Jar (Olla) with Geometric and Abstract Designs, 1875–1885
Earthenware with slip
Overall: 11 1/4 × 14 1/2 in. (28.6 × 36.8 cm)
Gift of Miss Ima Hogg

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, using adjectives and adverbsto generate descriptive detail.
  • Write "shaped poetry" based on a work of art.




Language Arts



Connecting to the Work of Art

This water jar presents the complex geometric design typical of Acoma pottery.


The shape of this vessel is distinguished by the high shoulder, the curved area below the opening where the jar swells to its widest diameter.  The overall design of the vase radiates out from a central medallion, in which white rectangles form a cross against curved black triangles.  Over the surface of the vase is a balanced, symmetrical design of black and white rectangles and triangles and stepped patterns with black and white lines.  In the Acoma tradition, the geometric patterns are precisely delineated and the proportions of their designs are maintained uniformly over the entire surface of the vessel.


Traditionally, Native American potters are women.  The basic techniques of Native American pottery have not changed over the centuries.  Clay is dug from pits, cleaned, and ground into a fine powder.  The powder is then mixed with water and is ready to be formed into a vessel.  To construct this jar, the potter began with a flat base.  Coils of clay were placed on top of each other and pinched together.  Using hands and tools, the potter shaped and smoothed the surface of the vessel.  Before painting, the vessel was covered with a thin layer of slip, a liquid clay mixture, then polished with a special stone.  The painted decoration was applied with brushes made of yucca leaves and the vessel was allowed to completely air-dry.  The dried pottery was then fired in a shallow pit.¹


The Pueblo people are descended from the Anasazi, early hunters and gatherers who lived in cliff houses.  They settled in the valley of the Rio Grande in New Mexico, where they began to farm corn, beans, and squash.  To this day, the Pueblo people hold religious festivals to bring rain and a good harvest.  The Pueblo people also developed sophisticated weaving and pottery-making techniques.


Pueblo, a Spanish word meaning “town,” was given by Spanish explorers and refers to the multi-storied houses built from adobe or stone and constructed close together in Pueblo settlements.  Acoma is the southernmost of the Rio Grande pueblos and is situated on a tall outcropping of rock in the midst of the rugged mesas.  The Acoma pueblo has been inhabited continuously for more than 1,000 years.



1.  J. J. Brody, Beauty from the Earth:  Pueblo Indian Pottery from the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania, 1990), pp. 57-58.



Conversation Starters


  • Is this symmetrical? What kinds of symmetry do you see?
  • How (by what process) do you think this object was made? How was it decorated? Consider that this was made by Pueblo farmers sometime in the late 19th century.
  • What do you think this object was used for?


  • This was a functional object, used for the basic and crucial task of holding water. It had a very important function in the household, and its decoration is beautiful and ornate. Think of the most basic and important items in your household (a frying pan, a bathroom sink, a glass, a food storage container…) Are they decorated or not? How does their design influence their functionality?
  • This olla is made with all natural materials, sourced from the earth. Can you imagine how the Pueblo potter would have acquired materials for the clay, the pigment, the brushes, and the kiln? How would she have transformed raw materials into the object before you?
  • When do you bring nature into your life? Are there times when you use natural materials, or draw inspiration from the natural world? Is there room for nature in your household or school?


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.

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