Nampeyo spun the clay between her hands, forming a long coil. Placing the coil on a flattened clay bottom, she wound it up and around, pressing gently as she worked so the clay rope would adhere.
A second coil was added, then a third until the Hopi woman had formed the shape and size she desired. Taking a gourd, she smoothed the surface of the newly formed pot inside and out, left the pot to dry in the sun, then rubbed it with fine sandstone. She polished the vessel with a flat wet stone before preparing the paints to decorate her container.
She mixed red, white and dark-brown minerals with water. Beeweed or mustard plants boiled to a thick syrup provided black tones. Nampeyo chewed the ends of fibrous yucca plants to make fine brushes for delicate strokes, while swabs of sheep’s wool produced wide swipes of color across the bowl.
Dried sheep dung formed the firing pit. She placed her pots on rocks around the hot fire and shielded them from the flames with shards of broken pottery. Sometimes she used sheep bones to intensify the heat of the kiln. She completed the oven by building a dome of dung over the pots and left the fire to burn for several hours. Brushing ashes from the fired pots, she carefully removed them from the dung-kiln before wiping them clean. They were now ready for use or sale.
Nampeyo, from the Hopi village of Hano on First Mesa, was born around 1860, the daughter of Quootsva of the Hopi Snake clan and White Corn of the Tewa clan. At puberty, she was given the Tewa name “Nung-beh-yong,” usually pronounced “Nahm-pay-oh” by outsiders.
She learned pottery-making from her paternal grandmother and is credited with reviving ancient Sikyátki pottery designs, redefining them with her own imaginative techniques.
In 1875, a small group of men led by photographer William Henry Jackson arrived at First Mesa. Nampeyo’s brother, Tom Polacca, a respected leader and liaison between the Hopis and outside visitors, welcomed them, as he was one of the few Hopi who spoke English. With Jackson traveled a correspondent for the New York Times, E.A. Barber. “Scarcely had we become seated,” Barber reported, “when a beautiful girl approached and placed before us a large mat heaped with pee-kee, or bread.
“She was of short stature and plump, but not unbecomingly so. Her eyes were almond shape, coal black and possessed a voluptuous expression, which made them extremely fascinating. Her hair was arranged in ... two large puffs, which, although odd to us, nevertheless seemed to enhance her beauty. We had entered abruptly and awkwardly enough, with our hats unremoved ... but on the approach of the modest and beautiful Nun-pa-yu ... every head was uncovered in a movement.”
Nampeyo made more hearts than Barber’s flutter. She married a Tewa man named Kwivioya, but the union was short-lived.
In 1878 she married Lesou of the Cedarwood clan from Walpi, and from 1884 to 1900, she bore six children. During this time, she also produced some of her most artistic and innovative work.
Seeking out specific clays and the raw materials needed for color, Nampeyo preferred to shape low, wide pots with abstract, geometric designs. She did not fill her bowls with detail, but used space as an art form along with intricate brush strokes and bold splashes of color.
In 1904, the Fred Harvey Co. hired architect Mary Colter to design a building at the Grand Canyon that resembled a Hopi dwelling, three stories high with pole ladders ascending to each terrace.
Native artisans were invited to Hopi House to demonstrate their crafts of weaving, basketry, jewelry- and pottery-making, and to sell their products to the public. Nampeyo and her family were the first to arrive in January 1905. For three months, Nampeyo and her daughter Annie crafted pottery and were so successful they ran out of clay. Harvey employees were sent to the Hopi reservation for more materials, as Nampeyo would only use clays from certain areas.
Sometime between 1890 and 1901, Nampeyo began losing her eyesight. Trachoma, an infectious eye disease that results in scarring of the cornea and eventual blindness, ran rampant through the Hopi Nation. Brought on by poor sanitary conditions, lack of water and an abundance of flies, the only treatment available at the time was an antiseptic solution that temporarily halted the progression of the disease, but did not cure it.
Nampeyo, however, no longer relied solely on her eyes to paint her distinctive drawings. “When I first began to paint,” she said, “I used to go to the ancient village and pick up pieces of pottery and copy the designs. That is how I learned to paint. But now I just close my eyes and see designs and I paint them.”
She never fully lost her sight and continued to shape her pots with Annie, along with daughters Nellie and Fannie, adding the intricate patterns they learned by watching their mother.
In 1890, the U.S. government built stone houses with red iron roofs below the Hopi mesas, hoping to entice the people off the towering buttes. The idea did not work, but Nampeyo was given one of these houses. Since she seldom used it, she rented it to artists, photographers, ethnographers and anthropologists. Eventually, her son Wesley moved into the red-roofed house and built a stand at the end of the road leading to the top of the mesa where his mother could display and sell her pottery.
On July 20, 1942, Nampeyo died in the red-roofed house below First Mesa. She had continued to shape her pots until about three years before her death. Many say that while she never lost her vision, she used the eyes of her children and grandchildren to paint the pottery she continued to mold with hands that never ceased creating exquisite and extraordinary vessels.