Artist’s Spotlight: Bridging the Past

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Tammy Beane reproduces early Native American pottery for museums using a mix of prehistoric techniques and her own self-taught skills.

Story and photos by STEVEN STIEFEL

How many people can say that their job is keeping 4,000-year-old traditions alive?

Tammy Beane does just that, creating reproductions of prehistoric and early historic pottery from the southern United States for museums and archaeologists. She says the early potters, who lived in Alabama centuries ago, were fantastic artists with amazing talent despite their primitive cultures.

“I have learned so much from handling their original pieces and will probably never stop learning from them,” Beane says. “I am continually inspired and challenged by their talent and the quality of their work. This has allowed me to become the self-taught potter that I am today. My passion is to keep alive and share the beauty and tradition of these wonderful artists.”[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]The Sand Rock, Ala. resident, who left her previous life as a financial consultant with Merrill Lynch, started “playing in the mud” by chance. “When my husband Larry and I met 30 years ago, he was a park ranger and an archaeologist. We would go caving and canoeing, seeing clay everywhere. He introduced me to Southeastern archaeology and a use for this clay. This interest has stayed with me since,” she says.

The simplicity of the art of using clay from the ground and the wood-firing technique still fascinates her. She passes along her knowledge in workshops like the ones she offers at the Little River Canyon Center in Fort Payne, Ala., teaching an eclectic mix of attendees how to create their own pottery and forge it over a campfire.

“I have combined traditional prehistoric techniques with my love of nature into my contemporary ‘Southern Mud Pottery’,” she says. Using wooden paddles with decorative patterns carved into them, Beane makes impressions into the moist clay.

The designs often feature the animals that Native Americans would have seen around
them in daily life, particularly birds, frogs, possums, bats, turtles and fish. “If we can’t make out what the exact animal was, we refer to it as a ‘mythical creature’,” Beane says.

“The earliest stuff in the Southeast is fiber tempered from Stallings Island about 4,000
years ago,” she says. “It’s really chunky, thick stuff with Spanish moss and grass mixed in with the clay. As time progresses, you see the craftsmanship evolve from chunky to nice. And you see some really fine prehistoric pottery. For the bulk of it, you’re looking at what they used it for. They cooked in them, used them for storage, even buried people in them. You also see a lot of toys.”

Like prehistoric time capsules, ancient pottery reflects changing methods and traditions. Beane avoids making interpretations of what the ornate decorations meant to the primitive creators.

“During the time when they were creating this prehistoric pottery, there was no written language, although I’m sure stories were passed along through oral tradition,” she says. “I simply appreciate the beauty for beauty’s sake. I never get bored with it because each order I get, it’s something that I haven’t hardly done before. There’s so many different pottery types, I don’t know that you could really ever learn them all.”
What really excites Beane is the ability to promote Southeastern prehistoric pottery, which rivals the more widely known items found in the Southwest. “I enjoy educating people and raising awareness of what we have,” she says. “It’s been very rewarding to see tradition carried on.”

Beane is a member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild and the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi, a life member of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference and a
Dana Teaching Artist. Her work has appeared in such places as the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in North Carolina, the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah, Okla., the University of the South in Mobile, Ala., and the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Museum in Townsend, Tenn. She’s also active in the arts community in Mentone, Ala., where she has work displayed at Kamama Gallery.

When she first got started with her reproductions of ancient pottery, Beane often served as a link connecting archaeologists and Native American groups. She says these days, the parties work closely together. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act enacted in 1990 requires federal agencies to return Native American “cultural items,” along with items such as human remains and sacred objects, to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Indian tribes upon the inadvertent discovery of these relics.

“Those laws should have been passed a lot sooner,” she says. “Because of the law, museums and Native American groups now have to work together. I was asked by the Choctaws to model a program after what the Cherokees had done in North Carolina.”
Beane said the pottery found in Southeast museums barely scratches the surface of what exists.

“In museums, you only see a fraction of what we have. When you get in to see the collections, it’s phenomenal,” she says.

She gets to hold in her hands relics that are thousands of years old. Obviously, museums
expect her to exercise great care when handling these items. In some cases, Beane must take measurements and work primarily from photographs when creating reproductions.

Much of the time, she’s expanding from an impression taken from a partial, broken piece in a collection. “Every piece I do, nothing is perfectly reproduced. There’s going to be some variations in it. The time it takes to recreate really depends on the intricacy of the decoration, the style and the mood I’m in while working on it,” she says. Her favorite piece is a six-sided item that dates from 650-800 BC . “It’s really ornate, sand tempered,” Beane says. “To be that old and that ornate in the Southeast is phenomenal.”

Beane says she doesn’t miss her days in the finance industry at all. “People are a lot nicer,” she says.  “With Merrill Lynch, it was cutthroat, a different mindset completely, plus I didn’t enjoy that drive into downtown Birmingham every day. The people I meet now are so down-to-earth.”

She can’t keep an inventory because as soon as she creates a piece of art, “it is out the door.”

See more of Tammy Beane’s pottery at southernhighlandguild.org/tammybeane.[/s2If]