al qoyawayma: blending the ancient and the modern
To examine Hopi artist Al Qoyawayma’s pottery is to be transported to a world beyond time, a place where the ancient and the modern blend seamlessly amid the subtle hues of the high desert, where a centuries-old cosmology informs a contemporary vision that pushes the boundaries of experimentation. It takes a special person to navigate this world, and Al Q, as he is known to his friends, is special indeed.
A member of the Coyote Clan whose origins date back to the ancient village of Sikyatki, Qoyawayma credits his late aunt Polingaysi Qoyawayma, a renowned potter also known as Elizabeth White, with inspiring his distinctive style. Emulating the low-shouldered forms and intricate designs of the Sikyatki, whose pottery is considered by experts to be among the most sophisticated ever produced, he creates complex, lightweight pieces of ceramic art that serve as both a repository of traditional stories and an exemplar of modern minimalism. Smooth surfaces, intricate carvings, and inviting shapes characterize his highly innovative approach to the art form, combining techniques old and new to craft vessels of singular beauty.
“I use the repoussé technique on the clay to produce fluid forms with high sculptural relief,” he says. “I use many motifs, such as ancient architecture, dancing figures, and icons like corn, animals, and feathers.”
Qoyawayma’s vision is influenced not only by ancestral art forms but also by his own scientific background as an accomplished engineer and hydrologist. He owns patents worldwide on advanced aerospace navigation systems, and is co-founder of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. But despite his success as a scientist, teacher, writer, and scholar, it’s through his art that he expresses his “unified field theory” of a world that exists outside of linear time.
“It’s art, almost more than science, that’s taught me to be disciplined,” he observes. “Persistence and endurance are also family traits, Hopi traits. I make a lot of my own tools because they don’t exist elsewhere, and I’ve tested a hundred or more different clays to come up with one that’s ten times stronger than any commercial clay.”
It’s also his affinity for his culture, and the landscape that gave rise to it, that keeps him grounded. “Sitting on Hopi Mesa in the pure silence, feeling the wind blow, puts me into a kind of trance,” he explains. “Focusing isn’t just about working—it involves inspiration.”