Lorraine Williams

Lorraine Williams, Diné

Navajo Indian Lorraine Williams, born in Arizona during the late 1950s, was not raised with the tradition of pottery making; she did not begin working with clay until her adulthood. Today, her immense tribal pots and colorful Indian icons have made Navajo pots more commercially viable than ever before.

Lorraine was raised in Sweetwater, Arizona (near Kayenta and Teec Nos Pas), on a red mesa near Four Corners. Her Navajo maiden name was Yazzie, which Lorraine says is one of the names the Anglos gave out years ago. Her grandfather was one of the few rangers at Mesa Verde. Her father was a medicine man, and her mother was an herbalist. Three of Lorraine's seventeen brothers and sisters also work in clay.

Lorraine says she was aware of "potteries" at Indian ceremonies when she was growing up but that she didn't know the pots were made at home; she thought they were bought. She did not know anyone at that time who made pottery except "an old lady near Shiprock" who made ceremonial clay drums. "My father would go over there to get pots for ceremony, but I just assumed the old lady got them somewhere, I didn't know she made them. [Now] I try not to assume. I could be wrong, and we try never to ask questions. Just put in your mind what you see, and someday you will use it."

Lorraine married George Williams in 1977, and today they live in Cortez, Colorado. George is the son of Rose Williams, one of the best-known Navajo potters, who had been making pottery for years to trade for food. Lorraine was adept at making beads and sand paintings, and she was a weaver. "But when I married George I saw pottery with new eyes." Her new eyes led to Lorraine's beginning with clay about 1980. Ultimately, Lorraine would make the largest pots produced at Navajo today.

"I didn't know how to draw. You don't want to compete with your in-laws. Rose didn't draw, so I decided to draw on the clay and to make cutouts. By mistake I made a hole in a pot, and I went ahead and cut it out."

Lorraine confides that she has had epilepsy all her life. "Everyone around me thought I had a taboo. No one believed that I really had epilepsy. It went away for about five years and I thought it had gone but it came back. I found that working with clay kept it away."

Lorraine and George have four children; George has two other children; and together they also care for six foster children. One of their sons has epilepsy too.

Lorraine told me the story of how one day she was hitchhiking to the hospital with her epileptic son when they came upon a black bear. "I thought he would attack us but I started to sing and he didn't. I'm traditional but bears are not in our tradition. We are afraid of them. We bring in someone in bear costume to someone who is ill to scare the spirit out. We use bear for that, otherwise bears are taboo. I don't know why he saved us that day."

Navajo weavers boil plant material - Lorraine calls them weeds - to make dyes for their yarn. Lorraine was used to doing that for her rugs, so she appropriated these colors in the beginning for decorating her clay. Her father, a very traditional man, did not like her using the plant colors, the same ones that were used for body paint in ceremonials, so he asked her not to do that.

For this reason Lorraine resorted to buying commercially made pigments for her designs on the clay, especially the gray-blue; but the red is a natural red sand that makes a grainy texture she likes. She fires each pot outside, separately and upside down, for about three hours with a lot of wood for a very hot burn. "We need lots of fire; it has to get very hot," Lorraine advises. "If wind comes, you lose the pot. We fire more in summer than in winter."

Navajo pots are historically coated with hot pitch after the firing to give a shiny, more impervious finish. For applying the piñon pitch, Lorraine brings the pot back from the firing site and puts it on her stove burner to heat up slowly. She says this can't be done outside because the weather change may thermally shock the hot pot and crack it. The bucket of pitch must be hot as well as the pot. "When the pot is black from the burner, I dip a stick with a rag or a paper tied on it into the hot pitch and swipe it in and out of my hot pot."

Pottery was not made for sale on this reservation until the 1980s when galleries sought the work. Lorraine says that Navajo pottery had been done previously just for functional and ceremonial use and to trade, not to sell. When they saw that the pots could bring money into that area, the families and relatives began to work together on pottery. Lorraine says that still the majority of pots are made for ceremony and "that's why no one knows much about Navajo pottery."

Navajo pottery has had its own category in the annual Gallup, New Mexico, Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial only the last five or so years. Lorraine is proud of the fact that she took the Best in Category prize for excellence in 1993. She also won other major awards at Flagstaff, Shiprock, Santa Fe, and Gallup.

I had despaired of finding a Navajo potter to feature in The Legacy of Generations exhibition, until one day I saw two huge, plain brown pots with a slight coiled texture at the shoulder in a gallery shop window in Santa Fe. These were remarkable pieces for their simplicity and style. I inquired about the maker, who was not known to the gallery; but the trader-provider was. It took many more inquiries to track down Lorraine. When I did, I also found her sister-in-law, Alice Cling, the daughter of Rose Williams. Together, these three women have electrified the future of pottery for the Navajo nation.

(Courtesy of Purdue University, from the series Women Artists of the American West, by Susan R. Ressler, 2003)