A cool breeze wafts through a studio nestled among swaying pines, brick-red manzanita, massive oaks, and lush mountain meadows at Idyllwild Arts Academy. Inside, a half dozen students of various ages and skill levels industriously knead and press a prepared mix of Mojave Desert clay, water, and dirt. They grunt and sigh as they force out any air that might later cause their works to explode during firing. They’re learning the lost art of Cahuilla-style pottery. None of it is easy.
The students have come here to receive instruction from one of the most acclaimed Mojave Desert potters of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Tony Soares. He shows them how to gently paddle some clay onto forms lined with cloth to create the bottoms of their bowls, vases, or ollas. The students then roll more clay into small, smooth cylinders, which they layer around and around the foundations to begin forming the walls of their vessels. Carefully, they remove the forms from their half-completed projects, barely remembering to breathe because wet clay can easily collapse into distorted, half-formed lumps. Soares dips his hands into a half-made pot, showing a student how to best smooth the clay and mold the walls into the desired shape.
This article appears in Issue 22 of Alta Journal.
The students hold handcrafted convex tools known as anvils against the inside walls of their designs as they lightly pat the outside walls with paddles to even out their thickness. Works in process rest on round stands made from palm fronds, which keep them from rolling away. After pots are painted with natural pigments and then fired, tumbled stones may be used to polish the exteriors; interiors are often cleaned with a scouring pad made from dogbane fiber.
Soares is a rangy 53-year-old with a long, silver-streaked dark brown ponytail. He has almost single-handedly revived the millennia-old art of Mojave Desert Indigenous pottery although he doesn’t identify as Indigenous himself and acknowledges that he’s not enrolled in any tribe. To ensure that the once-essential desert survival craft isn’t lost again, Soares, a self-proclaimed “desert dweller” of Portuguese and Métis heritage, shares his knowledge with both Native and non-Native students across Southern California and the Colorado River valley.
Three of the students in the studio today are Native, including a Yuman clay artist from the Pee Posh—also called Maricopa—people of the Gila River valley south of Phoenix and a Hopi potter. These two are excited to work with an orange Mojave clay, which differs from the variety used to create the striking dark red Maricopa pottery of central Arizona. Also participating is a Desert Cahuilla elder from the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in Palm Springs. He made the drive up San Gorgonio Mountain to his relatives’ Mountain Cahuilla homeland to learn more about his people’s art.
“Tony is a selfless and brave person,” says Shaliyah Ben, director of the Native American Arts Program at Idyllwild. “He’s sharing his knowledge, which is necessary for the cultural survival of ceramic making among Southern California tribes.” Ben, a Diné, adds that Soares approaches his work with a humble heart.
The ancestral lands of the Cahuilla, the Maara’yam (Serrano), the Luiseño, and other desert peoples encompass the deserts, mountain ranges, and riparian canyons of Southern California. These peoples were known for their expertise in surviving on oftentimes harsh, unforgiving lands. In addition to the basketry that they are well-known for, they made pottery.
Soares says that over the centuries, the techniques for making small-necked ollas and open bowls for water and food storage, cooking, burial, and other purposes migrated north to what is now California, Arizona, and New Mexico with Mesoamerican traders and artists.
Ollas equipped with woven carry nets enabled desert peoples to haul as much as five gallons of water to homes for cooking and drinking. The ollas, made of a porous material through which liquids could seep, kept water cool through evaporation. Other ollas sporting narrow necks could be sealed with clay lids or plugs to provide critter-safe storage for mesquite beans, pine nuts, seeds, and other foods, often for years. Food was cooked in open earthenware bowls.
The distinctive reddish pottery’s delicate zigzags, diamond patterns, and animals were painted with iron oxide or manganese dioxide pigments. Examples of this artistry are up to 1,000 years old and have been found in the deserts and mountains of Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego Counties. Some were discovered in caches, patiently waiting for their owners to return and claim their stored food and other items.
DECLINE AND REDISCOVERY
Settler migrations caused catastrophic disruptions to the cultures and communities of Mojave Desert peoples. Ethnographers think that Cahuilla people ceased making pottery during the 1800s. There was a smallpox epidemic in 1862–63, which some Cahuilla people say killed 80 percent of their then-15,000-person population. Labor- and time-intensive pottery gave way to new products like metal cooking pots and glass jars. Cash replaced barter as currency, which drove many Native people, particularly women, into the job market. And as elders familiar with the pottery art began dying in the late 19th century, that knowledge died with them.
In the mid-1970s, though, the young Soares began his journey into earthenware arts. Born in Chino, Soares helped with his family’s dairy farm—“I had to feed 500 cows twice a day”—until his parents divorced and his mother moved the family to Joshua Tree. He lives there today with his wife, a teacher, and two daughters, ages 13 and 9.
Soares remembers watching his grandmother make pottery. “My grandma taught me the basics,” he says, “while my great-aunt took us all to museums around the Southwest in the summertime.” He fell in love with the oval shapes of some of the pottery, but “nobody could answer any questions about how the pots were made or where the clay came from,” he says. “That’s what started me going.”
At least one of his questions was answered when he saw a picture of a Tohono O’odham woman using a paddle and an anvil in a book on Indigenous artifacts. “Just seeing that 1800s picture of her making a pot made me realize how they made them,” he says.
“Grandma showed me how to make pots with commercial clays,” Soares says, but the potsherds he’d discover lying on the ground further piqued his interest. He asked his grandmother how people found clay before stores existed.
He began experimenting with Joshua Tree clay he had dug from the desert floor after a rainstorm, when he’d discovered what it looked like. He soon learned that he needed to combine three parts clay to one part each of sand and water to make the best pottery. His first pots were grapefruit-size with flat bottoms. By the late ’80s, after studying pots in museums and galleries and further experimenting, Soares was successfully creating round-bottomed ollas that measured 24 inches in diameter—the same size as those used by ancient peoples to hold water. He wove palm fronds into rings to keep the vessels upright as they dried.
Soares says he is using the same techniques and materials that desert peoples have used for thousands of years. He digs his own clay and makes his own paddles, anvils, and palm-frond rings, although he does occasionally purchase commercial clay for classes. He relies on time-honored methods to fire his pots. After allowing them to dry for several days, he digs a pit and wields a palm frond (to serve as a fireboard), some sand, and a wooden spindle to create friction. “Joshua tree needles are a great fire-starter bundle,” he says. He also likes to use wood from naturally deceased Joshua trees because its fire warms the pots slowly. “Heat the pot up too fast, and it will explode into many small pieces,” Soares says. Cooling the pot too fast will cause cracking.
Pottery is not for the impatient.
TEACH BY EXAMPLE
Soares began teaching classes to mostly Native students in 1993. The first one was at a workshop with the Agua Caliente Band in Palm Springs. “We had 10 tribal members in attendance,” he says. Soon, he was conducting classes in tribal communities across Southern California and for Colorado River valley tribes including the Mojave, Chemehuevi, Cocopah, and Quechan peoples.
He also started selling his work and developed an Instagram following. Soares’s pots feature walls as thin as three millimeters and designs applied using human-hair brushes and paints he makes from desert materials. “The brown paint is good for bear- and raccoon-track patterns,” he says.
While Soares’s pottery is now on display at the Springs Preserve in Las Vegas and will be for sale at the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza when it opens later in 2023, he takes great care to present it as Native-style work. “I’m impressed with Tony’s honesty,” Idyllwild’s Ben says, “because he acknowledges he’s not Native.” It’s particularly important in an era when cultural appropriation runs rampant.
In addition to working with clay, Soares delves into ancient arts like flint knapping and making bows and arrows. He’s particularly adept at making Folsom points, reproductions of spear points used by Indigenous peoples in western North America up to 11,500 years ago. His biggest collector of them? The actor Jason Momoa of Game of Thrones and Aquaman fame. They met some 20 years ago through a mutual friend and have been pals since. “Jason’s and my kids play together whenever he brings them out to his place in Joshua Tree,” says Soares. “We get together and hang out, and he buys most of my Folsom points.”
A WEIRD YEAR
The impacts of COVID-19 were challenging for Soares and his family. Teaching gigs and commissions dried up, and Soares suffered a terrible injury. “I broke my back while working on my house,” he says. “I couldn’t walk for two months, and then I graduated to a walker.” It took nine months for Soares to recover, and his family got by on pandemic relief funds and his wife’s teaching salary.
Even as the pandemic eases, work has been slow, he says: “I’m working reservations and painting and doing some sales and a few classes.” Some tribes are still locked down, he notes.
There have also been moments when the pots decided to give Soares and his students at Idyllwild a hard time. “Me and a bunch of Cahuilla people went and dug some clay,” he says. “We decided to try it mixed in with commercial clay.” Unbeknownst to them, the resulting mix was too salty. Salt crystals contain small amounts of water, and too much water can make a pot crack during firing. “The pots exploded into hundreds of pieces,” he says. “It was a really weird year.”
Such is the art of pottery. Clay can be fickle, time-intensive, and physically demanding. “Making pottery is actually pretty brutal work,” Soares says. “It’s a lot of digging and mixing. And then you gotta wedge the clay and then build the pot and split the firewood. It’s just ‘Holy smokes, there’s a lot to it.’ ” He adds, “It’s a workout, but it keeps me healthy.”
Little, it seems, can dampen Soares’s passion for pottery and ancestral arts: “I’ll keep making pots till I check out or my hands don’t work anymore.”•