Originally published in The Taos News, Tempo Section >>

By Tamara Testerman | Jan 6, 2022

Generations in Native style:
The restless genius of Erik Fender

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Pottery was created by ancestral Puebloan people not as a revered art form, but as a practical necessity to store grains and seeds, carry water, and cook food. The creation is done by hand, and little has changed in the process for over a thousand years.

There is no margin for error painting and firing a piece of pottery. The porous surface of clay is unforgiving, the firing process an anxious time. San Ildefonso Pueblo master potter Erik Fender explained, “The moment of truth and final judgment is the firing process. All the hours and hours of work on the pots come down to the firing, as all the work could be destroyed by the fire. Cracks or pots popping or even exploding are possible, and we can do nothing about it or prevent it once the fire is lit. But that is part of the beauty of firing traditionally, and if the pots survive final judgment and come out as hoped, it’s a good and satisfying moment.”

Fender has worked with and harnessed the sacred alchemy of fire and clay. Borrowing, meticulously, but never duplicating design elements from his ancestors. Reviving an ancient craft. Making what he sees and understands his own. He is a restless genius who is most comfortable exploring the edges of his artistry, yet is reverent about the traditions of his lineage. There is a palpable life force encountering Erik Fender’s work. The aesthetics linger long after viewing.

He has won multiple blue ribbons at The Santa Fe Indian Market and other juried competitions, and his work is in museums, galleries and private collections all over the world. Gabriel Abrums, the owner of Chimayo Trading Del Norte, said “Erik Fender is one of the true experts living now. I can recognize his style and design from across the room. He takes shapes and distinct design elements from a thousand years ago and has created a traditional art form all its own.”

Fender comes from a prolific lineage of pottery making. He is the great-great-great-grandson of Maria Martinez, the grandson of Carmelita Dunlap, the son of Martha Appleleaf and the nephew of Carlos Sunrise Dunlap. As a boy he gathered, cleaned and sifted the clay, and helped with the firings “sitting and watching, trying to stay out of the way.” One day his grandmother handed him a piece of clay and told him to “go make something.” He began shaping animal figures; bears, squirrels, and skunks. And later, pinch pots. He could place his pieces in the fire with the family work, only if there was room.

Erik sold his early creations to traders  who stopped at the Pueblo to buy his mother’s and grandmother’s work. He would follow them as they were leaving, and offer his pinch pots, ten for $10 a piece. “$100 was a lot of money for a 12-year-old in the 80s. We’d save what we earned for the 4th of July firework stands. Buy a bunch of fireworks and watch our money go up in smoke.”

Fender tried traditional art school and got bored and quit. He was already pursuing art for most of his waking hours, and had the best teachers at home. His grandmother taught him to “pull design elements and make them my own, build my legacy and let the pottery speak for itself. My mother and grandmother instilled the sacredness of the clay in me and always encouraged me to give my all to every piece I create. They taught me the basics of pottery as a tool to grow with, and to develop my style.”

His uncle Carlos Sunrise Dunlap was also a mentor. “Although my Uncle Carlos passed away at an early age, I remember going to gather clay and other materials with him and sitting and watching him work on pottery. It always amazed me, the size of some of the really large pots that he made and that stuck with me as I also make really large pieces when I feel inspired to do so. He was also an innovator at an early age, developing his signature style of ‘Sunrise brown’ pottery.”

In 2017, Erik was invited with other pueblo artists to view a collection of his ancestors’ work at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. He said “going into the collections of the National Museum of American Indians at their Cultural Resource Center for the first time was emotional and moving, like being reunited with a long-lost relative. The pottery collection was something that really inspired me to keep working on the older styles of San Ildefonso pottery, polychrome and black on red. It was like my ancestors spoke to me and encouraged me through their pottery and although many of the pots were unsigned, I could pick out pieces that were made by my family.”

Fender is the Jewelry and Tewa Pottery Instructor at the Poeh Cultural Center in Pojoaque. He maintains a rigorous schedule for creative pursuits and lives with his wife and children on the San Ildefonso Pueblo. He signs his work with his Tewa name, Then Tsideh, which translates in English to Sun Bird. “I was given that name as a baby by the late Florence Aguilar Naranjo who was also a potter.”

In addition to a fine collection of Erik Fender’s pottery, Chimayo Trading Del Norte has important works by his family: Carmelita Dunlap, Martha Appleleaf, Carlos Sunrise Dunlap, and Maria Martinez. For visual details, visit the Chimayo Trading Del Norte website chimayotrading.com or stop by the gallery next to San Francisco de Asís Mission Church, a historic and architecturally significant building on the main plaza of Ranchos de Taos.