Elizabeth Medina was born in Jemez in 1956 and later married Marcellus Medina and moved to his pueblo of Zia. We just received a new collection of these pieces.
The two Pueblos are right next to each other. In fact, the trade between Zia and Jemez is one of the reasons that there really was not a lot of pottery made at Jemez Pueblo early on. The Jemez People have beautiful agricultural land that is well-irrigated, and they were able to grow more food than the Pueblo needed.
The Zia people were not so lucky and, while they grow crops, they were not able to produce as much. It was a natural exchange between the two. Crops came to Zia while pots went to Jemez. It worked out well for both Pueblos.
At one time, Jemez had one of the largest populations in the Southwest with over 30,000 people. They made pots at one time but quit during the mid-1700s to prevent the conquering Spanish from confiscating them. The pottery art revived in the 1960s for the tourist market.
When Elizabeth married into the Zia Pueblo, she didn’t know how to make pottery. Her mother-in-law, Sophia Medina taught her how. As a non-Zia, she had to obtain permission for the elders of the Pueblo to use the traditional designs. She has made a lot of traditional pottery but has been one of the few people to make tiles.
Tiles are not a traditional Pueblo pottery item. In fact, they were first made at Hopi as a tool to help make pottery after trader Thomas Keam (Keam’s Canyon is named after him) began to encourage potters to make them as tourist items for companies like the Fred Harvey Hotels.
Initially, the tiles were made to be broken. It sounds strange, but when traditional Pueblo pottery is made, there must be a tempering agent mixed with the clay to hold it together and to provide strength. Some people used fine sand, but the Hopi people found that grinding up broken pottery worked best. The problem was that they ran out of broken pots, so they started to make flat, tile shaped pottery to break up and mix with the clay.
Keams saw them, asked the potters to decorate them and sold them as tourist items. The tiles are not easy to make as they will curl or, if they are not thick enough, they can break. For that reason, tiles are generally thicker than most pottery.
Tourism dropped off during the 1930s when the country went into a depression and tiles basically disappeared. Today, at Zia and Hopi, there is a small revival of these unique pieces by people like Elizabeth. The ones we are showing today were purchased directly from Elizabeth by Jack Barry, a trader who lives in Davis, California.