Jar (olla) with Geometric Designs, 1000–1150
Earthenware with slip
16 1/2 × 17 1/4 × 17 1/4 in. (41.9 × 43.8 × 43.8 cm)
Museum purchase funded by Meredith J. Long in honor of Fayez Sarofim at "One Great Night in November, 1992"
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
Making Symmetrical Pots
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
• Compare and contrast pottery from different cultures.
• Design the shape and decoration for a symmetrical clay pot.
• Create a clay pot using the coil method.
Connecting to the Work of Art
This example of Mimbres pottery is very unusual because of its shape and large size, and because it has survived completely intact. Large jars decorated with geometric designs were used for carrying and storing water. On the shoulder of this vessel is a wide band of geometric designs including stepped motifs, squared spirals, zigzags, and triangles painted in a soft golden tan. Many of these bowls have a “kill hole,” a jagged hole in the bottom that was made intentionally as part of a funerary ritual before these creations were interred in burials, but this jar does not have one.
Mimbres pottery typically uses bold contrasts of black and white, so this color scheme of warm browns is unusual. Two thin bands of color emphasize the area around the opening of the vase. The complex geometric patterns on the shoulder of the jar rely on the dynamic play of zigzag and diagonal lines. The artist contrasts areas of cream, brown, and cream-and-brown stripes in rhythmic, alternating patterns.
Native American pottery was made using the coiling method. An artist built up a vessel from a flat base by placing coils of clay on top of each other and pinching them together. Using hands, stones, and other tools, the artist then smoothed the surface of the jar.
The Mimbres people lived in the Southwestern corner of present-day New Mexico. Their ancestors, who had arrived in the region by 10,000 B.C., hunted bison and other large game. As the large game became extinct, these nomadic people survived by gathering plants and hunting smaller animals.
Around A.D. 200, the Mimbres people formed small settlements and began to rely on agriculture for food. At the same time they started producing pottery.¹ Between A. D. 750 and 1150, the Mimbres people produced dark-on-light pottery bowls with figures painted on the interior. The height of artistry was achieved by the Mimbres culture, which in its classic phase (1000-1150) produced some of the most sophisticated, imaginative painting on pottery.
1. J. J. Brody, Catherine J. Scott, and Steven A. LeBlanc, Mimbres Pottery, Ancient Art of the American Southwest (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1983), pp. 23-29.
- What shapes can you make out in this object, and what words would you use to describe them?
- What might this object have been used for? What details lead you to that conclusion?
- How has the artist used decoration to emphasize different parts of the jar? Look closely at the body of the jar, including the shoulders, neck, and foot.
- Look closely at the shape of this jar. How might it feel to hold in your hands? Would it be heavy or light, smooth or rough? Be sure to note the dimensions of the object.
- Look closely at the jar and its decoration. Identify areas that create a sense of rhythm and balance, and areas that are asymmetrical or create a sense of tension.
- After reading the information in the Connecting to the Work of Art section, imagine the way this object was made. Do you think it would have been difficult? Might it have taken a long time? When you look closely at the jar, are there any visible clues that reveal the way it was made?
- Most Mimbres vessels are black and white, but this artist chose a palette of warm brown and cream. What effect does this choice have on the overall piece? How might it be different if it were patterned in black and white?
- What aspects of this jar might make it ideal for carrying and storing water? Think about the jar’s materials and shape.
- Many similar examples of Mimbres pottery have a “kill hole”, a jagged hole pierced in the bottom of the vessel as part of a pre-burial ritual. This piece, however, does not have one. What does that tell us about the object?
- Imagine the many different uses this jar may have had over the span of its lifetime. How do you imagine it has changed, from its creation to today?
- Consider the materials used in making this object, the time period it comes from, and its cultural context. How might those factors influence the final appearance and form of this jar?
- How has the artist created a sense of contrast and tension in this piece?
• Using cut paper, have students plan the shape for a symmetrical piece of pottery, then plan the decoration.
• Teach the coil method of building pottery. Demonstrate techniques for making handles. Following the symmetrical pottery designs planned on paper, have students build clay pots using the coil method, then decorate the pottery with abstract or realistic designs that emphasize the parts of the vessels.
Subject Matter Connection
One of the major reasons artists create art is to communicate an idea. Understanding how to break apart a work of art to see what is being communicated is a vital part of learning about art and how to be an artist. Students who learn how to truly communicate thoughts and concepts create meaningful works of art that have an impact on society.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.