Indigenous Traditions Abide at the Hands of Artist Tony Soares

The self-taught artist, based in Joshua Tree, creates ollas and Folsom point spears in the style of ancient Indigenous makers.

May 26, 2024
Story by Maggie Downs
Tony Soares stands beside his kiln.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRANDON HARMAN

“It’s work,” says Tony Soares. “You know, my back hurts, and I’m trying to save my hands, because … arthritis.”

As he says this, Soares finishes smoothing a clay pot. It’s about the size of a bouncy playground ball and looks every bit as voluminous and inflated. Somehow this craftsman has transformed a hunk of raw clay into a seemingly weightless shape, like some kind of alchemy.

“But I still have work left in me,” he smiles.

We’re in the heart of Joshua Tree in Soares’ workshop, where the process of making a pot might as well be a CrossFit workout. Sacks of clay weigh more than a couple of car tires. He prepares logs for the hot kilns, splitting cords of cedar and low-pitch pine with an ax and stacking the rest. There are vats of clay in various stages — some dry, some soaking, some ready to sculpt — and those need to be strained, stirred, and wedged.

This is where the 55-year-old crafts Cahuilla-style pottery, not as objects of utility but as vessels of memory. Each piece from his hands tells the story of a land steeped in history and tradition, while integrating his own story, too.

“I’m like a hunter-gatherer in the modern world,” he says. “I just keep doing it because this is what I love.”

Soares works with wet clay.

What he does is downright remarkable. Soares forages for natural clay among the desert dust, then skillfully molds that material into pots using the ancient techniques of Indigenous people. He is reviving the art form by teaching the tribes what he’s learned. Though Soares’ mother descended from the Algonquin and Métis people in Canada, he is not a member of any tribe.

“No one was doing this anymore,” he says, “so I’m sharing what I know.”

DIGGING FOR CLAY

Soares can barely remember a time before his hands were in clay. During a childhood split between his father’s dairy farm in Chino and his mother’s home in Joshua Tree, it was in the Mojave Desert that his grandmother showed him how to make simple pinch pots using commercial clay. Soares was 5 years old, and he took to the craft immediately.

During the hot Mojave summers, Soares visited museums around the Southwest with his great-aunt. That was also a time when a kid playing in the desert could stumble across artifacts, like pottery sherds, from the Native inhabitants of the land — the Serrano, the Chemehuevi, the Cahuilla.

“It didn’t take long for me to connect what I was seeing in the museums with the things in the desert,” he says.

By the time he was 12 or 13, Soares was mimicking Indigenous pottery and on the hunt for his own clay.

“I knew the ancient people weren’t getting their clay from the store,” he says. Which meant he had to find it somewhere in the desert.

Soares noticed different regions produced clay of varying colors, like Pechanga brownware or pinkish hues from the Salton Sea basin.

“Everywhere I went, I’d put some water on the dirt and see what happened,” he says. “Dirt’s not going to stick together, but clay is always going to have some plasticity. From there, you’re going to see: Can you build a pot out of it? Can the pot dry without cracking? What happens when you put it in fire?”

 THE PHOTO THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING

Inside the workshop, Soares begins work on a small-necked olla. He flattens clay into a patty, as if he’s rolling out pie crust, then drapes it over a form that looks like an upside-down gourd. Then he pulls out a round rock and a small wooden paddle. Soares made both tools by hand, and they’re essential for shaping and smoothing the clay.

For centuries, Indigenous people throughout California, Arizona, and New Mexico employed this paddle-and-anvil technique. Many tribes stopped making pots in the 1800s, and that knowledge was almost lost.

Soares was determined to figure it out. 

At his workshop in Joshua Tree, self-taught artist Tony Soares molds desert clay according to Native traditions into ollas of varying size.

“You’d see these big round pots in the museum, but nobody could tell me how they were made,” he says. “That sparked something for me.”

Soares spent decades experimenting with techniques. He tried using a basket as a form. He dug divots in the sand, lined them with cloth, and built pots on the ground. He asked archaeologists. All dead ends.

So how did he figure it out? “I saw a picture of a lady in a book,” he says, shrugging. The image depicted a woman from the Tohono O’odham Nation sculpting clay over a form pot. At her side were paddle and anvil tools. That was the lightbulb moment for Soares.

“From that point, I could put the construction together,” he says. “Then years went by, and I found a book on Papago Indian [Tohono O’odham] pottery that confirmed everything I was doing was correct.”

There’s almost a meditative quality to Soares’ work. One hand guides the anvil, while the other, wielding a paddle, taps rhythmically against the vessel’s walls. He molds and shapes, occasionally dipping his tools in water, smoothing and coaxing the clay. As the vessel takes shape, he slides it off the form and builds the remainder with the round bottom cradled in a ring woven from palm fronds. With delicate precision, he sculpts the slender neck.

“People always ask how I get my hand inside the hole at the top. But that’s not how you build this kind of pot,” he says. “It’s bottom up, just like a house. They’re not built from the chimney.”

He sells select pieces at the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum in Palm Springs.

Though he’s received acclaim for his claywork and has amassed devoted supporters — including Millie Browne, former chairwoman of the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum — Soares’ skill doesn’t end with pottery. He is renowned for his expertise in crafting bows and arrows and Folsom spear points. Actor Jason Momoa is among his collectors.

“Nobody could figure out how [the Folsom points] were made,” he says. “I’ve gotten to where I can make them almost exactly as the ones made 10,500 years ago. But I don’t want to give away all my secrets.”

PASSING THE KNOWLEDGE

For 30 years, Soares cut hair at a small salon — “I never really wanted to do hair, it was a fallback thing” — and taught pottery classes on the side, starting in the 1990s for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

Now retired from hair, Soares has dedicated himself to becoming fluent in the distinctive pottery styles of tribes throughout the Southwest, which is why he’s a sought-after instructor for Native students who want to learn the art form. The Heard Museum in Phoenix, for instance, hosted a weeklong master artist workshop with Soares for the Colorado River Indian Tribes. He currently teaches in the Native American Arts Program at Idyllwild Arts Academy.

In a world where modernity often overshadows the past, Soares’ commitment to preserving and reviving these traditions breathes life into the art of pottery, bridging the gap between historical and contemporary craftsmanship. “I spent all these years learning, and I guess you could say my gift is to help these tribes get their style of pottery back,” he says, “since their ancestors gave me the inspiration to do this.”