Kilned Visions; Ceramic Arts of the Lower Rio Grande

Words by Josue Ramirez
Edited by Abigail Vela

Ceramics throughout history give great insight into past civilizations’ way of life. From what ancient people cooked and ate to their rituals and technological advances. Clay ware can be a window to the bygone, yet it simultaneously expands from our ancient traditions into new unseen forms that merge functionality, design, and decorative art with the experience of the now. 

Prehistoric Connections

Huastecan Pottery from the A.E. Anderson collection housed at Texas Archeological Research Laboratory.

Some of the oldest potsherds found in the Lower Rio Grande Delta have been dated to approximately A.D. 1250/1300-1500. Some of those pieces are currently held in the Anderson Collection at the University of Texas at Austin. They include two gourd-like ollas, with and without handles, along with a cylindrical bowl decorated with intricate linear markings. 

Anthropologists attribute the vessels to the craft of peoples from the northern gulf coast in the current Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Veracruz. The pottery, called Huastecan Tancol Polychrome, is a “buff/cream body slip combined with black and red designs.” 

Exactly who made them or the manner that the ceramics arrived in the current region of the 956 requires more information to decipher. However, archaeological evidence suggests that the communities of the lower delta and the gulf coast were proficient tool and jewelry makers, primarily with shells. 

Because “no indigenous pottery has been found at sites on the lower Texas coast,“ most experts suggest an economy where an exchange for the pottery and other ornaments is more likely. Nevertheless, the exact connection among these communities remains an unearthed possibility. 

The repeated colonization and destruction of the people and land created disinvestment in the anthropological documentation/preservation of the local regional history, too. This makes it difficult for the current generations and scientists to clearly understand the original people’s ways of life and practices, including, if any, that of the ceramic craft. 

Ceramics Education

Similar to ancient cultures, ceramics are still mostly used to enjoy a meal or drink. When it comes to functional ware, the mindset that cheaper is better is the usual. Often there is little attention to the craftsmanship or to the design of a plate or cup, unless it is a souvenir or a very special gift. Perhaps that is part of the elusivity of the craft; that we consider it so worthless or so special that, either way, we cannot see ourselves as a part of it. 

The practical requirements for ceramic arts include access to expensive equipment (clay, a kiln, a pottery wheel, glazes, etc.) and knowledge that may seem daunting for newcomers. The development of local colleges and universities for the past half a century filled this gap and nurtured the budding environment and appreciation for the craft. 

Ceramics as an educational option locally began with the development of the fine arts degree by Panamerican University in the 70’s. Peggy Polinard was part of the first graduating class in the Bachelor in Fine Arts program with an emphasis on ceramics. 

“I ended up with a whole bunch of hours in ceramics, I took everything I could,” she recalls. Polinard’s memories of classes with Dr. Richard Hyslin, the big gas kiln, and the kick wheel at the “old campus” are as vibrant as the skills she learned. Now retired, Polinard enjoys practicing the craft she began almost fifty years ago more than ever.

Her Alma Mater, now called the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, currently offers a Masters Program in Ceramic Arts. South Texas College also offers introductory ceramic courses and, for the last 14 years, has hosted the South Texas Ceramic Showdown. 

The inclusion of arts into STEM, the growth of specialized high schools, and the dual enrollment programs are now introducing ceramic arts to younger generations. As a result, there are many more educational opportunities to become involved in the craft and the field than years ago.

In the Community

 

Younger audiences also have Tik Tok and Youtube tutorials only a phone screen away. Ceramicists, like everyone, utilize social media to connect to enthusiasts and the general online community. Instagram introduced me to ceramics at the height of the Pandemic.

I followed the work of Carla Hughes, a studio potter and sculptor on Instagram. I reached out when she offered free materials for a ceramic workshop online to individuals who identified as POC or Queer. 

She enthusiastically lent me some scooping and marking tools, a wedge, and about 5 pounds of clay. I made a Kurinuki pot through an online workshop. Afterward, Carla bisque fired the pieces and helped me glaze them. As an artist, it was a healing experience and formative experience.

This is the type of relationship to clay and fellow artists that Hughes sought to create. A graduate of UTRGV, Hughes made pots out of her shed for years. She worked to open Carla Hughes Studio in downtown Harlingen in 2019, months before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Carla Hughes, artist. Photo by Carla Hughes.

While a significant roadblock to her goal of creating a close-knit clay community, she continued her practice despite uncertainty. As safety guidelines changed, she began workshops and hosting regional artists. She met more and more people of all ages, from beginners to experienced artists. 

In collaboration with Trucha, Hughes is currently hosting the inaugural Rio Grande Ceramic Residency featuring artist Souther Recio. This unique program provides the resources, time and space for the resident artist to create new social justice oriented ceramic work under Hughes’ guidance. Opportunities for ceramic artists to develop and to feature their work locally is still limited, but along with Hughes’ work, there are signs of progress. 

Most recently, the establishment of Clay Valley Studio in Weslaco by Nydia Salinas and Andres Alejandro Aceves has brought a new ceramics space to the Mid Valley community. Clay Valley offers workshops where individuals can learn wheel throwing to glazing premade cups. 

Salinas and Aceves want to recreate the collaborative vibe they felt in the university studio in a non-academic setting. They explain that many clay artists in the RGV are based out of the university or have individual studios. “The community that we would like to see is with ceramicists in the area who would need a space and would like to work here to kinda share it. We do want to offer a work area, access to the wheel, and firings too,” said Aceves.  

Pottery and tableware made by Carla Hughes Studio. Images by Carla Hughes.
Pottery and tableware made by Carla Hughes Studio. Images by Carla Hughes.
Alejandro Aceves teaching a wheel throwing workshop. Images by Clay Valley Studio.
Moon Cup by Clay Valley Studios. Image by Clay Valley Studio.

Ready to Fire

Along the Lower Rio Grande, the complete regional history of ceramics is still contemptuous. Despite (or because of) the long history, the contemporary clay world continues to face obstacles caused by colonialism and capitalism, like industrialization and lack of accessibility. It makes the craft appear seemingly uncommon even though locally, the contemporary practice and educational field have been around since the latter half of the 20th century. 

 

The craft of ceramics has been cared for by local makers, artists that kiln fire their visions, and stories of place in the clay medium. Supporting the practice of ceramic creators in the now also shows an appreciation for the work of ancient artists, tradespeople, and individuals who molded humanity from earth. It is important to acknowledge the role of ceramics in our history as well as the current efforts of clay artists regionally. The shards of their work might be the future remnants of our experiences.  




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