Those are my questions and my challenge as I try to write about my times with Shelden.
Shelden Nuñez-Velarde is an award-winning potter from the Jicarilla-Apache tribe in Northern New Mexico. Best of show at Santa Fe Indian Market, Judges Choice at Southwest Indian Market in Tucson, pieces in museums and private collections. Shelden’s work catches people’s eyes. But what you see is only the surface, the physical result of all that Shelden is inside.
Shelden is one of those ageless people, a wise old soul who enjoys life as much as a child. I met him about 10 years ago when I took a week-long class from him at a retreat center in Northern New Mexico. It is not an exaggeration to say that I rank that week as one of my touchstones, one of the events in my life that would shape my life, would be a turning point, a redirection, a clarifying event. Why? Because it wasn’t just about pottery.
Art of any kind has the power to touch people in places that are not accessible through words and logical thinking. Pottery, because it is so tactile, so hands-on, seems to be especially suited, or at least it is for me. For me, every step of the pottery process that week was meditative, trance-like, a slowing down of time, an experience of cares and worries losing their holding power because nothing mattered except the moment. The moment, the clay, the creating.
But it was not just the clay, the experience of making pots. It was Shelden. It was his method of teaching which I would more correctly call “sharing.” His method of sharing what he knows. That’s what he does. He does not teach A-B-C, 1-2-3. He does show us the steps. In order. But it’s more like he’s simply sharing what he’s doing. He shares. He demonstrates. And then he turns back to the piece he’s working on and allows people to get back to their own experience. He quietly worked on his piece and we followed suit. We learned by watching. We assumed the same quiet, mindful concentration that we witnessed in our mentor.
We ranged from beginners to experienced potters. We inspired each other. That is the beauty of working with other people. We were all learners, including Shelden. Shelden learned from his elders and is steeped in the traditional Jicarilla style. But he incorporates what he learns from his students – new ideas, new formations, new directions. That type of learning happens with an experienced teacher who is confident and open.
The steps. There is, of course, the forming of the bowls, the pots, the platters, the plates, the beads. So many ideas. So much variety.
The pieces dried fairly quickly in the high desert air. Then came the sanding, the smoothing off of rough corners. Done the old way with a rock. The smoother you got your pot, the more it would glow with a natural glaze. It took me a while to get into this step. Not as creative and engaging as creating. Monotonous. Boring at first. But then something happened. The scratching, abrasive sound became rhythmical. With a dozen people sanding, all conversation ceases. All sounds cease except for the rhythmical symphony of concentrated effort. That zone of mindfulness, of time losing its hold took hold.
Again, I would attribute that sense of meditation to Shelden’s presence with and in the process. Unhurried. Lost in his own thoughts, his own work. There was nothing to do but follow his lead. Be with the sanding just as we had been with the forming of the clay.
Burnishing was next. Adding a layer of slip saturated with mica to our pieces. Again with a stone, but this time a smooth one. Rubbing the mica slip into every surface of the pot, every little microscopic pin-hole. The more mica, the more gold shine.
Finally it was time for the magic. The real magic. The firing!
It doesn’t matter how many times I have experienced it, the firing is magical!
Unlike the ancients, we heated our pots first in the oven. Slowly. Starting at 200 and raising the temperature every 30 minutes until we reached 500. This helped assure that the pots were dry and ready for the fire, and helped prevent breakage from pots going too quickly from air temperature to fire.
The pots and platters and bowls and beads were left to cool and we, the creators, full to overflowing, jabbered, exclaimed, admired, celebrated.
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