World Pottery

Horsehair Pottery: The Beauty of Fire and Tradition

Venture into the mesmerizing world of horsehair pottery, a singular and enthralling ceramic art form that interweaves the delicate, intricate patterns birthed from applying horsehair onto the surface of heated pottery. This striking technique yields inimitable pieces that exalt the natural splendor of fire and the time-honored art of pottery-making.

In this all-embracing article, we’ll investigate horsehair pottery’s history, characteristics, and process, its cultural resonance, and the contemporary artists who preserve this enduring tradition.

The Origins and History of Horsehair Pottery

The Birth of Horsehair Pottery

The origins of horsehair pottery can be traced back to the Native American tribes of the Southwest, particularly the Navajo people. This pottery technique is believed to have been inspired by the natural patterns created by fire and the serendipitous discovery that horsehair, when applied to hot pottery, produced intricate and captivating designs. The horse, a symbol of strength and freedom for many Native American tribes, further imbued the pottery with cultural significance and spiritual meaning.

Historical Context

Horsehair pottery was traditionally created for ceremonial purposes and to honor the memory of deceased family members or tribal leaders. The pottery was often placed in burial sites or used in rituals to celebrate the life and accomplishments of the deceased. Over time, horsehair pottery has evolved into an art form appreciated by collectors and enthusiasts for its unique beauty and cultural significance.

The Revival and Recognition

The art of horsehair pottery experienced a resurgence in the late 20th century, as artists and collectors began to recognize the value and beauty of this traditional craft. Today, horsehair pottery is created by both Native American and non-Native artists, who continue to honor and explore the ancient techniques and cultural symbolism associated with this unique art form.

Characteristics of Horsehair Pottery

The Interaction of Fire and Hair

The defining characteristic of horsehair pottery is the intricate, organic patterns created by the application of horsehair to the hot surface of the pottery. The intense heat of the pottery causes the horsehair to burn and leave behind a carbon trail, which creates an unpredictable and delicate design. This interaction between fire and hair results in unique pieces that celebrate nature’s beauty and the art of pottery-making.

Horsehair Pottery Texture

Horsehair pottery is often characterized by its earthy color palette and textured surface. The pottery is typically left unglazed or coated with a transparent glaze, allowing the natural color of the clay and the carbon markings from the horsehair to take center stage. The resulting aesthetic is rustic and sophisticated, with a timeless appeal that transcends cultural boundaries.

Forms and Functions

While horsehair pottery is primarily appreciated for its artistic beauty, it also encompasses various functional and decorative forms. These include bowls, vases, urns, and various types of sculptural pieces. The versatility of horsehair pottery allows it to be appreciated and enjoyed in various settings, from home decor to gallery exhibitions.

Symbolism and Cultural Significance

The use of horsehair in pottery-making carries deep cultural and spiritual significance for many Native American tribes. The horse is often seen as a symbol of strength, freedom, and the connection between the physical and spiritual realms. By incorporating horsehair into their pottery, artists honor the bond between humans and horses and the rich cultural heritage of their ancestors.

How is Horsehair Pottery made?

Sourcing and Preparing Clay

Producing horsehair pottery begins with the careful selection and preparation of clay. High-quality clay is sourced from various regions, depending on the artist’s preference and desired characteristics. The clay is then purified to remove impurities and mixed with water to achieve the appropriate consistency for shaping and firing.

Shaping the Pottery

Horsehair pottery can be created using various techniques, including wheel throwing, hand-building, and molding. The choice of technique depends on the desired form and complexity of the piece. Once the pottery has been shaped, it is left to dry for several days to allow excess moisture to evaporate.

The First Firing

After the pottery has dried, it undergoes an initial firing, also known as the bisque firing, at temperatures of around 900-1000°C. This process hardens the clay and prepares it for the horsehair application and final firing.

Applying Horsehair

The unique aspect of horsehair pottery comes into play after the first firing. The pottery is removed from the kiln while it is still hot, typically between 500-800°C. Horsehair strands are then carefully placed onto the hot surface, immediately burning and leaving behind delicate, carbonized patterns. This process’s precise temperature and timing are crucial, as too much heat can cause the pottery to crack or the horsehair to disintegrate completely.

The Final Firing

Once the horsehair has been applied, the pottery is allowed to cool down and returned to the kiln for a final firing. At a lower temperature than the first, this firing sets the carbon markings and strengthens the pottery. After cooling, the pottery is carefully cleaned to remove any remaining residue from the horsehair and firing process.

Finishing Touches

Some artists add decorative elements to their horsehair pottery, such as metallic lusters, colored slip, or intricate carvings. These finishing touches further enhance the beauty and uniqueness of each piece, ensuring that every horsehair pottery creation is a true work of art.


How to Make your own Horsehair Pottery

Creating horsehair pottery involves a specific process that yields stunning and intricate patterns on the ceramic surface. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to make horsehair pottery:

  1. Prepare the clay: Start by preparing your clay and shaping it into the desired form, such as a vase or a bowl. Allow the piece to dry to a leather-hard consistency before trimming and refining the shape.
  2. Bisque fire: Fire the piece in a kiln to a bisque temperature of around 1740°F (950°C). This initial firing hardens the clay, preparing it for the horsehair application.
  3. Preparing the horsehair: Collect the horsehair from a mane or tail, ensuring it is clean and tangy-free. Cut the hair into varying lengths to create different patterns on the pottery.
  4. Heat the pottery: Carefully remove the bisque-fired piece from the kiln using heat-resistant gloves or tongs while it is still hot (around 1400°F or 760°C). It’s crucial to work quickly during this stage to ensure the pottery stays hot enough for the horsehair to create the desired effect.
  5. Apply the horsehair: Lay strands of horsehair onto the hot pottery surface. The heat will cause the hair to burn, leaving intricate carbon patterns on the piece. You can create various designs by placing the strands in different arrangements, such as spirals, lines, or abstract shapes.
  6. Smoke and cool: Once you’ve applied the desired amount of horsehair, allow the piece to cool down and smoke for several minutes. This process enhances the carbon markings on the pottery.
  7. Clean and seal: After the pottery has cooled completely, clean the surface with a damp cloth to remove any residue from the horsehair. Apply a clear sealer or wax to protect the patterns and polish the piece.

Remember that creating horsehair pottery requires practice and patience, as the process is delicate and time-sensitive. With time and experience, you can create your own unique horsehair pottery pieces.

Notable Horsehair Pottery Artists

Many contemporary artists have embraced the art of horsehair pottery as a means of honoring their cultural heritage and as a unique form of artistic expression. Some notable horsehair pottery artists include:

  • Greyshoes (Upton Ethelbah Jr.), a Santa Clara Pueblo and White Mountain Apache artist known for his striking horsehair pottery sculptures
  • Lucy Leuppe McKelvey, a Navajo artist whose intricate horsehair pottery designs often incorporate traditional Navajo symbols and motifs
  • Robert Rivera, a non-Native artist whose innovative horsehair pottery creations explore the intersection of natural elements and human-made forms

In Summary

Horsehair pottery is a captivating art form that combines the ancient tradition of pottery-making with the natural beauty of fire and horsehair. Its intricate, one-of-a-kind designs and cultural significance have captured the hearts of collectors and enthusiasts worldwide, ensuring that this unique craft continues to thrive in the contemporary art scene. Whether you are an admirer of pottery, a lover of horses, or simply a fan of distinctive and beautiful art, horsehair pottery is a fascinating testament to the power of creativity and the enduring appeal of traditional craftsmanship.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is Navajo horsehair pottery?

Navajo horsehair pottery is a unique pottery style created by the Navajo people. It involves placing strands of horsehair onto the surface of a warm, fired clay pot. The heat burns the hair, leaving intricate patterns. The pottery often features hand-painted or etched designs inspired by Navajo culture, resulting in distinctive and culturally significant artwork.

Is horsehair pottery safe for use with food?

Due to the porous nature of the clay and the carbon markings left by the horsehair, horsehair pottery is generally not recommended for use with food. It is best appreciated as a decorative or artistic piece.

How should I care for my horsehair pottery?

To maintain the beauty and longevity of your horsehair pottery, it is essential to handle it with care. Clean the pottery with a soft, dry cloth or a gentle brush to remove dust and debris. Avoid using water or abrasive cleaning agents, as they may damage the carbon markings or the pottery’s surface. Keep your horsehair pottery away from direct sunlight and extreme temperature changes to prevent fading or cracking.

Can other types of hair be used in pottery?

While horsehair is the traditional choice for this type of pottery, some artists also experiment with other types of hair, such as human hair, dog hair, or even feathers. Each type of hair will create different patterns and effects, adding to the unique beauty of the final piece.

How do I recognize authentic horsehair pottery?

Authentic horsehair pottery is characterized by its intricate, organic patterns created by applying horsehair to the hot pottery surface. The distinctive carbon markings, earthy color palette, and high-quality craftsmanship will differentiate genuine horsehair pottery from mass-produced imitations. Additionally, reputable artists and galleries will provide documentation or certification attesting to the authenticity of their horsehair pottery.

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