Maria Martinez was born in the 1880's in San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico. Nobody knows for sure what year she was
born as there are no records to prove this fact. As a young child she
taught herself to make pottery utilizing the coil method, by watching the women
of the town as they made pottery.
She spent much of her youth at Saint Catherine's Indian School in
New Mexico. This is where she first became friends with Julian Martinez
who later married her in 1904.
Even though her husband had other jobs, they formed a partnership to make
pottery. She would do the actual building of the pottery and he would do
all of the decorating. Between 1907 and 1910, her husband was working as a
laborer for an archaeological dig near Pueblo. He worked for Dr. Edgar L.
Hewett. Maria's amazing career came about in a very simple way. Her
husband's employer, Dr. Hewett, gave her a piece of broken pottery from the
dig site, and asked if she could reconstruct what the pot would look like using
traditional blackware techniques.
In the late 1910's, the Martinez family developed their own unique black-on-black
pottery that would later make them famous as well as the Pueblo of San Ildefonso.
To create the black-on-black pottery, the design is
painted with a clay slip onto the highly polished, but unfired, surface. The
finish of the slipped design contrasts with the polished surface. The pot is
then fired in a low oxygen atmosphere, accomplished by smothering the fire
at a certain stage with masses of animal dung. The smoke from the dung is forced into the upper
layer of the pottery,
turning it black. On the finished product, the painted design appears in a
matte gray-to-black against the shiny black of the polished surface.
The design may be either a negative or positive one. Maria
and her husband gained much wealth by the standards of the Pueblo and shared
their wealth with the entire community.
Maria gave birth to four sons. Each son, their wife, children and
grandchildren all took part in her pottery enterprise.
One dark spot in her life was that her husband had a serious alcohol problem,
this started early on in their marriage and lasted until he died in 1943.
Maria's daughter-in-law, Santana, took over decorating the pottery after Maria's
husband died. Her son Poponi Da, also helped with the decoration.
Maria traveled extensively to give demonstrations on how she made her
pottery, including many World's Fairs. She received several awards and an
Honorary Doctorate from the University of Colorado. The American
Society bestowed their greatest honor upon her for her lifetime devotion to
clay. During the 1930's, she visited Washington D.C., it was one of the
many highlights of her life. While in Washington D.C., she was invited to
the White House where she met Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, who told Maria, "You are
one of the important ones. We have a piece of your pottery here in the
White House, and we treasure it and show it to every visitor who comes here from
Maria's greatest achievement was the reviving and popularizing of the
traditions of the Pueblo people and their fine pottery making. According
to her great granddaughter, right before her death in 1980, Maria said, "When I am gone,
essentially other people have my pots. But to you and the rest of my
family, I leave my greatest achievement, the ability to make the pottery."
Many of her beautiful designs are available to this day at auction houses
throughout the country, and online.
Examples of her pottery work can be viewed at the following websites:
Thanks to Maria's fame and skill the San Ildefonso Black-on-Black pottery
continues to be made today, along with a variety of other styles.
More information on other lesser known female artists can be
Source: Gilbert, Rita.Living with Art. : , 1998.
The pottery of
Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso. 12 Aug 2004