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

  • COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support

Writing Shaped Poetry

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.

Curriculum Objectives

•  Describe works of art, generating descriptive detail by using adjectives and adverbs.

•  Write “shape poetry” based on a work of art.




Language Arts



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?


Look closely at the shape of the vessel, and discuss how the decorations enhance and conform to its shape. Then, use the vessel as an inspiration for original poems.

Introduce the concept of “shaped poetry,” a poem constructed so that its lines form a shape that relates to its subject.  Share examples of shape poetry with the class.

Have students study the work of art, using adverbs and adjectives to write descriptive phrases of different lengths about the colors, textures, patterns, etc.

On a piece of paper, lightly trace the cut-paper shapes of the pots.  Experiment with different arrangements of lines to fit the shape and create an effective poem.  Complete the poem and erase the outline of the pot.  The lines of the poem will suggest the shape of the clay piece.

Subject Matter Connection

In reading and writing, attention to detail is important. By observing this Jar (olla) with Geometric Designs, students can put into practice the art of observation. These observation skills can be repeated and re-emphasized throughout the school year when students observe works of art, read, or prepare to write. Because the subject is familiar, students should be more comfortable about communicating their thoughts and verbalizing their ideas about this work, skills that carry over into both group and independent language arts practice activities and assessments.

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