Art has always been part of Cassandra Tsalate’s life. As a child, while her brothers pursued their own interests, she decided to try her hand at drawing. Then she started painting. This affinity for art, she says, was in her blood.
“I grew up in Zuni, inspired by my family of jewelry-makers,” said Cassandra, now 20. “My great-grandma made pottery. I actually wanted to go to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe after graduating from high school, but Covid came. So, instead, I took online classes in studio arts — painting and illustration. Eventually, I want to get into jewelry-making and ceramics.”
This summer proved to be a pivotal one for Cassandra, in more ways than one. She secured an internship at the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in Zuni so she could pursue her interest in museum studies. She also is a Zuni Agricultural Grantee of the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project, and she discovered ZYEP’s Emerging Artist Apprenticeship Program.
“My brother works at ZYEP, and he told me about it,” she says. “He encouraged me, but I wasn’t sure it would work out due to my family’s religious obligations. Still, I was super excited to try it.”
Cassandra joined the apprenticeship program’s second cohort of the year, which focused on traditional Zuni pottery. From May 24 to July 8, nine students ages 12 to 20 worked closely with co-lead instructors Gaylon Westika and Bobby Silas, and Cassandra said the experience involved much more than learning the technical skills required.
“We learned about the traditional and cultural aspects of Zuni pottery, including the significance of the many designs and forms,” she explains. “Pottery is more than just an art form. It’s all of our riches, our tools, our identity, and even our protector. The clay itself is sacred; it’s the flesh of our Mother Earth.”
Instructors selected the cohort’s top apprentices to participate in the Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA) Heritage Festival in Flagstaff, Arizona, on July 2-3. Cassandra was one of those selected to make the trip.
“They picked the top three students, and I was fortunate to go,” she says. “We also participated in an all-student art show in Zuni. I enjoyed the experience, both times. I learned to talk with customers, Native and non-Native, telling them about the history and our techniques and methods. I’m quite shy, so I didn’t think I’d be the sort of person to do that. I’m proud of myself though.”
Cassandra says the knowledge and skills she gained during the apprenticeship have proven valuable in her work at the museum. While much of her time is spent reviewing documents and reports, cataloging donated items, and reorganizing the book collection, she now has opportunities to do some guiding as well.
The apprenticeship, she says, has done more than broaden her knowledge and expand her skill set. It has deepened her understanding of the role of pottery has in traditional Zuni culture.
“I see the contemporary aspects of pottery as an art form, but I lean toward our Zuni cultural perspective,” she says. “All the plant materials that we gather to bind the clay, the places to harvest clay, the stones, water — all of that is precious. From its raw form, the clay comes into being. From various perspectives, we must be cognizant about the handling of clay. Our minds must be pure to form the life we wish to see.
“Pottery designs all have strong meaning in the context of prayer, weather, nourishment, and the abundance of crops, animals, and insects,” she continues. “We should be able to interpret the designs to make amends for what we’re really asking for. The pottery forms also have value, intended for specific purposes. Thus, we must be vigilant about the process because the clay in turn has a mindset of its own, and it challenges what, when, and where we’re creating.”
Cassandra also notes that traditional Zuni pottery is not a relic of the past. It is not a lost art, she says. Rather, it’s an evolving one.
“Looking at it from the contemporary side, we’re very fortunate to have so many potters producing elaborate, beautifully designed pottery,” she observes. “I am sure there are many more unknown potters out there and some that are just emerging as potters, taking their talent to new heights. Artistically and communally, it makes for a very inspiring future.”
As emerging artists and the next generation of culture bearers, Cassandra and her fellow apprentices will be a vibrant part of that future, lifting up their community through the transformative power of art.