Visitors to the Museum of the West

Visitors to the Museum of the West linger over the world-class Hopi pottery exhibit that features 65 pieces dating back more than 600 years. Informational placards guide visitors through the diffrences between different generations of the art.

Scottsdale’s Museum of the West – the Smithsonian-affiliated institution dedicated to all things western – is home to a world-class Hopi pottery exhibit that would fit right in at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

The permanent exhibition, titled Canvas of Clay: Hopi Pottery Masterworks from The Allan and Judith Cooke Collection, features over 65 pieces of pristine Hopi pottery dating back to the 1400s. 

Though most of the pottery was crafted with an actual utilitarian use in mind, it is now celebrated the world over for its uniqueness and beauty.

“I’m amazed at how the potteries have lasted centuries and centuries and how much it has evolved now to where the art (is recognized worldwide),” said Rose Hawee, a Hopi consultant who works with the museum.

While the jars and vessels on display have some similarities, they also carry striking artistic and functional differences that are related to the era in which they were built.

The exhibition has the pieces separated by time period and includes informational placards to help visitors learn more about the differences between pottery from differing time periods.

The exhibit includes works by 22 master potters, including 18 by Nampeyo of Hano, who was born in First Mesa on ancestral Hopi land in what is now northeastern Arizona and lived from around 1860 until 1942.

Nampeyo, considered by many to be the godmother of modern Hopi pottery, developed a worldwide reputation during her lifetime, with fans and art aficionados traveling from all over the globe to see her work.

“A part of the great importance of this collection is the number of Nampeyo’s we have,” said Tricia Loscher, assistant director and head curator at Museum of the West.

Lauded for her natural talent, Nampeyo was heralded for bringing back some of the stylistic techniques, including Sikyatki Polychrome, in her ancestors’ pottery. She was inspired by patterns found on pieces located at Sikyatki ruins on First Mesa.

Though archaeologist Jesse Walter Fewkes’ 1895 excavation of pottery at the Sikyatki ruins is often credited for introducing Nampeyo to these styles, evidence suggests she discovered the patterns on her own a decade before Fewkes’ excavation, according to the book “Nampeyo and Her Pottery” by Barbara Kramer.

The Hopi pottery tradition is still carried on today by artists like Rachel Sahmie, Nampeyo’s great-great-granddaughter, who handcrafts pottery from clay she collects from specific locations on the Hopi Reservation.

For Sahmie, making pottery connects her to her ancestors.

”When I’m firing, I feel like all the energy and all the beauty in what I create is going up,” Sahmie told Arizona Highways Television. “I know that my mom is there watching. My ancestors that have done this before – they are there and it’s just so special when you sit out there and you can see the swirls.”

Scottsdale’s Museum of the West received the extensive collection through a donation from Dr. Allan Cooke, who spent over 30 years collecting pieces with his late wife Judith Cooke.

The Australian medical doctor said he has always been an avid collector and became interested in Hopi pottery after taking a trip through the Southwestern U.S. at his wife’s behest and bought a piece of Hopi pottery in Santa Fe.

“I said to my wife, ‘I’m going to collect Hopi pottery because it was the most beautiful pottery I have ever seen,” Cooke told the Scottsdale Progress.

Over the years, the Cookes amassed a collection of over 130 pieces, about half of which are currently on display at the museum.

“When I went from spending $1,000 to a couple thousand dollars and then that jumped to $8,000, I thought it was the end of the world that I would spend that much on a piece of pottery,” Cooke said. “But the more I knew and the more I got educated, I could see that there was a whole great history of Hopi pottery going back seven centuries.”

After his wife passed away, Cooke made the decision to sell or donate his pottery so that others could enjoy it.

He said he was impressed after meeting with Museum of the West Director Michael Fox and that Fox’s commitment to provide permanent, dedicated displays for the exhibit in the museum won him over.

“When you decide to give it away, you have to decide where to give it to and most (institutions) say thank you and then it goes into the basement,” Cooke said. “But at Museum of the West, there is dedicated space and that was a real plus in deciding to give to (that museum).”

Cooke said he also thought the exhibit belonged in Arizona.

“I thought that this collection should go back to where it originated,” he said.

That question of where the pottery belongs is a critical one.

The significance of the exhibition could lead some to question whether or not it belongs in Scottsdale – which is over 200 miles away from the Hopi Nation.

Loscher said the museum is sensitive to the pottery’s important place within Hopi history and that it brought on Hawee, a Hopi tribal member, as a consultant to help coordinate with the tribe.

Hawee put Loscher in contact with Hopi elders, who examined photos of the collection to ensure that it did not include any pieces that were used in ceremonies and should not be displayed.

“The Hopi elders looked at these pots and said they were fine to display,” Loscher said.

Loscher said that the museum also relies on the expertise of Director Michael Fox, who has a long history as an advocate for the proper treatment of Native American artifacts.

Fox, who previously served as the director of The Heard Museum in Phoenix, helped craft federal legislation known as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act that went into effect in 1990.

The Act requires federal agencies and other organizations that receive federal funding to return culturally-sensitive artifacts to Native American tribes.

Hawee said she sees no problem with the exhibit’s location in Scottsdale and that it could actually be an asset to help increase interest in Hopi traditions, such as pottery making, amongst the younger generation, many of whom do not live on the reservation.

“I’m just trying to spread the word about the exhibit – go see it, go see it, go see it,” she said.

Members of Native American tribes can receive free admission to the museum through Dec. 30, 2018.

Hawee said there are still some younger people who have taken an interest in Hopi pottery, like artist Garrett Maho, whose work “Talking with Clay” won a Best in Show designation at the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market in March.

Still, she said it can be difficult for those off the reservation to keep up with the tradition because it requires a huge time commitment and some materials that can only be found around the reservation. “People often ask me ‘Oh, how many hours?” Sahmie told Arizona Highways. “It’s like ongoing; it’s like an everyday thing.”

Hawee said she hopes younger people will look to practicing potters – like Sahmie who lives on the Hopi Nation and has pottery on display at Museum of the West – to learn more about the age-old trade.

“It would be nice to see the younger generation continue with it, so it does not die out,” Hawee said.