Dora Tse-Pe was born at Zia Pueblo to Candelaria Medina of Zia and Antonio Gachupin of Jemez Pueblo. One of 13 children, she was first exposed to polychrome pottery by her mother who taught her “the important things about pottery making.” She learned to first show reverence by sprinkling cornmeal on the earth and asking Mother Earth for permission to take the clay, then thanking her for it. With every step, she and her mother would ask for their ancestors for guidance. She remembers her mother, sometimes with tears in her eyes, picking up a pot that had exploded in the outdoor firing process saying, “You weren’t meant to be” and offering it back to the earth. To this day, Dora does the same thing.
In the early 60’s, she married Tse-Pe of San Ildefonso Pueblo and made her life there. She began to watch her mother-in-law Rose Gonzales make pottery and her interest grew. Rose made traditional black pottery and was the first to carve her pots. It was from Rose that Dora learned to polish pottery. The style that is uniquely Dora’s today was influenced not only by Candelaria and Rose but also Popovi Da (for his two-tone, black and sienna style) and Tony Da (for his inlaying of stones.
Dora sold one of her first pots to someone who entered it in the New Mexico State Fair art competition, and she won a blue ribbon. Encouraged, she entered the Gallup Intertribal Ceremonials competition, was one to the top ten finalists, and then got Best of Show. The same year, she won Best of Show at the New Mexico State Fair. Soon her name began to appear in art magazines and she found herself giving lectures to galleries and universities on the art of pottery making. Dora is one of a few potters honored at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. Her award ribbons total over 200.
Having been a potter for years, Dora considers her art a gift from The Creator. She has mentors for sure, but also developed her own techniques through trial and error. Dora believes in quality, not quantity, and spends a great deal of time on each piece of pottery from start to finish. Dora says, “When a finished pot is sold, while I’m wrapping it, I talk to it and say goodbye, that I hope it will have a happy home.”
Dora believed that education is the key to keeping appreciation of this art alive. She happily takes opportunities to lecture, demonstrate and share the art of pottery making. She has shared what she knows with her daughters and their children and hopes that the family tradition will endure.
“It gives me great pleasure to be able to create beauty from the earth,” Dora says. “Also to know that long after I’ve served my time on this earth, the pots I’ve created will live on.”