The Magic of the Clay: Part II

The harvest and creation

My first experience with digging clay was in a little arroyo in Colorado. I was part of a small vessel-building class. With my shovel, I worked along the walls of the arroyo harvesting earth and hoping that by the end of the day I would have enough to make a small bowl. The earth I brought back did not resemble clay—it was a dry composite of loose dirt, rocks, twigs, insect carcasses and all sorts of organic matter. It seemed impossible that I would turn this into a vessel. As I kneaded my little ball of clay I felt I was on a timeless journey, an odyssey rooted in a faraway place that I had been before. Holding in my hand this generative clay from the land where I was born took me back to the moment of first breath, first seeing and smelling, first moment of being birthed. From this internal place I formed my little trinket bowl and beads. I thought, what a marvelous thing this is, to return to the beginning of things, to dig earth, make clay and birth form. I did not know at that time that I would go on to explore clay in the traditional form practiced for hundreds of years by our native peoples.

Time passed, and—after too long a time away—I found myself back in the land of Pueblos and clay, learning this tradition from warm and wonderful teachers. Here is my first little bowl—it sits on my shelf, reminding me of the value of beginning again.

My first clay bowl and beads.

My first clay bowl and beads.

The clay I am so fortunate to work with is found in the mountains of New Mexico. Eroding sheets of Precambrian mica sheets provide the deposits where traditional potters harvest clay. A master potter knows when the time is right, where to dig and what earth sources will result in a clay worthy of making a vessel. They bring their tools: strong arms, straight backs, good shovels, and reverence. As with all aspects of this traditional art form, there are appropriate seasons for the digging, special songs and prayers, many blessings, and a remarkable gratefulness. Before the earth is disturbed, a corn meal offering is made. Upon completion, the hole is covered and the earth is left as before. The clay harvested receives a prayer and corn meal offering to give thanks. These are the ingredients for a successful dig. As my teachers have taught, the Jicarilla/Tewa belief is that the digging of the clay is symbolic of the “ impregnation of clay with the creative intentions of the potter.” I feel profound respect for this relationship to earth and art.


Once the harvest is back at the studio, it sits in a big pile until the washing begins. But first, before the washing of the clay, is the washing of human hands—a ritual honoring the divine within the body of White Shell Woman. The potter finds her own inner divinity through the discipline of holding steadfast to these ordinary yet profound disciplines. They become worthy of birthing from their hands the clay children they will send out into the world. To engage in a conscious relationship with the mythology of this traditional art form is to enter into a place of uniting the potter with the clay.

The washing happens this way: First the clay must be cleaned and filtered, big stones and debris are removed by hand and then the earth is put in buckets. Water is added to create a mixture of half clay and half water. The clay must sit for many days until it has soaked up the water. Once the clay has taken in the water, it is strained through painters cloth to remove any remaining debris. The filtering is called slaking.


When the clay is clean, it is poured into a large wooden mold where excess water will continue to drain, allowing the clay to dry. It is then worked into a malleable form suitable for the forming of vessels.


I love the beautiful color of the clay as it is sitting in the trough with the sun shining down on it. Once it is ready, it is rolled into balls and packed into bags to be stored.

Squares of clay that will be mixed with water to become slip -- used to seal and burnish the surface of the pots.

Squares of clay that will be mixed with water to become slip — used to seal and burnish the surface of the pots.

Unlike commercial clay, the native clay is made in small batches out of respect for our mother. It is highly valued. Each clay maker has their way; they are in relationship with the land and know her textures and colors. They know her seasons, when she is moist and forgiving or dry and closed. For the conscientious clay maker, this earth is not a lifeless object to be used recklessly. The earth is the breathing spirit of the mother who offers herself as a holy Eucharist to her children. This is an amazing organic process dating back in the Northern Rio Grande region to AD 1300.

My personal cooking pot, which I use every day.

My personal cooking pot, which I use every day.

To purchase my micaceous clay vessels, visit the Pine Cone Alley Studio Etsy shop, or contact me personally at

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

Zen Practice and Clay – an essay

The following essay originally appeared in the June 2013 newsletter for the Seven Thunders Zen community. I am so honored to have been asked to contribute my reflections on the relationship between my Zen practice and my clay practice. Perhaps these words will resonate with other artists — I would love hear your thoughts. A bow to you, my friends.

Reflections on Practice and Clay

“[She] may be unlettered … but it is not from these causes that beauty is produced. [She] rests in the protecting hand of nature. The power of folkcraft is the kind that comes from dependence on Other Power. Natural material, natural process, and an accepting heart—these are the ingredients necessary at the birth of folkcraft.”

—The Unknown Craftsman, Sōetsu Yanagi

Each day is filled with the art of practice. In the moment that we believe we hold mastery, we are shown that, in fact, we are at the beginning. This is my experience each time I sit in zazen and each time I form a ball of clay. It is only in letting go of any preconceived notion of a final outcome that I am able to bring the clay into its form. The same is true in sitting— as I position myself and find the focus of my breath, I do not know what the nature of my sitting will be. I am a novice both in my Zen practice and in my work in clay.

Suzuki Roshi said, “ It is about returning to beginner’s mind again and again. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for something. In beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

black micaceous cooking potIt is through the power of beginner’s mind that we cultivate the capacity for listening—and in listening we find the fertile ground of “I don’t know mind.”  Here in the not-knowing mind, where we open to listening, lies the opportunity to respond to our creative energy and to discover intimacy.

Clay, like any art form, asks for our willingness to be intimate. The path of Zen brings us into our most intimate relationship—the primary relationship we have with ourselves. Like Zen, clay brings me into relationship with myself. It is persistent in reflecting back to me what is most present in that moment.

My work is focused on a specific clay that is hand-harvested in the hills of New Mexico and the Colorado Plateau. This native, primary clay is processed in small batches according to ancient Native American tradition. We dig with a shovel and start at the beginning, with a pile of earth full of twigs, rocks, insect remains and the debris of life lived there. From this, we follow step by step, breath by breath, a specific, unchanging process to arrive at liberating the clay. Like zazen: breath by breath, sit by sit, we let go of the notions of our thinking and reside with the self within. We, too, are a ready clay waiting to emerge according to our potential.

micaceous clay potsThis discipline of being with breath and the cultivation of a present mind translates to my work with clay—it is what allows the vessel to shape and form. The very moment that distraction sets in, the clay responds like a cranky child. This is where my practice and my work with clay meet.

My focus with clay is shaping utilitarian vessels for cooking and drinking.  The vessels support the aesthetics of my practice as well as the nutritive aspects of healthy food preparation. Drinking from my water bowls, one touches upon the flavor and coolness of a pure spring. Soup from my cooking pot is transformed by the alkalinity of the clay and finishes with a rich wholesome quality. Both vessels grace the table with their beauty, each one alive in its process of interaction with the elements inside and reflecting this through its ever-changing patina. They are not just a bowl or a pot; they become a member of the family.

My intention is to create vessels that evoke the values inherent in a conscious life. My hope is that those who use them discover how they can become a part of their internal life within the most basic tasks of being human, to eat and to drink.

Donna D’Orio is a Zen practitioner, artist, mother, and grandmother. In each practice, she is at the beginning every day. Her micaceous clay cooking and drinking vessels may be viewed and purchased at For more information or to chat about a custom order, you may reach her at or

Corn Mother Cross

I have just completed and shipped this painted cross to my friend, Sister Joanna, at the Abiquiu Mission. I chose to represent the Corn Mother, who symbolically represents all life cycles — germination, growth, fruition, death, and dormancy.

We, like the Corn Mother, experience these aspects of divine transfiguration. I felt her to be a profound figure for enriching a life of prayer. I am honored to have her housed on the altar of Sister Joanna’s prayer room.