Published on June 26, 2014 by Amy
Maria Montoya Martinez (1887, San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico – July 20, 1980, San Ildefonso Pueblo) was a Native American artist who created internationally known pottery. Martinez (born Maria Antonia Montoya), her husband Julian, and other family members examined traditional Pueblo pottery styles and techniques to create pieces which reflect the Pueblo people’s legacy of fine artwork and crafts.
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Martinez was from the San Ildefonso Pueblo, a community located 20 miles northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico. At an early age, she learned pottery skills from her aunt. During this time, Spanish tinware and Anglo enamelware had become readily available in the Southwest, making the creation of traditional cooking and serving pots less necessary. Traditional pottery making techniques were being lost, but Martinez and her family experimented with different techniques and helped preserve the cultural art.
An excavation, in 1908, led by Edgar Lee Hewett, a professor of archaeology and the director of the Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe, discovered examples of black-on-black pottery. While searching through the sandy dirt and red clay of the New Mexico desert terrain, broken pieces of polished, jet-black pottery were uncovered (Peterson 89). At this time, few people were aware that during the Neolithic period, the Pueblo peoples crafted this style of finished ware. The Historical Pottery of the Pueblo Indians 1600-1800 text states that the finished … pottery held a glossy, melted appearance which was only used for decoration on the pots. It is a common misconception that, “during the end of the 18th century, the use of plant pigments and finely powdered mineral substances became the preferred technique of painting and slowly caused the extinction of glazed pottery” (Frank and Harlow, 8). “In reality, the nearby inhabitants of Santa Clara Pueblo, were still producing the highly burnished, black on black pottery, since the 1600′s, therefore lending to the revival of the San Ildefonso style of black on black “painted” pottery. The only difference between the two pueblo’s styles is that in Santa Clara, pots are deeply carved and incised, whereas, in San Ildefonso, the pottery is generally not carved and painted with pigments to cause un-polished designs on a polished surface.”
Hewett sought a skilled pueblo potter who could re-create this ancient pottery style. His intention was to place re-created pots in museums and thus preserve the ancient art form. Maria Martinez was known in the Tewa pueblo of San Ildefonso, New Mexico for making the thinnest pots in the least time. Hewett saw her as the perfect Pueblo potter to bring his idea to life.
A long process of experimentation was required to successfully recreate the black-on-black pottery style to meet Maria’s exacting standards. There were many challenges. “As almost all clay found in the hills is not jet black, one specific challenge was to figure out a way to make the clay turn the desired color. Maria discovered, from observing the Tafoya family of Santa Clara Pueblo, who still practiced traditional pottery techniques, that smothering the fire surrounding the pottery during the outdoor firing process caused the smoke to be trapped and is deposited into the clay. Called “vacuum induction” by scientific minds, the clay was turned various shades of black to gunmetal color.” She experimented with the idea that an unfired polished red vessel which was painted with a red slip on top of the polish and then fired in a smudging fire at a relatively cool temperature would result in a deep glossy black background with dull black decoration. Shards and sheep and horse manure placed around the outside and inside of the outdoor kiva-style adobe oven would give the pot a slicker matte finished appearance. After much trial and error, Maria successfully produced a black ware pot. The first pots for the museum were fired around 1913. These pots were undecorated, unsigned, and of a generally rough quality. Also, when Maria started developing her polishing skills, many burnishing techniques, tips and tricks were learned from Margaret Tafoya of Santa Clara Pueblo, who was more than happy to share this ancient knowledge.
Embarrassed that she could not create high quality black pots in the style of the ancient Pueblo peoples, Martinez hid her pots away from the world. A few years later, Hewett and his guests visited the little Tewa Pueblo. These guests asked to purchase black ware pottery, similar to Martinez’s pots housed in the museum (Peterson, 90). She was greatly encouraged by this interest and resolutely began trying to perfect the art of black ware pottery. Her skill advanced with each pot, and her art began to cause quite a stir among collectors and developed into a business for the black ware pottery. In addition, Martinez began experimenting with various techniques to produce other shapes and colorful forms of pottery.
An olla jar has a slightly flattened rim and a marked angle at the shoulder. The one created by Maria and Julian Martinez is “decorated on the rims only above the angle of the shoulder with continuous paneled bands.” Light is reflected off of the shiny, smooth surface. The jet black ceramic product’s finish appears unblemished in any way. A band of a lighter black decoration stands out against a solid black matte background. The pot “depends on the decorative effect of the manipulation of the surface finish alone” to appear as though the decorations are scratched into the pot’s surface. The band wraps directly below the narrow neck of the pot. A wide-eyed avanyu, or horned serpent, encircles the pot and slithers inside the band. The serpent’s tongue almost touches the tip of his tail. The snake’s body movements seem alive; a tribute to the appreciation the Pueblo peoples have for nature and life. The decorations on the pot give the pot a personality and unique individualized look.
Creating black ware pottery is a long process consisting of many steps requiring patience and skill. Six distinct processes occur before the pot is ready to be sold. According to Susan Peterson in The Living Tradition of Maria Martinez, these steps include, “finding and collecting the clay, forming a pot, scraping and sanding the pot to remove surface irregularities, applying the iron-bearing slip and burnishing it to a high sheen with a smooth stone, decorating the pot with another slip, and firing the pot.”
The first step in creating a pot is gathering the clay. The clay is gathered once a year, usually in October when it is dry and stored in an old weathered adobe structure where the temperature remains constant. When Martinez is ready to begin molding the clay to form a pot, the right amount of clay is brought into the house. A cloth, laid upon a table, holds a mound of gray pink sand with a fist hole in the center filled with an equal amount of blue sand. A smaller hole is made in the blue sand and water is poured into the hole. The substances are then all kneaded together, picked up within the cloth, washed, and covered with a towel to prevent moisture from escaping where the clay will sit for a day or two to dry. The pukis or “the supporting mold, a dry or fired clay shape where a round bottom of a new piece may be formed” builds the base shape of the pot looking like a pancake. After squeezing the clay together with one’s fingers, a wall is pinched up about an inch high from the pancake base. A gourd rib is used in cross-crossing motions to smooth out the wall, making it thick and even. Coiling long tube shapes of clay on the top of the clay wall and then smoothing it out with the gourd increases the pot’s height. Air holes are patched with extra clay and sealed away with the gourd rib like a patch being sewn on a pair of blue jeans.
After drying, the pot is scraped, sanded, and polished with stones. This is the most time consuming part of the entire process. A small round stone should be applied to the side of the pot in a consistent, horizontal, rhythmic motion. Rubbing the stone parallel with the side of the pot produces a shiny, polished, even look. Creating the polished finish with the stone is called burnishing. The pot is finally ready to fire after the secondary slip is applied, by painting onto the burnished surface various traditional designs.
Julian Martinez, Maria’s husband, began attempting to decorate the pots she made. Although Julian did eventually master decorating techniques for Maria’s pots, the process consisted of many trials and errors. “To create his designs, a paint (slip) is created and applied to the already burnished, but yet unfired surface. You cannot polish a design into a matte background, as the stone is not as precise as a brush is.” He discovered that after the guaco juice burned out from the heat of the fire, he could mix the guaco with clay which then provided the perfect paint for his decorations. The process Julian settled on was to polish the background first then matte the decoration already painted on.
In 1918, Julian finished the first decorated black ware pot with a matte background and a polished Avanyu design. (Still achieved by painting the background on an already burnished surface). “The first rush of water coming down an arroyo after a thunderstorm, a symbol of thanksgiving and for water and rain” was the interpretation by Julian of an avanyu or a horned water serpent. Many of Julian’s decorations were patterns adopted from ancient vessels of the Pueblos. Some of the patterns consisted of birds, road runner tracks, rain, feathers, clouds, mountains, and zigzags or kiva steps. The museum displayed the first two decorated black ware pots painted by Julian.
Maria signed her creations in different ways throughout her lifetime. The signatures found on the bottom of the pottery help date the pieces of art. Maria and Julian’s oldest work were all unsigned. The two had no idea that their art would become so popular and did not feel it was a necessity to claim their work. The unsigned pieces were most likely made between the years of 1918 and 1923. Once Maria gained success with her pottery she began signing her work as “Marie.” She thought that the name “Marie” was more popular among the non-Indian public than the name “Maria” and would influence the purchasers more. The pieces signed as “Marie” dates the pottery between 1923 and 1925. Even though Julian decorated the pots, only Maria claimed the work since pottery was still considered a woman’s job in the Pueblo. Maria left Julian’s signature off the pieces to respect the Pueblo culture until 1925. After that, “Marie + Julian” remained the official signature on all of the pottery until Julian’s death in 1943 (Lori 1). Maria’s family began helping with the pottery business after Julian’s death. From 1943 to 1954 Maria’s son, Adam, and his wife Santana, collected clay, coiled, polished, decorated, and fired the pottery. Adam took over his father’s job of collecting clay and painting the decorations. “Marie + Santana” became the new signature on the pots. For about thirty years Maria continued signing her name as “Marie.” Once her son, Popovi Da, began working alongside his mother, Maria began referring to herself as “Maria” on the pottery. They began co-signing their pieces around 1959 as “Maria +Poveka” and “Maria/Popovi.” Thus, studying the signature on one of Maria’s pots may give a hint at the completion date of the pottery since dates were not added to the pottery until recent years.
Although black ware pottery received a lot of success, the true legend behind the pottery is Maria Martinez herself. She won many awards and presented her pottery at many world fairs and received the initial grant for the National Endowment for the Arts to fund a Martinez pottery workshop in 1973. Martinez passed on her knowledge and skill to many others including her family, women in the pueblo, and students. When she was a young girl she had learned how to become a potter by watching her aunt Nicolasa make pottery. During the time that she developed the known San Ildefonso style of traditional pottery, much was learned from the matriarch, Margaret Tafoya, from neighboring Santa Clara Pueblo. Maria also taught others the art of her craft.