Documentary ‘Grounded in Clay’ shows how ceramics ‘sit at the heart of culture’

Laguna/Acoma dough bowl, c. 1830-50, clay and color. (Peter Gabriel/School for Advanced Research)

On any given day, Elysia Poon travels to her own version of Wonderland.

Inside the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, where Poon is director of the Indian Arts Research Center, the rooms are filled with clay pots from all different pueblos.

Each of them has a story and Poon wants people to listen.

That is the mission of the documentary Grounded in Clay: The Spirit of Pueblo Pottery. The film premieres on Saturday, November 19 at 4:30 p.m. on the New Mexico PBS channel. 5.1. It will also be available for streaming on the PBS Video app. There will also be an encore performance on Sunday, November 20th at 6am.

Santa Clara water jug, c. 1880-1900. (Peter Gabriel/School for Advanced Research)

“It has truly been a privilege and blessing to work on the project with the incredible community members,” says Poon. “We built a level of trust through the project and we all worked through the pandemic.”

Grounded in Clay: The Spirit of Pueblo Pottery is a 30-minute documentary that explores the complex and rich histories surrounding and preserved within Pueblo pottery.

Through outstanding collections of historic Pueblo pottery, the documentary’s Puebloans share personal insights that show pottery is a powerful element that sits at the heart of their cultures.

This program highlights the deep connections between Pueblo people and clay in a way that has rarely been seen.

The film is part of a national touring exhibition of the same name developed by the School for Advanced Research and the New York-based Vilcek Foundation.

The show is a rare exhibit curated by Native American communities and is on view through May 29, 2023 at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in Santa Fe.

Elysia Poon, Director, Indian Arts Research Center, School for Advanced Research, Santa Fe. (Courtesy of Garret Vreeland/School for Advanced Research)

The exhibition is the first of its kind as it gives a voice to more than 60 individual members of 21 tribal communities. These members chose and wrote about artistically or culturally unique vessels spanning 1,000 years.

The exhibition will move to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Vilcek Foundation in 2023, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts in 2024, and the St. Louis Art Museum in 2025.

Poon says that by watching the film, viewers will understand the connection Pueblo people have with clay and pottery.

“It’s an art form that reflects on itself,” she says. “Pueblo pottery comes alive and preserves history. Through this project there is an understanding that behind every piece there is a story of the people. It’s from Earth and has a deep history.”

Poon says a film crew worked on the project for almost a year.

“We took the time to build trust with the people we spoke to,” says Poon. “Capturing her story was important to us because it shows how powerful pottery is, a powerful element that sits at the heart of culture.”