Creating Contemporary Artifacts in “Border Crossing”

Now on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Border Crossing: Jami Porter Lara presents recent work by Albuquerque-based artist Jami Porter Lara (b. 1969), who hand-builds and pit-fires clay sculptures resembling a ubiquitous icon of modern life—the plastic bottle.

The shapes and titles of Porter Lara’s sculptures reflect her interest in the artifacts of contemporary culture.

Installation view of Border Crossing: Jami Porter Lara; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Installation view of Border Crossing: Jami Porter Lara; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Form and Function

Jami Porter Lara uses ancient techniques to create her work, and she combines references to the contemporary plastic bottle with references to other vessels that humans have used throughout time. She says, “I was interested in something that might be evocative of a gourd-shape, and, of course, gourds were one of the earliest vessels used by humans. I was also making things that referred to more classical forms like the amphora, again trying to make a connection between the contemporary plastic bottle and the most ancient of iconic vessels in human history.”

Some of her vessels have human or anthropomorphic qualities: “The top of the vessel’s neck is like a little head, its bottom is evocative of feet, and any kind of narrowing in the center is like a waist. Just as that gourd shape made me think of the connection to our shared human history of using gourds as vessels, the figurative pieces have a similar message about the continuity between what’s natural and what’s human and what’s technological.”

Jami Porter Lara, LDS-MHB-WVBR-0416CE-08, 2016; Pit-fired clay, 11 x 10 x 3 1/2 in.; On loan from Debra Baxter, Photo by Addison Doty

Jami Porter Lara, LDS-MHB-WVBR-0416CE-08, 2016; Pit-fired clay, 11 x 10 x 3 1/2 in.; On loan from Debra Baxter, Photo by Addison Doty

What’s in a title?

Many of Porter Lara’s works have titles such as LDS-MHB-WVBR-0416CE-08. She borrowed her titling system from the field of archaeology, in which objects are identified by a series of numbers and letters that convey information such as where an item was found and when it was unearthed.

  • The letters in the first section refer to where the object was made. In this example, “LDS” stands for Los Duranes Studio, the name Porter Lara has given her home studio.
  • The first two letters in the second section indicate where Porter Lara harvested her clay. Here, “MH” refers to Magdalena Highway, the unofficial name of the nearby route US 60. The third letter of this section refers to the color of clay. “B” stands for “buff” or “beige.”
  • In the third section, the first letters relate to nicknames Porter Lara gives her pieces. In this example, “WV” stands for “Wedding Vase,” a double-spouted vase common in Pueblo pottery.
  • The second half of the third section refers to the process Porter Lara used to create the work. “B” indicates a work was burnished, and “R” stands for “reduced,” the firing method.
  • The fourth section of the title is the date on which the work was fired. In this example: April 2016 of the Common Era (CE).
  • The last section indicates which iteration of a shape this object is. This example is the eighth vessel Porter Lara made in this particular shape.

Visit the museum to see Border Crossing: Jami Porter Lara, on view through May 14. Learn more through the audio guide and meet Jami Porter Lara at the museum for a special Artists in Conversation program on April 6, 2017.

Adapted from text by Virginia Treanor, associate curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Coiled, Built, and Fired: An Ancient Process for Contemporary Art

Now on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Border Crossing: Jami Porter Lara presents recent work by Albuquerque-based artist Jami Porter Lara (b. 1969), who hand-builds and pit-fires clay sculptures resembling a ubiquitous icon of modern life—the plastic bottle.

Jami Porter Lara harvesting clay; Photo courtesy of the artist

Jami Porter Lara harvesting clay; Photo courtesy of the artist

Porter Lara learned traditional techniques from potters in Mata Ortiz, in northern Mexico. She describes, “In the 1970s, there was a Pueblo pottery revival in Mata Ortiz. The people there started making ceramic pots that bore a lot of stylistic relation to ancient pot sherds and artifacts found in that vicinity, from the Casas Grandes and Mimbres cultures. They locally sourced their materials and figured out how to make ceramic vessels in the same way as the people who preceded them.”

With a group of fellow art students, Porter Lara went to stay in Mata Ortiz to learn from potters Graciela and Hector Gallegos. “They showed us how to soak the clay and filter it and then let it dry. They also taught us how to build out of coils and how to burnish with a stone.”

The forms and meaning of Porter Lara’s art are distinctly contemporary, but her materials and techniques connect her work to the Southwest and to people who preceded her in the region.

The Artist’s Process:

  • She digs clay from an arroyo (stream bed) near her home.
  • In a lengthy process, she mixes the clay with water and strains the excess moisture.
  • To form the base of each vessel, she uses a plaster cast of the bottom of plastic bottles as a mold.
  • To create the body of a vessel, she forms clay coils, stacking one coil on top of another, continually pinching them together and smoothing the surface.
  • After it is dried, the pottery is burnished: Porter Lara rubs the surface with a smooth stone, using either coconut or olive oil as a lubricant.
  • She fires the vessels in an outdoor pit, covered with a galvanized aluminum tub. During this “reduction” process, the pottery is kept away from flames and oxygen. Carbon released by sawdust and newspaper surrounding the work bonds with the clay and turns the vessels black.

Porter Lara’s works also engage with the industrialized mass production that characterizes modern consumer culture. While she recognizes the detrimental impact of this culture, Porter Lara states, “Saying that humans are only pollutants is a failure of imagination. Yes, we’re destructive, but we’re also creative. . . . I want to create the possibility that we can see things differently and contribute to the world. My work is my refusal to say that the earth would be better without me, and the determination to become equal to that claim.”

Visit the museum to see Border Crossing: Jami Porter Lara, on view through May 14. Learn more through the audio guide and meet Jami Porter Lara at the museum for a special Artists in Conversation program on April 6, 2017.

Adapted from text by Virginia Treanor, associate curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Digging In: Vessels by Jami Porter Lara in “Border Crossing”

Now on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Border Crossing: Jami Porter Lara presents recent work by Albuquerque-based artist Jami Porter Lara (b. 1969), who hand-builds and pit-fires clay sculptures resembling a ubiquitous icon of modern life—the plastic bottle.

Jami Porter Lara firing; © Jessamyn Lovell

Porter Lara was inspired to synthesize ancient pottery-making methods with the contemporary form of the plastic bottle after encountering the detritus of human cultures separated by time rather than geography. While near the U.S.–Mexico border, she was struck by the similarity in function of pots from ancient cultures, whose broken pieces had been cast into a trash heap, with discarded two-liter plastic bottles used by migrants to carry water through the harsh environment.

Noting that both types of objects were used by people for the same purpose—to carry water—and that both were cast off when no longer needed, Porter Lara began this series. She says, “In the beginning, for me, it was about the connection between the plastic bottles and the pot sherds and thinking about how they represented this unbroken lineage of people moving through the landscape. Initially, I wanted to create vessels akin to those that traditionally would have carried water across this landscape. The first plastic bottle form I made out of clay cracked during firing, because I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time. But that crack in the ceramic was what made me first think of these pieces as contemporary artifacts.”

In reframing the plastic bottle, Porter Lara questions the culturally defined categories of art and trash as well as common presumptions about the people who used, and discarded, both the ancient and contemporary vessels. She says, “I was thinking of the plastic bottle as the most iconic vessel of my time. I felt that that form needed to be engaged and represented as opposed to just rejected as trash.”

Jami Porter Lara, LDS-MHB-6SBR-0916CE-01, 2016; Pit-fired clay, 10 x 6 ½ in. diameter; Courtesy Central Features Contemporary Art; Photo by Addison Doty

Jami Porter Lara, LDS-MHB-6SBR-0916CE-01, 2016; Pit-fired clay, 10 x 6 ½ in. diameter; Courtesy Central Features Contemporary Art; Photo by Addison Doty

Porter Lara describes, “This is not a recycling awareness campaign. The message behind my work has much more to do with the continuity between the ancient pot sherds and the plastic bottle, between the person who passed through this land 2,000 years ago and the person who passes through now. It is not a diatribe about pollution and consumption. In many ways, it’s an attempt to humanize the vessel and humanize the people who carry it.”

Visit the museum to see Border Crossing: Jami Porter Lara, on view through May 14.

Adapted from text by Virginia Treanor, associate curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Opening Tomorrow: Border Crossing and New Ground

On Friday, February 17th, NMWA will open two exhibitions featuring women artists of the Southwest. In Border Crossing: Jami Porter Lara, Albuquerque-based artist Jami Porter Lara (b. 1969) uses a millennia-old process to make pottery resembling a ubiquitous icon of modern life—the plastic bottle. New Ground: The Southwest of Maria Martinez and Laura Gilpin explores the work of potter Maria Martinez (ca. 1887–1980) and photographer Laura Gilpin (1891–1979).

Jami Porter Lara, LDS-MHB-3SBR-0916CE-01, 2016; Pit-fired clay, 16 x 8 in. diameter; Courtesy Central Features Contemporary Art; Photo by Addison Doty

Jami Porter Lara, LDS-MHB-3SBR-0916CE-01, 2016; Pit-fired clay, 16 x 8 in. diameter; Courtesy Central Features Contemporary Art; Photo by Addison Doty

In Border Crossing, conceptual artist Jami Porter Lara explores connections between ideas that are typically set at odds: nature and artifice, art and trash, and past and present. Her works urge viewers to rethink these divisions by combining processes of the past with iconography of the present day. Her clay vessels, coil-built by hand, resemble the plastic bottle, an object that signifies recent human activity and material culture.

She takes inspiration from the remains of ancient pottery, which she has found scattered along the U.S.–Mexico border interspersed with the present-day detritus of migrants heading north. Porter Lara speaks of her work as a reverse archaeological process; she digs into issues of the present and the future by applying tools of the past. Using traditional methods to make contemporary vessels, Porter Lara recasts the throwaway plastic bottle and invites viewers to contemplate how time and place inform our interpretations of objects.

New Ground: The Southwest of Maria Martinez and Laura Gilpin presents a perspective on the Southwest contrary to dominant 19th- and 20th-century narratives, which typically cast the American West as a masculine place of staged romance or rugged conquest. Pueblo potter Maria Martinez and photographer Laura Gilpin brought the American Southwest into focus as a culturally rich region that fostered artistic expression.

Laura Gilpin, Upper End of Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, ca. 1960s; Gelatin silver print, 10 ¾ x 13 ¾ in.; Eugene B. Adkins Collection at Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, and Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma, Norman; © 1979 Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas

Laura Gilpin, Upper End of Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, ca. 1960s; Gelatin silver print, 10 ¾ x 13 ¾ in.; Eugene B. Adkins Collection at Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, and Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma, Norman

New Ground pairs 26 ceramic pieces by Martinez with more than 40 vintage photographs by Gilpin, offering documentary and physical connections between the land, the people, and their art-making traditions.

Maria Martinez and Julian Martinez, Storage jar, ca. 1940; Polished blackware pottery with matte paint, 16 x 22 ¼ in. diameter; Philbrook Museum of Art, Gift of Clark Field

Maria Martinez and Julian Martinez, Storage jar, ca. 1940; Polished blackware pottery with matte paint, 16 x 22 ¼ in. diameter; Philbrook Museum of Art, Gift of Clark Field

Martinez’s strikingly modern-looking vessels grew out of ancient Pueblo artistic traditions, which she and her husband, Julian, revived. Gilpin, hailed during her lifetime as the “grand dame of American photography,” is best known for her documentary prints, which include aerial landscapes and intimate portraits.

Works on view in both exhibitions transcend conventional ideas about Southwestern art and explore the region as a place where modernity reckons with the past.

Visit the museum and explore Border Crossing and New Ground, both on view through May 14, 2017.