Interview with Christine Custalow
Oral History Item Type Metadata
West Point, VA 23181
Wood: This is Christine Custalow at her home on the Mattaponi Reservation. So can you just tell me a little bit about your pottery and your beadwork and how you got into it and what the process is?
Custalow: With the beadwork, I’ve been doing that since about seven years old. My mom was making my older brother a belt, and I was watching her, she was letting me put some of the beads on, with the loom. And the pottery, I’ve been in pottery for about thirty years, and we dug some of the clay from the Mattaponi River. But where we live, up on the bank, is a vein of clay that went through, and we’d dig it, but then the rain would wash the bank away, so we stopped digging clay. And now I buy my clay, you know, commercial clay, and make pots the same way my ancestors, start it with a ball of clay, and pinch it into a pot, and then we add coils to it. And to shape it you use a paddle, and you paddle, and then when you go on the inside you push out to get the shape that you want. And as you come up, and it gets harder, you add on to it, and then you can bring it back in to make it smaller at the top, to get the design that you want, the shape of it you want. And if it’s shiny, we burnish—before you’re completely hard, we use a smooth rock or a piece of deer antler, and you rub it, and it’ll shine just like wax, and then you fire it, and that’s how we get the shine.
Wood: Where do you fire it?
Custalow: Well I have a kiln that I use cinderblocks around it, and I cover it with pine needles and wood, and put a tent over top of it, and put it on fire, and just let it stay there and bake. That’s what makes it turn black, and harden. We can’t fire it until it’s dry, completely. It takes me about two days to shape it like I want it, but then it’ll take me another day to clean it out in the inside and smooth it, and put the design that I want on it. Altogether it’ll take me about three days to make a large pot, and then I decorate it. The little boxes start out with two pinch pots, and you put them together, and you shape them, and then you put whatever you want, like if it’s an animal or a bird, or whatever you want on the top of it, and then you cut around it and you open it up, and then you clean it on the inside and shape it the way you want it. I usually use deer on them, and turtles, on the boxes.
Wood: Do you feel like it’s a tradition that the younger generation is picking up?
Custalow: Oh yes, I’ve been teaching for about seven years, to the young people. I taught for the King William school—the Native children came to me, in our workshop here, and they ranged from age five on to fourteen, fifteen years old, and I taught them how to do the beadwork, pottery, and also how to make their regalia from leather and taught them to dance. We have dancers, that learned at the class. I enjoy pottery myself, because like I did on demonstrations, it’s like the frustrations, you go in there and you got that clay, you got the wedge and you beat it up, and you’re hitting it with a paddle, and you get all your frustrations out (laughs). I really enjoy that. The beadwork, a lot of my designs, I make it up, you know, on graph paper. And then some of them I just see a picture in a book or something like that, and get some graph paper and make my design.
I’ve taught all my children. I have three daughters—I’ve taught them how to do beadwork. I’ve got two sons that can do beadwork. I have granddaughters that work with the leather and the beadwork, and I have a grandson that he made his own regalia and wore it to England.
Wood: Did he do beadwork on it too?
Custalow: He did some beadwork on it too; in fact, he has my loom (laughs). They seem to enjoy it. And a lot of the little children love to do the clay beads—they make their own little clay beads and make their necklaces out of them—and they enjoy that ‘cause it’s something that they did themselves, you know.
Wood: We have a Monacan young woman who says she wants to learn how to make clay beads and work with them ...
Custalow: I have a lot of adults say they want to learn, and I’ve offered my services to them, but I don’t see them. Some of them would start and then they work, they can’t get here all the time. It’s good to learn. The finished product, I mean you see yourself putting a ball of clay in your hand, and you’re working with it, and when you end up, you have something really nice—it makes you feel good. Because I started out, I had this picture in my head, of making a fountain, you know. So my granddaughter and I we sat down and started making this fountain, and put the figures on them, like I have a warrior on one, and a maiden sitting beside him, and there’s water running out of a jug, and it was just magnificent. I felt really proud of it (laughs). But since I’ve been taking care of the elderly, I don’t have as much time to spend doing the really fancy things that I used to make. But I still stick with my pots and bowls and boxes.