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The pots hold answers

Times Staff Writer

In Tony Berlant’s art studio, hundreds of photographs blanket a 35-foot-long wall, floor to ceiling. These pictures of clay pots -- centuries-old ancestral Hopi pottery -- represent a cultural reading project: interpreting what Berlant calls “love notes from a lost civilization.”

On a recent afternoon, while Berlant studied the painted bowls, peering over his shoulder -- or, rather, around it, because he’s a good half-foot shorter -- was Steven LeBlanc. An archeologist, LeBlanc is the director of collections at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology. Oblivious to the contemporary artwork behind them by Berlant and others, the men -- the artist and the scientist -- studied the yellow, red, brown and black designs on clay pots with equal intensity.

A painted bird caught the artist’s eye. Then a rabbit figure. Then an abstract form. Both men brimmed with excitement as they explained their shared detective work: They were deciphering the visual clues that identify the Vermeers and Rembrandts among the ancestral Hopi Indians.

It is a shared passion -- they are collaborating on a project about the ceramics -- but the men employ entirely different methods.

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“My first question is: When?” LeBlanc says. “I inevitably think like an archeologist: Time is everything.”

Berlant always asks: Who? “For me, it always comes down to having this one-to-one transcendent aesthetic experience with the hand of an individual painter,” Berlant says.

By combining who and when, Berlant and LeBlanc are making discoveries in the study of Hopi art -- findings they hope to publish in a book.

Contrasting views

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In Berlant’s sunlit Santa Monica studio, Berlant and Leblanc are giddy with insight, and they complete each other’s sentences.

“We look at the same artifact and see it completely differently,” says LeBlanc, who wears glasses and a trimmed beard. “That’s why the collaboration has been successful: We pull the information together.”

A native of Los Angeles, he received his master’s degree in anthropology from UC Santa Barbara in 1967 and a doctorate from Washington University in 1971. During the 1970s, he directed fieldwork in the Mimbres Valley and other parts of New Mexico. He’s written and edited numerous books, and most recently co-wrote “Constant Battles” (St. Martin’s Press) with Katherine E. Register.

Berlant, tall with a mane of thick dark hair, is best known for his colorful large-scale metal collages. The 62-year-old artist has shown work at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as well as others. Two of his murals adorn the airports in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. “It’s like the right and the left brain,” he says of LeBlanc. “We’re able to each bring insights and factual knowledge that the other doesn’t have.”

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Berlant and LeBlanc’s partnership spans three decades, two coasts and several publications. They were introduced by LeBlanc’s high school friend, artist James Turrell. In the early 1970s, they formed the Mimbres Foundation, which is dedicated to understanding and protecting this ancient culture. They continued to research American Indian artifacts. Most recently, they organized “Painted by a Distant Hand,” a show of pottery by the Mimbres culture of southern New Mexico at the Peabody Museum.

About five years ago, the two began focusing on Sikyatki ceramics, large fired-clay food bowls, painted with designs primarily in orange and yellow.

They were created by ancestral Hopis who settled on three mesas northeast of Flagstaff, Ariz., almost a thousand years ago. Although small in numbers, they were prolific makers of pottery; the earliest Anasazi ceramics are 1,500 years old. The orange and yellow pottery that became known as Sikyatki (after the village where it was first found) flourished between 1400 and 1600. In addition to the color, the design changed from geometric shapes to more naturalist images of animals and religious figures.

Hundreds of years later, in the late 1800s, the Hopi woman Nampeyo was inspired by the prehistoric vessels. Her pottery began the still influential Sikyatki revival movement.

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The Hopi-painted ceramic, Berlant says, “is the greatest painting tradition in what is now the United States.”

Berlant and LeBlanc have identified many “sets” of bowls they believe come from the same artists. But today, neither can remember who identified each artist first or who made the visual connections. “Like any good collaboration, it’s a big tossed salad,” LeBlanc says.

Both have come to believe that this Hopi culture had an appreciation for individual artists, unusual among the Southwestern tribes of that period. But they arrived at this realization from different starting points.

LeBlanc counted -- the numbers of ceramic shards, the number of bowls, the number of households -- and determined through his calculations that there could only be a few artists working within each village. Berlant looked. He collected his own kind of data employing the kind of intuitive process that “upsets the archeologist a lot,” LeBlanc says. He sought out similarities in form and subject. Figuring out which bowls were painted by the same hand was a process similar to learning to identify a voice on the telephone. “You recognize the voice instantly, but you’d be hard pressed to explain why.”

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Between them, they have collected close to 2,000 images of Sikyatki ceramic bowls from collections around the country and abroad. Having even a few hundred hung on the wall helps them make visual connections when they get together every six weeks or so. LeBlanc usually makes the trip to Los Angeles from Boston.

“You start to find things,” Berlant says, pointing to the wing of a bird and then to a shape that is similar but abstract. “Aha! -- you realize, that is that. So whenever you see that shape, you know that means bird.”

Traditionally painted by women, the designs on the pottery likely were inspired by mural paintings, the two believe. The images are shorthand, Berlant says, the same way a cross represents aspects of Christianity.

“There’s a tremendous sense of individuality,” he says. Although there’s a common vocabulary of images -- corn, birds, other animals -- individual pots also have unique images, complex and playful iconography. That suggests that there was a small group of artists who made most of the pottery for the community rather than each household crafting its own.

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“The individual expression is so pronounced, you can tell they were independent artists,” Berlant says, “like jazz musicians, trying to impress each other.”

LeBlanc leaps from there to the larger historical question: How did Hopi culture evolve to encourage such artistic expression?"Something obviously happened at this moment that was revolutionary,” he says. The ability to recognize the work of individual artists suggests a level of labor specialization that archeologists didn’t previously discern. Ultimately, LeBlanc says, these small aesthetic connections say a lot about the way ancestral Hopi were socially organized.

The two plan to publish their findings -- and images of the pottery -- in a book, but no deadline has been set. “If we were Hollywood producers, we’d say: ‘We’re in development,’ ” Berlant jokes.

They’ve attached little gold and silver stars to some of the photographs on the wall, sorting out which they want to include in the book, effectively making a storyboard of the studio wall.

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“We look at them from a complementary set of eyes,” LeBlanc says, “but we share the same questions.”


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