The Magic of the Clay: Part I

The clay process I follow is out of the Jicarilla and Tewa tradition. At the beginning of my apprenticeship I was told to start at its origin, to understand how the clay came to be known and shared in the form of utilitarian vessels. Here is what I learned of this legend. There are many stories told and shared. I hope this one brings you closer to understanding the unique beauty and value of these vessels.

There is a Jicarilla, Tewa legend that defines the American southwest landscape as the body of White Shell Woman, a revered and powerful mother. Pikes Peak is her head, the Sangre de Cristos and San Juans form her legs, the great Pedernal and Rock Bell Mountain her nipples. Her heart is the land of Taos and it is said that through her heart four sacred rivers flow: the Rio Grande, the Canadian, the Arkansas, and the Chama. The Rio Grande forms her backbone. There are many unique rituals and long held prayers that honor White Shell Woman and the sacred clay from her belly.

A view of the Pedernal, Nipple of the World, taken from the casita where I stayed and worked during my apprenticeship. Copyright Donna D'Orio 2014

A view of the Pedernal, Nipple of the World, taken from the casita where I stayed and worked during my apprenticeship. Copyright Donna D’Orio 2014

In the Jicarilla and Tewa tradition, the inner spirits driving all life and directing purpose are known as Hactine, or mountain spirits. Their purpose is to provide guidance and protection for the people. The Hactine reside within the great White Shell Woman. Ever watchful, they preside over her human children. It is within the heart of White Shell Woman that this story unfolds.


The Myth of White Shell Woman

Long ago, in the land of enchantment, an old man and woman were sleeping and dreaming together in their earthen home. In their dream, the Hactin of clay appeared and visited them. He brought the man and woman into a sacred mountain place within the body of the great mother, White Shell Woman. Here, they were shown pockets of earth, glittering with mica. The Hactin told them, from this earth you will make clay. To the man they said, it is your job to dig the raw earth–use this digging stick and harvest. To the woman they said, it is your work to shape the clay–use your hands and build vessels. Always honor the body of the Great Mother and her gift of earth. In so doing, she will provide for your people. So began a relationship between the people and the clay, which continues today.


And so, we have had a glimpse into the ancient beginnings of the clay with which I work. In part II, I will share some of the clay harvest process as it is still done to this day, and as it was shown to me. I hope you enjoy being a part of this journey!

Micaceous clay water bowl by Donna D'Orio

Micaceous clay water bowl by Donna D’Orio

8 thoughts on “The Magic of the Clay: Part I

  1. So beautiful Donna! Your words flow like magic! The beauty of your work shines through! Such an amazing partnership between the land/clay and the element of fire. Stunning! Thank you for sharing.

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