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Explore the incredible pottery style of a notable New Mexican, Maria Martinez!

Maria Martinez

Early Beginnings

Born in 1887, 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 and recalls this “learning by seeing” starting at age eleven, as she watched her aunt, grandmother, and father’s cousin work on their pottery during the 1890s. 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.

Black Ware Pottery

A long process of experimentation and overcoming challenges was required to successfully recreate the black-on-black pottery style to meet Maria’s exacting standards. “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, creating 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 a museum were fired around 1913. These pots were undecorated, unsigned, and of a generally rough quality. The earliest record of this pottery was in a July 1920 exhibition held at the New Mexico Museum of Art.

Maria Martinez black ware pottery

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 Maria Martinez’s pots housed in a museum. 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.

Maria Martinez: Artistic Legend

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, other women in the pueblo, and students in the outside world. When she was a young girl she learned how to become a potter by watching her aunt, Nicolasa, make pottery. During the time that she developed what we now know as the San Ildefonso style of traditional pottery, she learned much from Sarafina Tafoya, the pottery matriarch of neighboring Santa Clara Pueblo. The government Indian school in Santa Fe asked her to teach in 1932, but, Maria Martinez refused to do so: “I come and I work and they can watch,” she stated. Her family members had not taught her, and she would not do it herself either – “nobody teaches.”

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