Healing Arts

At Ojo Caliente, site of New Mexico’s ancient hot springs, an artisan revives the craft of Native American pottery

New Mexico has beckoned as a land of enchantment ever since Spanish conquistadors invaded it in the 16th century, searching for riches. While they never found fabled streets paved with gold, some of Coronado's footsore soldiers may have been just as happy to stumble on the mineral hot springs known as Ojo Caliente, some 50 miles north of present-day Santa Fe.

Each of the four springs bubbling up from an underground volcanic aquifer has a distinct mineral content and, according to local beliefs, its own healing properties. The Indians put enough faith in these waters to build several pueblos in the hills surrounding them. The villages were abandoned shortly before the Spaniards arrived, but their ruins are still visible to hikers who climb primitive dirt trails above the town.

Investor Antonio Joseph developed Ojo Caliente into a privately held health spa in 1880, when New Mexico was still a territory and its governor, Lew Wallace, was dealing with Apache raiding parties and Billy the Kid and writing his novel Ben-Hur. In addition to its spa, Ojo Caliente boasted a post office and general store, whose customers included frontiersman Kit Carson. By the 1930s, the place was renowned as a sanitarium, offering 21-day cures for everything from rheumatism to gallstones. Today, Ojo Caliente has become a haven for anyone seeking respite from the stresses of modern life.

In 2000, the new owners of the spa, Sherman and Joyce Scott, began looking for ways to draw on the region's rich Native American heritage. They invited Apache master potter Felipe Ortega to offer five-day workshops in traditional Indian coil-and-scrape pottery making, using mica-rich clay dug from nearby hills. Many participants have never made a pot before. "People come here and don't know what Ojo Caliente is all about," Ortega says. "They [have heard of] the springs, but few know the pueblo history. They don’t even know there was a village up there above the springs. I want people to get an American Indian experience."

Students join him in sprinkling cornmeal on the ground as an offering. Then the novice potters set to work, plunging their hands into moist clay. First, one slaps a ball of clay into a flat tortilla-like form, which is then placed in a puki, a shallow bowl that supports the pot as it is built up. Ortega demonstrates how to roll a smaller ball of clay between the palms, shaping it into a perfectly even coil, which is then pressed around the base. One coil is added to another to raise the wall of the pot. Simple—until one tries it oneself. Yet remarkably, by the end of the first day, everyone has practiced the skills needed to shape beautiful pottery.

Once the wall of a pot is built, one uses a straight-edge scraper to finish the outside; a curved scraper is used inside. As the inner wall is smoothed, the pot bulges outward, taking on the shape of a bean pot, water jug or corn bowl.

In a recent workshop, Ortega asked students what kinds of pots they wanted to make. One replied that she intended to create "a prayer pot," used in Buddhist tradition to hold prayers written on slips of paper. "Not with this clay!" the teacher snapped. "This is the only clay you can put on an open fire, right on top of the stove. You can make a prayer pot with any other clay." The student opted for a soup pot.

Ortega, 53, grew up in the nearby village of La Madera, a back-road cluster of old adobe houses, in a family with Apache, Hispanic and Sephardic-Jewish roots, and a traditional appetite for beans. But as a teenager, he recalls, he rebelled against his mother's aluminum pressure cooker. Beans cooked in clay taste sweeter, he says. He found an Indian potter in the next village. "But she was 90 years old and blind, and couldn't make pots anymore. So she offered to teach me how," he recalls. As soon as he began making pots, he was hooked. "All I wanted was a bean pot," he says, "and I discovered my livelihood."

The spa at Ojo Caliente offers workshop participants lodging in a historic Spanish-mission style hotel on the 1,000-acre grounds, with access to the hot springs and treatments, including herbal and mud wraps, as well as a first-class restaurant. Additionally, former U.S. Forest Service archaeologist Martha Yates leads hikers up to the pueblo ruins in the hills.

What Ortega promises is an opportunity to experience the creative process. "A lot of people say to me that I teach more than just pottery," he says. "They come away with a different understanding of their lives, because pot making definitely tells you what your life is about."

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