January 2, 2017
Although Robin Teller tends to shy away from talking about herself or promoting her own work, it’s worth celebrating the beautiful pottery she creates. Teller began sculpting in 1988 and over nearly thirty years of work has become known for her iconic storytellers, nativity groupings, and polychrome vessels. She was born and raised in Isleta Pueblo by Stella Teller, herself an artist who has been actively making pottery since 1962.
Teller 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 Erik Fender (San Ildefonso), Elizabeth Medina (Zia), Frederica Antonio (Acoma), and Patricia Lowden (Acoma).
Teller recently took the time to discuss her process as an artist and how she overcame difficulties in designing her own interpretation of Starbucks-style pottery.
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
You’re from Isleta Pueblo, correct? Did you gather clay from Isleta to make your “Starbucks” mug?
I was born in Isleta Pueblo 62 years ago and continue to reside here. It is my home and my heart.
The clays, tuffa, and pigments for our pottery all come from different areas of the Pueblo. Some sites where we collect clay were used by our grandparents’ generations and other locations are newly found. Luckily, Isleta Pueblo has many resources for us. All one has to do is put some time and work into it and experiment.
What would you say is distinctive about Isleta’s pottery tradition compared with other Pueblos? Are there elements of the mug’s design that are particularly representative of Isleta’s pottery, or that are unique to you and your own personal style?
Isleta’s traditional designs have generationally been known as red and black on a white background, mostly fluid geometric designs of nature’s elements.
Historically our pottery was mostly made for utilitarian or ceremonial uses. Around the early 1900s, interaction with outsiders, trading, and selling to people at the railroad stations led our pieces to become more decorative in their designs and shapes, to appeal to visitors as collector items or souvenirs.
Traditional pottery-making in Isleta slowed down in the twentieth century to very minimal levels, if it happened at all. Then about the late 60s my mother decided to revive her style of traditional pottery-making. Since then only a handful of tribal members make pottery traditionally. Many paint ceramics with beautiful designs, but only a few dig clay, form pieces by hand, and so forth.
How did you approach the project of designing a piece of pottery based on a Starbucks cup?
When IPCC asked me to use traditional designs on the cup, much less sculpt the shape, I was intimidated. While I’m Isleta and do pottery, I have always made and painted my pieces from the perspective of sharing a message on each individual one.
My great-grandmother Emilia Carpio, my grandmother Felicita Jojola, and my mother Stella Teller all used traditional Isleta geometric patterns on their pottery, so I went back and looked at some of their pieces. From there I designed a centered cloud, light and heavy rain, and blossom leaves, which are representative of the element of water/air for continued life. While these designs are not specifically theirs, the spirit in the painting is for them.
What was the most challenging or interesting part of making this mug for you?
The troubles I encountered were in the shape and specific measurements to fit the lid. I made three cups; one broke before the sanding stage, and the other two experienced shrinkage. Finally, the one I painted won out after I added more clay to the lip area. Sanding the piece to a specific size and striving for perfection was quite a task.
After that, the painting was a joy—one step closer to finishing the challenge. While I primarily use the colors of black, red, and white, using other clays gives me about fifteen different shades of color. There were no problems in firing, thank God!
As an artist I let my work speak for itself. I am a perfectionist and will never let any creation out of my hands unless I’m happy. After all, they are my babies. Each piece is one of a kind, very detailed in shape and painting.
I use my pieces as a canvas of sorts. Each speaks a different message or experience, which I hope will connect with the viewer or collector. Before beginning work I always thank my Creator for the gift he has given me and follow the feelings of love, compassion, empathy, joy, and humanity with each creation.
View Teller’s handcrafted clay mug on display at the Starbucks at Avanyu Plaza alongside the other original pots sculpted by all five Pueblo potters in 2015.
Starbucks at Avanyu Plaza
2400 12th St NW
Albuquerque, NM 87104
Open 7 days a week from 6am to 8pm.