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Russell Sanchez was born in 1963 at San Ildefonso Pueblo. He grew up surrounded by some of the greatest modern pottery-making influences and legacies in his native San Ildefonso Pueblo. To contextualize his background, Sanchez is a great-great-grandnephew of Ramona Sanchez Gonzales (1885–1934) and a great-grandnephew of Rose Gonzales (1900–1989). He learned to make pottery from Rose, who taught him the basics of traditionally coiling forms, polishing and firing. Anita Da (1920–2005), wife of Popovi Da (1922–1971), was very influential in guiding his early artistic career. After Popovi Da’s passing in 1971, Anita continued to operate their studio and gallery, which was located on the pueblo. It was considered one of the best sources for collectors to find not only work by Maria Martinez (1887–1980) but also younger Native potters. Anita provided Sanchez with insights on creating innovative and quality work. Her son, Tony Da (1940–2008), taught him how to inlay heishi beads, two-tone his pottery, inset stones and sgraffito (or incise designs into the surface of the clay before it is fired). Sanchez had unique access to the available techniques, both innovative and traditional, at the start of his career.
Today, Sanchez looks back on this heritage of artists and the legacy of his San Ildefonso Pueblo. They are the foundation for a revivalist moment in his work as he seeks out historic shapes and modernizes them to fit his own style. The lesson from his recent works in clay is that Pueblo pottery from the last 100 years is not, as is often perceived, a limiting or restrictive factor for artistic creativity. The innovative pottery of the early 1900s is more a source of creative exuberance, as potters such as Sanchez can seek out historic trends and modernize them.
Sanchez remembers pottery-making advice from his great-aunt Rose who told him to “take what came before and make it your own.” Just replicating the old forms or designs is not enough, and therein lies a trap of losing the individual’s artistry to the demands of history. Sanchez remains committed to the preservation of the pueblo’s historic pottery and looking to the future and continuing with the clay as a dynamic and vibrant art form.
“By adhering to his methods and even at times expanding on the designs and shapes of his pieces, he is showing the next generation what is possible,” says Nancy Youngblood, who received a Governor’s Arts Award for pottery in 2004. “He has not only followed the long-standing traditions of San Ildefonso Pueblo’s pottery but has also brought a new level of excellence to the art form.”
Sanchez follows the traditional ways of gathering clay, processing it, and creating it through the traditional coil method. He fires his pieces using the traditional methods of an open outside fire, using cedar wood, dried cow pies, and dried horse manure. “His strict dedication to the traditional ways is not only admirable but rare in this day and age, where many have lost touch with this sacred process,” says Youngblood. While keeping with tradition, Sanchez has not only revived forms that were done in the 1800s but has also established new contemporary styles that show his originality and talent as an artist. Youngblood said she once asked Sanchez what he was most proud of. “He told me, ‘Giving recognition to the potters of the past and carrying on their work. We are part of a living tradition.’”
The Denver Art Museum, the Heard Museum, the Millicent Rogers Museum, the Museum of Indian Art and Culture, the Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles, and the National Museum of the American Indian (Smithsonian) are among those with his works. His pottery has also been published in numerous magazines and books, including The Art of Clay, Talking with the Clay, Generations, Changing Hands, and Spoken Through Clay. In 2006 he was featured on the cover of Southwest Art magazine.
Sanchez began entering his pottery competitively in 1978, and since that time has almost continuously been recognized for his quality and achievements with blue ribbons each year. Among his most notable awards are Best of Division at Santa Fe Indian Market and Best of Division at the Heard Indian Market. In 2011, he was awarded the special Tony Da Award for Pottery at the Santa Fe Indian Market. He received the prestigious New Mexico Governor’s Award in 2017. In 2022 he won Best of Pottery and Best of Show at the Santa Fe Indian Market.
Russell Sanchez is represented by Blue Rain Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico.