Renowned Pottery Artist Creates Custom Olla Pot for Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine
Written by Jessica Salopek
Photography by Tony Varin
BCOM’s Dr. Richard Selinfreund and Justin McHorse with Josephine Seymour (above). The medical students explore the olla pot Josephine created with their input (right and opposite page).
The Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine (BCOM) has been outspoken in the belief that cultural awareness is an important element of effective healthcare. Dr. Richard Selinfreund, an associate professor of pathology at the school, took that message to heart when he first envisioned commissioning a custom piece of artwork representing how the culture of the Southwest interconnects with medicine.
With the backing of an anonymous donor, Richard approached BCOM’s Chief of Staff and Assistant Dean of Multicultural Inclusion Justin McHorse with his idea. Justin in turn reached out to Josephine Seymour, a renowned Native American potter. “When I was the director of the American Indian Program at NMSU, we invited Josie to campus to meet with the students and view a documentary film she is featured in titled Grab,” Justin says. “I knew she was the right person to approach with Dr. Selinfreund’s idea of connecting the students and faculty with the cultures in this region.”
Josie is a member of Laguna Pueblo, which is located west of Albuquerque and east of Grants, New Mexico. She has been a potter for almost 20 years, but said she still considers herself a beginner. In 2011, she gained widespread recognition for Grab, which was featured at the Sundance Film Festival. She has also been featured in National Geographic’s All Roads Film Project and was a featured artist at the National Museum of the American Indian’s “Meet the Artist” program in New York City.
“My mother-in-law, a member of Acoma Sky City Pueblo, taught me to make pottery so I could teach my daughter. The pottery is very symbolic and still used today in religious ceremonies,” Josie explains. “She taught me how to be respectful and to humble myself throughout the whole process from collecting the clay to forming the pot to painting.”[/su_pullquote]
Josie and her family collect clay for her pieces from the desert mesas surrounding Laguna Pueblo. She then creates and paints the pottery in her home workshop, firing many pieces the traditional way in a pit in her backyard. She says that each step of her creation process is done in prayer and with positive thoughts. Everything from the shape of the pot to the images depicted have symbolism and meaning.
“My mother-in-law would tell me that if a pot wasn’t working for me that I should walk away and let it rest. It’s important to have a happy feeling in your heart and good thoughts in your mind when you work. We also give thanks to Mother Earth and pray for the people the pot is being created for,” she notes.
In early December 2016, Josie made the trip to Las Cruces to visit the BCOM campus and garner input from students, faculty, and staff on what designs, prayers, and messages they would like to see represented on the BCOM pot.
Josie then spent four months creating the custom piece, which she revealed to the BCOM students and faculty in April. The olla pot is displayed in the BCOM lobby. Students, faculty, and staff have been invited to capture their thoughts, visions, and aspirations for the school on archive quality paper which will be included in the display.
Josie says she became very emotionally tied to the pot during the creation process. “I can’t begin to tell you everything that I’ve put into this pot,” she says. “It’s the first pot that, when I completed it, I sat there and cried because I was so connected to it. All my pots are my babies, but I know this one will have a beautiful and meaningful home and that brings me comfort and happiness.”
“My mother-in-law would tell me that if a pot wasn’t working for me that I should walk away and let it rest. It’s important to have a happy feeling in your heart and good thoughts in your mind when you work. We also give thanks to Mother Earth and pray for the people the pot is being created for.”
Symbols of the olla pot
While she makes a number of different types of pots, Josie says she selected an olla pot specifically for this commission because these types of pots are traditionally used for making medicines.
Top RIM: The top rim of the pot depicts four sets of mountains, one to represent the Organs and another to represent Mount Taylor near Josie’s home in Laguna Pueblo. “The other two mountains are for you; to represent your landmark, your mesa, your mountain from wherever you call home,” she explained to the students during the reveal. Human stick figures: The ring of human figures circling the pot symbolizes the unity of the inaugural class. The ring of human figures circling the pot symbolizes the unity of the inaugural class. Butterfly & Sun: Josie says, “The butterfly stands as a reminder to have respect for the human body, no matter what shape or form you receive it in, and the sun represents new beginnings and a reminder to look at each new sunrise as a blessing and an opportunity to pursue your passion for helping and loving others.” Four hearts: Many students indicated to Josie that they decided to pursue medicine after the loss of a loved one, for which she incorporated a grouping of four hearts that she says also represent the “life force that beats in every human being on earth.” Hand print: The hand print is Josie’s own, a representation of her as the artist. Designs with each of the fingers symbolize rain, mountains, plants, and the day and night as, Josie explains, “a reminder to always take time to appreciate rain, take care of the land, pray for a plentiful crop—in whatever form that may be for you—and to always be thankful for the new day.” Bear Paw: The bear paw pays homage to the BCOM mascot, Brett the Bear. Corn: This depiction of a seed sprouting into a corn plant represents growth and transformation through education.