ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The charcoal vessel drawings pinned to the studio wall echo memories of petroglyphs and potsherds.
But these sketches represent organic forms inspired by 2-liter soda bottles.
Ceramist Jami Porter Lara began sculpting the shapes in clay when a trip to the borderlands between Arizona and Mexico changed her life.
After careers in both software design and consumer advocacy, Lara decided to study art at the University of New Mexico at 40. She traveled to northern Mexico and the Coronado National Forest of southern Arizona under UNM’s Art of the American West program to ponder site-specific work.
“We were camped literally a half-mile from the (Mexican) border,” she said. “We were in an area where people were actually passing through.
“It was beautiful. It was mountainous, and there were these giant oak trees and waist-high grasses. I spent a lot time walking around.”
As she hiked the high desert, she discovered artifacts and relics including potsherds, as well as discarded backpacks.
“The main thing I found was 2-liter bottles,” she said. “Sometimes, they were in burlap slings.”
Next the students crossed into Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua, where they watched as the potters demonstrated making their famous coiled pieces. The Mata Ortiz pottery was inspired by the artifacts of Casas Grandes and Mimbres designs.
One of the artists displayed a map of North America without national boundaries.
“It was this moment when I thought this is an area of thousands of years of cultural continuity,” Lara said. “The plastic bottle is basically the same as the pottery sherds; it’s a cultural artifact.”
When she returned home, she began experimenting with clay vessels, using the soda bottle as a template.
“I actually created a Border Patrol truck patrolling around the center,” she said. “I made a spiral shape for the Chaco Canyon going around it. That was the moment when I realized I was creating a contemporary artifact.”
Today Lara pit-fires clay she gathers off the Magdalena Highway south of Socorro. She uses the coil method familiar to any fan of pueblo pottery. A reduction firing blocks the oxygen, turning the surface black. Lara refined her technique after studying with UNM pueblo pottery teacher Clarence Cruz,creating a mold for the lobed base of the bottle.
The artist burnishes her pieces to a glassy finish with a polishing stone. Although it once took her two days to shine a 20-inch piece into gloss, she has since learned to do it in “three-quarters of a day” while she listens to music.
“One time I burnished on a car trip all the way to Big Bend,” she said.
“What I really like about this process is that people are really drawn to the surface,” she said.
“There is a statement here about the border. It’s about connecting myself with the long lineage of people who have passed through. It’s also a statement about the permeability of all borders.”
The plastic soda bottle is the most iconic vessel of our time, she said.
“Even in the plastic bottle we can see something evolved from nature that breaks down in the environment and that breaks down in our bodies and is changing us as a species. Everything we make is a microcosm of our values. So it’s very interesting to me to confront the plastic bottle, which we think is profane.”
She acknowledged the irony of creating objects in a world with too many of them.
“It’s something I’m constantly grappling with,” Lara said. “It’s not a recycling awareness campaign. My focus on this is not that plastic is bad.”
Her work appeared on the Albuquerque Museum’s 2015 open studio tour, curator Andrew Connors said.”The first time we showed her work in the museum, she was selected by the public as an artist they wanted to see more of,” he said.
“I love the fact that she uses the most old-fashioned handmade pottery tradition and yet she creates objects that look absolutely high-tech,” he continued. “They look like they’re made of glass or plastic. Her finish is exquisite.”
Lara’s work is on exhibition at Peters Projects in Santa Fe through Nov. 4. She recently completed a show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.