Erik Fender’s San Ildefonso Pottery

January 9, 2017

Erik Fender is a fourth or fifth or sixth generation potter—he’s not sure precisely how far back the tradition goes: “As far as I know all my great-great-great-great-great-grandmas were potters,” he says, “Down to one of my uncles who was a potter, and my mother who’s a potter, and then myself. Now my son is also a potter!”

True to his family heritage, Fender continues to sculpt vessels in the iconic black-on-black style of his home, San Ildefonso Pueblo. After firing he often adds his own personal, signature touches in the form of beads, silver leaf, and pieces of precious turquoise. He signs all his pieces with his Native name, “Than Tsideh,” which means Sunbird in the Tewa language of San Ildefonso.

Fender was also 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), Elizabeth Medina (Zia), Patricia Lowden (Acoma), and Frederica Antonio (Acoma).

Fender joined us at the Starbucks at Avanyu Plaza on December 21 to celebrate the cafe’s one-year anniversary and talk about his pottery with his many fans.

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

How long have you been making pottery?

Oh gosh, since I was probably twelve, thirteen years old. At that time I was just making little figurines or pots, but I became more serious about pottery probably about twenty-five years ago.

erik-fender-san-ildefonsoTell us about the “Starbucks” mug you sculpted last year. Would you say your piece is representative of San Ildefonso pottery?

The design part of it is typical San Ildefonso black-on-black style, the style that Maria Martinez developed. But every now and then in a piece, just to make it my own, I’ll do something a little different. Especially now that I’m doing jewelry, working as a silversmith also, I incorporate silver in some of my pottery after firing. This mug uses all traditional materials and all traditional techniques, I just added the sterling silver leaf, turquoise, and heishi beads afterward.

The clay you used, the sculpting process, and the firing were all traditional?

The good thing about black pottery is you always know it’s fired in the traditional way outdoors. That’s the only way to get the black: you have to smother it.

That black piece started out as red clay, and it’s only in the reduction that it becomes black. We build an oven with cedar wood and cow dung, which is like charcoal briquettes: when the dung ashes over, that’s when it’s at its hottest and we know to smother the fire. We cover it with horse manure to trap all the smoke inside the mound and turn the clay black.

How long does that take from start to finish? erik-fender-signature

The whole process, including setting up, takes maybe three hours. It’s a really fast firing.

Our clay in San Ildefonso has a lot of volcanic ash in it as a temper, and that’s really resistant to thermal shock. After we light the fire, the oven goes from ambient air temperature to about fourteen, fifteen thousand degrees within maybe twenty minutes. When firing finishes and we open the oven, the pieces are still at least, say, a thousand degrees, but even in the dead of winter, we can take them out and set them to the side in the freezing air, and they don’t crack.

In total the pots are in the oven about half an hour before we smother them with manure, then another hour sealed in with the smoke. If the manure doesn’t burn through, I open the oven after about an hour, but if it starts burning through and it can’t trap the smoke anymore then I just go ahead and open it sooner.

So firing clay pottery in a traditional outdoor oven is an art as much as a science. There’s no thermometer, there’s no timer—it’s just your instincts as you watch the cow dung heat up and ash over, then watch the horse manure in case it burns through and starts letting smoke escape.

erik-fender-black-on-blackYeah. I really like to fire during the winter. Once I get the fire going and I smother it, you can still feel the heat coming out. A lot of times I’ll sit there with my cup of coffee and just watch the mound to see what it does. I just feel the heat and relax.

Of course, then when it’s ready to open you get jittery. “Oh, did they come out good or not?” You’re nervous when you open it to see if anything cracked or exploded. And if nothing did, “Phew!”

How often do your pieces crack during the firing process?

I’m probably at a success rate of about 95%. Now, when I was first doing pottery, like ten years ago or even before that, it was less, maybe 75%. Still pretty good!

Did you have any issues making this custom cup for the Starbucks?

The first one I made was exactly the size of the Starbucks venti cup. I didn’t take into account shrinkage, so it ended up being too small for the lid.

So then I did another one—but that one cracked in the drying.

The third round I did two, and one came out a little bit smaller, but the one on display here now came out perfect, exactly the right size for the lid. Usually if we sculpt a piece with a lid, we make the pot first and then make the lid to fit it, but this was the opposite—making the piece to fit the lid. It was a challenge.

It may have been a challenge, but the result is well worth it. Stop by the Starbucks at Avanyu Plaza to see Fender’s work in person and you’ll notice the precision with which he painted clay slip onto the mug’s surface before firing, including a shimmering micaceous border at the top courtesy of his family friend Lonnie Vigil of Nambe Pueblo.

Explore more artwork by Erik Fender at Shumakolowa.com >>

Starbucks at Avanyu Plaza
2400 12th St NW
Albuquerque, NM 87104
Open 7 days a week from 6am to 8pm.

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