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Friday Feature: Telling the Stories of the Earth Spirits

Grandmother Mountain Mug

We have no spiders today, nor moons, either. We do have earth spirits, small and otherwise. We also have the women, the grandmothers, who tell their stories.

It’s fitting, perhaps, that today’s featured works should have been created by a woman. I don’t mean the fact that these two pieces embody women: Jessie Marcus, the potter, creates a broad range of storyteller and other mugs (as well as other forms of pottery), from the grandmothers shown here today to mother-and-child figures, lovers, male singers and elders, buffalo dancers, even animal spirits. But in this instance, she captures aspects of traditional life that are part of the women’s experience, summoning the female forms straight from the clay earth of indigenous life here and placing it firmly in context.

As a local traditional potter, Jessie is perhaps best known for her storyteller mugs, small spirit cups or bowls sized to fit one’s hand, with a figure (or more than one) emerging from one side of each vessel’s mouth. Over the years, we’ve carried her work in many different iterations, and we have several variants among our current inventory: two male figures; four separate buffalo dancers; one horse. But in light of the themes that have emerged here over the course of the week, it’s the women who hold this space today.

The first is the one shown above, a woman arising from the beyond, or perhaps within or between, the old village walls and the mountain. I suspect it was not intended as a night scene particularly, but although no moon is present in the etchwork on the front, the presence of the sooty cloud over the village, a product of the firing process, has always spoken to me of storms and night. From the work’s description in the Other Artists:  Pottery gallery here on the site:

Grandmother emerges from within this traditional mug as though from within the mountain etched on its front. Made of traditional micaceous clay by Jessie Marcus (Taos Pueblo), the mug is hand-coiled, the side merging into the woman’s blanket, wrapped around her figure arising from one edge. An image of the old village, sacred peaks in the background, is incised on the exterior. Mug stands 3.75″ high on the figurative side (dimensions approximate).

Micaceous clay
$125 + shipping, handling, and insurance

Grandmothers are storytellers here, charged, as are grandfathers, with passing their wisdom on to younger generations. The stories this one embodies seem to be those of the Pueblo itself, of daily life in the village at the foot of the mountain — of dust and clay and mountain, of a sense of space and place of which the people are wholly a part, and which is wholly a part of them.

The etchwork on the other spirit mug seems to be tied to ways older yet, to a specific tradition and tie that would have existed long before the first cornerstone was laid on the first house in the old village. It’s the story and song of the corn, first among the Three Sisters, a form of sustenance with properties of the sacred. From its description in the same gallery:

Grandmother Corn Mug

Grandmother sings to the corn plants as she works, her head and voice rising from the side of this old-style handle-less mug. Brought forth from the body of this hand-coiled micaceous mug by Jessie Marcus (Taos Pueblo), she wears her hair tied back in the traditional bun, bangs on her forehead. The corn plants she nurtures are incised into the mug’s front. Stands 3.75″ high on figurative side (dimensions approximate).

Micaceous clay
$125 + shipping, handling, and insurance

Of all the spirit mugs remaining in our inventory that are human personifiers, this is one of my favorites, equaled perhaps only by one of the Buffalo Dancers. The latter speaks to me because of the animal spirit that is a part of it; this one, because of the plant spirit so deeply engrained in its very form. Corn holds a special place in our traditions, Indian corn all the more so — a place in the past, present, and future of our peoples collective, and of ourselves individually. It is one of those markers of memory that nevertheless remains solidly present in our lives in this season, and in a few days, I will be following the grandmother’s lead and seeding the earth here with the First Sister’s kernels. And I will do as she does, as our ancestors did, and speak to this earth spirit, sing to her, thank her.

Telling the stories of the earth spirits is an obligation vested not only in our women, but it is women who perhaps carry it out at the most fundamental levels. It is a story told daily, through women’s lives and work, through midwifing child and crop alike, through giving birth and nurturing and sustaining that which is new and fragile . . . and through telling its story, that others may do so in their own season.

~ Aji







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