Editor's note: The following catalogue introduction was reprinted in Resource Library on December 13, 2007 with the permission of the Rockwell Museum of Western Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact the Rockwell Museum of Western Art directly through either this phone number or website:



 

Crafted to Perfection: The Nancy & Alan Cameros Collection of Southwestern Pottery

 

Catalogue Introduction

"Be careful with her. She's a sweet old lady, and she doesn't like to be moved," Nancy Cameros cautions her husband with nearly suspended breath, as if the slightest puff of air might jeopardize the operation at hand. It is easy to see why. Nancy's husband, Alan, has just picked up a small, ancient pot from one of the walls of shelves that surround their living room. Pottery, from the large and colorful to the dainty and delicate, covers these shelves. The pot that Alan cups in his hands is one of the oldest and most fragile, and has the added distinction of being attributed to one of the great matriarchs of the Southwestern pottery tradition, Nampeyo of Hano.

For a curator, it is touching to hear collectors speak of their treasures as people; perhaps even more so to see an influential businessman cradle an old piece of clay as if it were a baby bird fallen from its nest. Collectors are always motivated by personal interest, and many by passion; but it is investment value that typically dictates purchase. Cost is understood to reflect intrinsic value, and justifiably so. But it is always exciting to come upon those who share such an enormous respect for art that the dollar value someone else has placed on a work becomes merely a factor of acquisition, not the reason for it.

Nancy and Alan Cameros are just such collectors. In a quarter century, these lifelong Rochester residents have amassed a collection of more than 200 pieces of Southwestern pottery -- not just any pieces, but museum-quality examples of some of the finest Native American potters of the past 125 years. And while this catalogue and the Rockwell Museum of Western Art exhibition, Crafted to Perfection: The Nancy and Alan Cameros Collection of Southwestern Pottery, pay homage to the intrinsic value of this collection, the Cameroses never collected with the intent of boasting in such a grandiose manner. Instead, they have always collected from a place of interest-turned-passion; along the way, they have developed a keen eye for it.

The Cameroses began collecting in the early 1980s when Alan's position as chairman of the Museum Trustee Association took him to Santa Fe to scout the location for the association's national conference. Ten years earlier, Alan qualified to become a docent for the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester and was soon after appointed to the Board of Directors, giving him eligibility to join the Museum Trustee Association. Around this time, Nancy and Alan also became members of the Corning Museum of Glass and began collecting glass art.

During this first trip to the Southwest, they purchased what Nancy calls "a pretty souvenir" -- a large piece of greenware pottery from the Acoma Pueblo. They paid $250. Greenware is, essentially, unfired clay pottery that is usually cast-formed and mass-produced. These "blanks" are then quickly painted and sold to tourists.

Every collector has to start somewhere, and Nancy and Alan soon learned the difference between their first purchase and the exceptional art that exemplifies the best of Southwestern pottery. From that year forward, the Cameroses have made an annual trip to the Santa Fe and Taos areas-budget and wish list in hand. During their second visit, they met Leroy Garcia, founder of Blue Rain Gallery and husband of Tammy Garcia, an award-winning potter from the Santa Clara Pueblo.

With his help, Nancy and Alan gained a quick appreciation for what constituted quality in pottery, and they began to collect seriously. Pottery from Santa Clara was an obvious starting point. Tammy Garcia is well known for a style descended from one of the great matriarchs of Santa Clara, Serafina Tafoya -- a style of high polish and precision carving. In many ways, it exemplified what Nancy and Alan appreciated about glass art. By examining exceptional Santa Clara pottery, the Cameroses learned to identify subtle differences in shapes, skillful carving, and excellent polishing. They also became aware of the importance of the potter and his or her individual contribution to a style. From then on, the product of an individual's talent would trump a mass-produced piece, no matter what the size.

This in mind, Nancy and Alan began to form relationships with potters. Through these interactions, they began to more fully understand the distinct pottery styles from different pueblos and reservations. Their method of collecting began to take shape: They prefer to identify emerging talent and to establish lasting relationships within the current generation of potters, though they stay alert for pieces by famous potters of the past.

Friend of the collectors and Scottsdale gallery owner, Charles King, calls Nancy and Alan "risk takers" who have a gift for recognizing burgeoning talent in young potters. The Cameroses are more modest. "We're just having fun!" Nancy says. "Yes, we look for standard bearers, but we want pieces that speak to us personally, something that catches our eyes." Alan admits that it is Nancy who has the eye for craftsmanship, something she inherited from her many family members who have worked in the glass industry. He relates a story that exemplifies Nancy's ability:

While visiting the Antique Indian Art Show in Santa Fe, Nancy spotted an unlabled sienna ware pot with a sgraffito feather pattern and turquoise inlay. She immediately felt sure that it was a quintessential pot by Tony Da, grandson of Maria Martinez, matriarch of the San Ildefonso pottery tradition. Da's grandfather, Julian Martinez is said to have revived the feather pattern from ancient pueblo ware. Da's father had innovated the sienna color and was one the first to experiment with both sgraffito (shallow surface scratches) and turquoise inlay-techniques Tony Da perfected. The person tending the booth seemed unaware of the importance of this pot among the many others for sale and quoted an unconscionably low purchase price. When the owner returned, he agreed to complete the sale in good-natured esteem of Nancy's ability to recognize exceptional work. The pot was later found to have been pictured in a book by Richard Spivey, "The Legacy of Maria Poveka Martinez" -- a quintessential Tony Da indeed. (See frontispiece)

For reasons such as these, the Cameros collection is perhaps a more intimate reflection of the owners than other private collections. This becomes obvious upon seeing the collection in situ in their Rochester home. Almost the entire collection is on display in their living room. Yet, this is not as ostentatious as it might sound. Their living room is a modest space, not the gigantic gallery one might expect, and space for new pottery is limited. Excellence abounds in their collection because there is no room for mediocrity. For this reason, the Cameroses not only have to make the difficult decision of what to acquire, but at this point they sometimes have to determine what they are willing to part with-a process they term "deaccessioning."

This term is accurate and appropriate, but mostly it is impressive that they use the term at all. "Deaccessioning" is museum language. It refers to the organized procedure by which a museum will formally remove an object from its permanent collection after much research and debate. It is not merely a matter of getting rid of a work of art. The process is always difficult and sensitive. So it is, in a way, comforting that these collectors use the term. It underscores the significant level of consideration with which they undertake any object removal, and it demonstrates the primacy given to the emotional value of every piece they have acquired. As "risk-takers," they understand that some risks disappoint. Sometimes they have to admit that an artist did not grow in his or her abilities, as Nancy and Alan once thought he or she would. So they will deaccession a technically excellent piece in favor of an artist who shows equal ability but more promise.

They cite two examples of where crucial collecting decisions have been made because of a potter's maturing ability. They currently own three pieces by Autumn Borts, another Santa Clara potter they admire and sister of Tammy Garcia. They have come very close to owning several pots by Borts at different times, but they feel strongly that the pots in their collection today best represent her style and ability. Nancy and Alan spent a great deal of time determining which of her pieces to purchase, and on one occasion, Alan camped out in line all night before the famous, annual Indian Market to obtain one of Borts's works. Likewise, they have not purchased other Borts pieces that became available to them when they believed that an evolving style was not exemplified therein. In another instance, a few years ago, they acquired a piece by a potter of Hopi descent, Lawrence Namoki. At the time of purchase, during a visit to Namoki's native home on the First Mesa, the piece was only a concept in the artist's mind. After Namoki described a pot representing the cycle of creation, Nancy and Alan agreed to purchase the work so that he could undertake his design. That "Creation" pot was the prototype for what has become one of his most sought-after designs.

A collection of quality, not quantity, is clearly Nancy and Alan's ultimate goal, which bodes well for a collection that already exceeds 200 pieces. At the same time, they are trying to balance works that are unique with those that exemplify a style. Whereas they used to arrive early at Indian Market, queuing with hundreds of other collectors to try to buy that special piece, they now rely more on their relationships with gallery owners and the reach of the Internet to locate works to add to their collection. They acknowledge that the Internet does, in some ways, make collecting harder rather than easier. "It's like being a kid in a candy store," laughs Alan. And they freely admit to "blowing their budget" when they covet an outstanding piece. At least they almost always agree on what to purchase. They have also entered that next echelon of collectors who commission unique works rather than wait to chance upon them.

It is fitting that their current commission is with Tammy Garcia, whose work they have adored from the beginning. Once completed, the commissioned pot will be the largest in their collection, surpassing both the greenware pot they first purchased, as well as a rare storage jar created by Serafina Tafoya, Garcia's great-great-grandmother and matriarch of the Santa Clara pottery tradition. In addition, the commissioned pot will illustrate koshari (pueblo clowns) carved in a narrative around the vessel. The clowns are inspired by the Cameros's 2­year old grandson. Yet, subconsciously or not, and for all their acquired knowledge, the same taste that inspired their first purchase is guiding this commission, for koshari are the same figures that appear on their greenware.

"When we tell acquaintances that we collect pottery, most people seem to think that we collect some sort of kitchen crockery," quips Nancy. This is not surprising, considering how close the couple lives to Corning, New York, formerly the epicenter of the kitchenware industry. Apparently this is a more natural conclusion to reach than that anyone would amass a collection of Southwestern pottery in the Northeastern United States. This is not so different from the Rockwell Museum of Western Art's founding collector, Bob Rockwell, who established in Upstate New York an enormous and excellent collection of art inspired by the American West. Like Mr. Rockwell, the Cameroses collect what they like, for the reasons they want. They are not misguided or unschooled, and they are not put off by the seeming oddness of feeling an affinity for things foreign to their immediate surroundings.

Also similar to Mr. Rockwell, they do not particularly care what others think of their collecting practices. Alan sees Southwestern pottery as an under-recognized art form in the East, and Nancy hopes that, through their collection, people will gain an appreciation for the vessels they find so inspiring. "We're no pottery scholars," she admits. "This is a personal collection, collected for personal reasons." Which is why sometimes, late at night, Nancy and Alan will go into the living room to sit with the pieces, admiring the craftsmanship of each pot. Pottery scholars may or may not agree, but for the Cameroses, their collection continues to be crafted to perfection.

-- Sheila K. Hoffman, Curator of Collections, Rockwell Museum of Western Art
 

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Beth Manwaring of the Rockwell Museum of Western Art for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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