Virginia was Native American. Her mother was from the local pueblo, and her father was from a pueblo to the west. Virginia was in her 50s but dressed like a teenager. She was fond of shoes with high heels and a t-shirt emblazoned with the face of Marilyn Monroe. She painted her full lips bright red and wore big hoops in her ears.
I met Virginia at the Bridge, where she was friendly and outgoing toward the tourists and other vendors. Hi guy! she’d say with a big smile to male strangers as they passed her table. Where are you from? she’d chitchat with tourists who stopped to see her wares.
Virginia sold a variety of items she said she made herself, as well as crafts she said were made by members of her family. She sold jewelry—necklaces and bracelets and sometimes earrings too—made from turquoise and copper, variscite, and hematite, and other semiprecious stones. She sold knives with handles inlaid with stone or carved from bone. Sometimes she sold soft dolls sewn to look like Diné women, and she usually had horsehair pottery on her table.
Horsehair pottery was a popular item at the Bridge. It was sold by Native American vendors as well as by white folks and members of the local old Spanish families. The selling of horsehair pottery crossed all boundaries of Northern New Mexico race, ethnicity, and language.
Tourists loved the pottery, which is why so many vendors wanted it on their tables. Anyone selling horsehair pottery had a shot at making a sale even on a slow day. Lots of tourists want to be able to show off to the folks back home the Native crafts they acquired on vacation.
The majority of any piece of horsehair poetry was off-white in color. Designs in black decorated the off-white background. During my time at the Bridge, I saw pots decorated with Native American-style bears (for strength and power, Virginia always said), hummingbirds, Kokopelli, turtles, and buffalo. When the pots were in the kiln and the temperature inside was incredibly hot, the artist would open the door to the oven and throw in horsehair. The horsehair would land on the pots, leaving black lines on the plain portions as well as on the designs. The random falling of the horsehair and the subsequent unplanned patterns of the black lines left behind made each pot unique. Of course, while buying a handmade craft is important to many visitors to any region, acquiring something unique is usually even better. No wonder horsehair pottery seemed to fly off vendors’ tables and into the hands of shoppers.
I don’t know where Virginia acquired her horsehair pots. I don’t think she was making them. But from what old-timers at the Bridge told me, when she and her ex were still together, they were a horsehair pottery production team. They’d produce the pots, paint the designs, then throw on the horsehair while the pots fired in the oven. Virginia was capable of making the pots I saw on her table even if someone else was actually doing the work.
One morning at the Bridge Virginia parked next to where I was already set up and started pulling out her tables. Spending a day next to Virginia was fine with me. She was pleasant to be around and was always good for the latest Bridge vendor gossip.
In the early afternoon a (seemingly) white, (seemingly) heterosexual couple approached Virginia’s table. There were no customers at my table, so there was nothing to distract me from listening to the conversation next door.
The visitors looked at all of the merchandise Virginia had for sale, but lingered over the horsehair pottery. Virginia told them all about the pottery. She explained how the horsehair was tossed into the hot kiln and fell randomly onto the pots. The tourists seemed impressed. They looked at all the designs Virginia was offering that day and settled on one with an image of Kokopelli painted on it.
a Hopi word
meaning (roughly) wooden-backed; most of the familiar depictions of Kokopelli are copied from Hopi art, which in turn is derived from ancient Anasazi glyphs.
Known as a fertility god, prankster, healer and story teller, Kokopelli has been a source of wonder throughout the country for centuries. Kokopelli embodies the true American Southwest, and dates back over 3,000 years ago… Although his true origins are unknown, this traveling, flute-playing Casanova is a sacred figure to many Southwestern Native Americans.
The couple told Virginia they would take the pot with the painting of Kokopelli on it. Money was handed over. Virginia pulled out the bubble wrap and tape so she could protect the pot for its journey to its new home.
When the wrapping was nearly complete Virginia mentioned that some people consider Kokopelli a fertility symbol. I’m sure she intended this information to be just one more little tidbit to make the pot more interesting to the couple. Virginia had no way of knowing she’d just shot herself in the foot.
What? the tourist woman asked sharply.
Virginia repeated that some people see Kokopelli as a fertility symbol.
I can’t give this to my 16 year old daughter! the woman huffed. She decided she didn’t want the pot after all. Sadly, there was nothing else on Virginia’s table she wanted instead.
No problem, Virginia told the woman, but I could tell she was disappointed by the loss of the sale. She handed the woman’s money back and said flatly, I hope you find something you like better.
Why the couple didn’t pick out a different pot, I don’t know. Maybe they feared turtles and bears and hummingbirds and buffalo were also secret fertility symbols. In any case, the transaction with Virginia was over.
I sat behind my table and tried not to laugh in disbelief. Did the woman really think having a pot with an image of Kokopelli on it was going to increase her daughter’s chances of getting pregnant? Did she think Kokopelli was going to magically hop off the pot in the night and knock up her daughter? Did she refuse to allow her daughter to participate in Maypole dances and Easter egg hunts?
I just shook my head and felt sorry for Virginia’s loss.