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The Ground Shots Podcast

Aug 26, 2020

This episode of the Ground Shots Podcast features a conversation with the potter and artist John Mahkewa, Hopi-Tewa elder currently living in Yuma, Arizona.


John and I met a few years ago at the Buckeye Gathering, an ancestral skills gathering that usually occurs in the Spring in Concow, California. Since this gathering where I met John and took his pottery class, the Buckeye Gathering has been on sabbatical, due to the Paradise fire and the Covid-19 pandemic.


I decided to take John’s class at this gathering because I wanted to focus on one craft for the week, and I had been introduced to land-based pottery from my friend Erin Fahey, who is pictured in this podcast episode’s main photo. She spoke highly of John, having met him the year before at the gathering and offered to process his clay for him a year in advance because of a recent stroke he had had. Taking his class was a fruitful experience of immense patience and fulfillment.


At first, the gathering was rainy, and there were a lot of folks who showed up for John’s class, it was hard to get individual attention while working with the clay we the been given. The weather affects everything with pottery. Rainy weather makes it act differently - makes it dry slower and more likely to crack, at the same time, drying a hand pinched pot in the direct sun will also make it crack. John told stories and reminded us that our mindset affects our pots. They were children we had to nurture. Each day the class got smaller as folks got distracted by shorter and more instantly fulfilling classes. As those who stayed dedicated to the process stuck it out, we got more individual attention and feedback from John about how we were working the clay. We made ultra small pots, partly because of the weather, partly because of John’s advice to start small as it is less likely to crack and dries faster. Our goal was to pit fire the pots by the end of the week, and the variable weather made it uncertain if it would be successful.

By the end of the week there were less than 10 of us dedicated students showing up to John’s class, not that it wasn’t a good class, but because often at these skill-share gatherings folks feel FOMO for not trying to dip their fingers in everything and distraction is a reality. During these last few days, John told a lot of stories about his life growing up with his grandmother as a mentor, being hospitalized for polio, being put in a school and being away from his family, his dreams of his grandmother and various saint figures, his time in the military, his death experience(which he talks about a little on the podcast), his work as an adult re-finding his craft and seeing the goodness in humanity.

I did some recordings of John at the gathering that are not a part of this episode, but maybe at some point the combination of his teachings and the in-person interview will come out on the podcast. Ever since this meeting several years ago, John and I have been in conversation about continuing our recordings of his stories. I was attached to meeting again in person, but due to Covid-19, I have let go of that for the moment. Our elders are here for us to cherish, and they can go in an instant. Not to say that John is ill or anything, he is very vibrant. Covid-19 has reminded me that older folks are more vulnerable, and their stories go with them when they go. I appreciate John’s perspective from our time being Facebook friends since this meeting at Buckeye, and have kept it in my mind to continue to capture his stories. This interview is a Facebook call we did in June that touches on some of the stories John shared a few years ago when I met him. I hope in the future we continue to record stories of his for the podcast as he has a lot to share.


In this episode with John Mahkewa, we talk about:


John’s experiences as a young child hanging out with his grandmother Grace Chapella, who was an acclaimed potter, and some things he learned from her, how she used clay to tell stories


John speaks to his death experience in a Jewish hospital after a heart attack over 20 years ago, and how this experience changed his perspective on the world, and reinvoked his interest in clay


John speaks to clay as a teacher, and how he processes the clay by hand with no electric machines and tools


the DNA connection between clay and humans


John reaching out into new art-forms, and branching beyond traditional techniques in recent years


Some wisdom from John about his perspective on the Covid-19 pandemic, recent protests and riots


some of John's writing projects in the works


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Theme music: 'Sweat and Splinters' by Mother Marrow

Interstitial music: ‘Little Flower’ by West of Roan

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Hosted by: Kelly Moody

Produced by: Kelly Moody and Opia Creative