Dora Tse-Pe’ was born in 1939 in Zia Pueblo to Candelaria Medina of Zia and Tony Gachupin of Jemez. One of thirteen children, she was first exposed to 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 their ancestors for guidance. She remembered her mother, sometimes with tears in her eyes, picking up a pot that exploded in firing and saying, “You weren’t meant to be,” and then offering it back to the earth.
In 1961, Dora married Tse-Pe of San Ildefonso and made her life there. She began to watch her mother-in-law Rose Gonzales make pottery and soon decided to pursue pottery-making seriously. Rose made traditional black pottery, and it was from her that Dora learned how to polish, since “we didn’t polish at Zia.”
The style that is uniquely Dora’s was influenced not only by her mother and Rose but also by Popovi Da’s two-tone black and sienna ware and by Tony Da’s inlaying of stones. Dora is best known for her combination of black and sienna carved pots with inlays of turquoise, coral, or onyx.
Dora has been a potter for decades and considers her art a gift from God. She had mentors, but also developed her own technique through trial and error. She doesn’t believe in quantity, but quality. She spends a lot of time on each piece and never goes to a show with more than twenty pieces. “When I sell a pot, while I’m wrapping it, I talk to it and say goodbye, that I hope it will have a happy home.”
Dora believes that education is the key to keeping this art alive. She gets requests from university groups, the Smithsonian, and tour groups to give lectures and demonstrations, which she does happily. She finds that many are amazed to learn just how much work and planning goes into the making of one pot.
Dora had five children, two of whom are accomplished potters.
“It gives me pleasure to be able to create beauty from the earth,” she says. “Also to know that long after I’ve served my time on this earth, the pots I’ve created will live on.”
Zia Pueblo/Jemez Pueblo