January 16, 2017
Meet Elizabeth Medina, widely considered to be the most skilled potter working in Zia Pueblo today. Her pots feature incredible craftsmanship, elegance of form, and exquisitely painted designs, all of which reflect Zia traditions.
Medina was one of five Pueblo potters who honored the Starbucks at Avanyu Plaza upon its grand opening in 2015 by crafting a custom “Starbucks-style” clay mug. The one-of-a-kind piece is on permanent display in the cafe for visitors to enjoy, alongside four others by artists Robin Teller (Isleta), Erik Fender (San Ildefonso), Patricia Lowden (Acoma), and Frederica Antonio (Acoma).
Medina recently talked with us at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center about her work as a potter over the decades and how she approached the popular mug project.
This is part of our Meet the Artists Behind the Cups series talking with all five of the potters who crafted clay Starbucks mugs. Check out all five posts!
January 2, 2017: Robin Teller’s Isleta Pottery
January 9, 2017: Erik Fender’ San Ildefonso Pottery
January 16, 2017: Elizabeth Medina’s Zia Pottery
January 23, 2017: Frederica Antonio’s Acoma Pottery
January 30, 2017: Patricia Lowden’s Acoma Pottery
I’ve heard that you grew up in Jemez Pueblo but that you now live and work in Zia. Could you explain how that came to be?
I’m originally from Jemez Pueblo, and as a child I used to help my mother make pottery up there. I moved to Zia when I married my husband, Marcellus Medina. As the tradition goes within most of our Pueblos, when you get married you go where your husband takes you.
When we got married, my in-laws and my husband’s grandfather put me up to the tribal leaders here in the Pueblo and requested for me to become a tribal member. Permission was granted, and the Pueblo was opened to me as if I were born here.
So I left my Pueblo in Jemez and now I’m a member of the Pueblo of Zia, and with that change I was allowed to make the Zia pottery. I learned from my mother-in-law, Sofia Medina, who was a famous potter here in Zia.
You say you were allowed to make Zia pottery. Does that mean that certain techniques are kept private and only shared among those within the Pueblo?
There’s no secret here, it’s just that as a person coming from a different Pueblo, when I arrived they gave me permission to go ahead and make pottery here in the Zia style.
Did you bring any techniques or styles from Jemez Pueblo?
I brought nothing at all. I left everything at Jemez, and I picked up everything from the Zia style, the technique, everything here in the Pueblo.
What is it that’s unique about the Zia style that was different for you?
Everything was different from Jemez to Zia—the unique style, the clay itself. It’s a different type of clay here, the kaolinite. Especially different is the tempering that goes in the clay to mix the clay to form a pot. We temper the clay with basaltic rock, which we pound down to a fine powder to mix in.
And that’s the technique you used when making your Starbucks mug?
Yes, everything I did with the mug is all traditional. There’s really no difference from my other pottery. The clay is the same, the process from the clay stage to the firing process is all the same, it’s all traditional clay and colors and firing.
How long did it take you to make this mug, from gathering the clay to the final firing?
It took me probably about three weeks. I worked on different pieces at the same time, because I have to let them sit and dry, all that—picking the clays, gathering up the clays, soaking the clays, the mixing, the forming, the drying process. And then the painting and the firing process.
Do you paint all of your pottery, or only the pieces that are meant to be decorative?
I’m used to decorating most of my pieces with typical Zia designs like rainbows and birds and flowers. I’m always decorative with my pieces. The only ones that usually aren’t decorated at all are a few that we use to make puddings and things like that—the ones we use to bake food in the oven, the outside horno. See more pottery by Medina HERE >>
Some of the other artists’ mugs broke the first time around because the shape was so unusual. It sounds like you didn’t have that issue.
With this particular mug, I didn’t have any problem at all. From the start to the finish it was like the spirits just gave me—to make the pot, it just came out perfect the first try.
There are other times I have problems: sometimes pots crack during the drying process, sometimes they crack during the firing. But this particular mug went beautifully all the way through. No problem at all.
Can you explain more what you mean about the spirits, or is that a private matter?
As Native Americans, we’re always asking for good thoughts, good blessings. When I start a piece of pottery I always ask the spirits to bless me and give me good thoughts while I’m making the piece. Sometime your prayers are answered and there’s no problem, and there are times when they crack or something happens.
That’s what we go through as potters, but we tell the spirits that even though they gave us a cracked one it’s okay. We’ll accept what happened to the pot and move on, and hopefully the next one that we create will be good. It’s just the way that I feel when I start a new piece of pottery.
Pay a visit to Medina’s pottery at the Starbucks at Avanyu Plaza and you can experience her piece in person. The beautiful sculpting and painted design speak to the love she infuses into all her pottery. Also see more of her pottery online at shumakolowa.com
Starbucks at Avanyu Plaza
2400 12th St NW
Albuquerque, NM 87104
Open 7 days a week from 6am to 8pm.