Art Matters: Hand-coiled clay jar by Pueblo artist Les Namingha

Namingha uses his Zuni-Tewa-Hopi ancestors’ techniques and materials modified with a contemporary design and themes. 

clay jar with dark swirls
Image: Penn Museum
Les Namingha (B. 1968)
“Off Course” circa 1998
Polychrome jar of clay and paint
Penn Museum purchase, 1999

LOCATION: Penn Museum, 3260 South St., main level gallery, Native American Voices: The People, Here and Now


Pueblo artist Les Namingha creates pottery using his ancestors’ techniques and materials often modified with a contemporary design. “Off Course” is a hand-coiled jar made of clay dug from the earth and painted with mineral pigments from the artist’s New Mexico/Arizona homelands. Dark-brown swirls of scattered amorphic shapes form an abstract design on the wide, flat bowl that tapers to a narrow base. The surface design and title “Off Course” reference the artist’s disdain for what he sees as a misguided use of life-giving water to create resort golf courses in the desert Southwest, says Lucy Fowler Williams, associate curator-in- charge in the American Section at the Penn Museum. Artworks by Namingha, born to a Zuni Pueblo mother and Hopi Pueblo father, can be found in museums and private collections.

Fowler Williams selected the artwork for the Museum to purchase in 1999 for its American collection. 

“I chose this incredibly beautiful jar by Zuni-Tewa-Hopi (Pueblo) artist Les Namingha, for several reasons. The Penn Museum houses similar jars made by Namingha’s ancestors over 800 years ago, so this work compliments those older collections and teaches Penn students about the enduring legacies and artistic genius of Pueblo and Native American people everywhere. Les comes from a renowned family of Pueblo artists. This work so elegantly expresses his technical skill, deep knowledge of and relationships with his environment, and his abiding concern for the care and stewardship of water in his desert homeland, Fowler-Williams says. 

clay jar in museum case surrounded by other clay works
The clay jar by artist Les Namingha is on view in the Penn Museum’s long-term exhibition, Native American Voices: The People. Here and Now. (Image: J. DiSanto, Penn Museum)

Art Matters” is a new series in Penn Today highlighting the many works of fine art on and around Penn’s campus.