It was the yellow shirt I saw first. A canary yellow tee-shirt against the parched bench he sat on. But there was a flash of something else.
“Are you a potter?” I blurted out, surprising myself with my spontaneous directness.
(I’m normally rather shy and though I get accused of encouraging conversation on airplanes, think of myself as more of an observer than an aggressive talker.}
I couldn’t quite make out what Mr. Yellow Shirt was saying.
But he kept marking–what some folks would call doodling–on a cup.
A styroform cup, the kind you take your watered down coffee in when you are visiting places like I was just then: a beauty shop.
I’d stopped in to get a trim and here was a potter right on the doorstep.
I say potter because I vaguely recognized the style–from one of the New Mexico northern pueblos. The guy was drawing the same designs on the cup you might see on gorgeous pots from one of these ancient villages. And with the same amazing skill.
Cochiti, San Ildefonso, Santo Domingo? The fluid black and white designs challenged my memory.
I used to frequent the pueblos north of Albuquerque, sometimes visiting to take in the seasonal dance, sometime on a feast day, sometimes to visit a potter. They are known for their high-end art pots, evolved from the utile vessels of the earlier centuries, some designs still echoing the images drawn by their forebearers, the Anasazi. Their genius is in the designs, how they fit them perfectly on the rounded surface–all drawn freehand, sometimes still today with a single horsehair for a brush.
But the Anasazi and northern pueblos were a long way away. And so were the times I used to go there, spending some of my Ph.D. student loan money to buy a pot or rug I loved so much. This was Las Cruces. What was Mr. Yellow Shirt doing here some 240 miles south?
“When you come back out, I’ll have it finished,” he said extending his hand. “David.” He’s managed that with a simple flourish all the while (at least it seemed to me) gracefully and expertly executing perfectly proportioned and fitted shapes, some colored in with his plain black Bic pen, others with darkened edges that seemed to dance. His hand was small and warm. He was a slim man, with a pointed chin. His brown skin set off the yellow shirt, the black and white cup. I felt some sensory overload.
Inside, I spotted a lady I assumed to be his wife. Her ebony hair–was she in her 60s?–naturally out shined all the shop’s rinses and dies. David was probably waiting outside, creating a work of art on a simple disposable cup while he waited. She was selling jewelry in the back of the shop. My hairdresser explained everything while she clipped.
“Down from San Felipe,” she said.
“No, Santo Domingo,” Mrs. Yellow Shirt said when I asked her after my cut. “Give you a good price,” she said, passing her hand over the line of turquoise-studded necklaces and earrings. I picked some up but felt I’d already been extravagant in the “Indian” jewelry I owned . And just today I had told myself “scale back.”
So I thanked her and went outside. David stopped me with a push of the cup. “Here, for you,” he said, “it’s finished.” He drew the last three or four diagonal lines before handing it to me.
“I recognize these designed from another Santo Domingo pot,” I said, trying to make a real connection, wanting him to know my appreciation. He was giving me something but I felt I had nothing to give back.
David had signed the bottom: David Lucero. And now he produced his business card.
I felt strangely transported. The ancient designs, yet on the styrofoam cup, and now a professional business card. I noticed the area code was printed there but no phone number followed, just a blank.
I couldn’t help myself. I asked if I could take his picture holding the cup. Was this also out of line? I’d not bought anything from his wife and now he was giving me his cup.
“I’ll send you a photo,” I said.
And I did. I sent the photo of David but also one I took at home with his cup beside the one pot I had collected thirty years ago made by the famous Santo Domingo potter, Robert Tenorio.
I don’t know if David will, but I liked the two together. One from someone I’ll never meet, a well-known potter; the other, from a man who really gave me something. . .passing it on.