi, although it has been determined that the power of Kolowisi is too much for anyone who is not of Zuni descent so depictions of it have gotten almost as rare as depictions of kwataka.