Maria Martinez: The Legendary Potter of San Ildefonso Pueblo

By Michael Ettema

Reprinted from Canyon Road Arts, Vol 1, No. 1, 2005, courtesy Medicine Man Gallery.


Maria Martinez. Photo courtesy Medicine Man Gallery.

Few craft artists can claim the worldwide honor and fame bestowed upon Maria Martinez (1887-1980) during her lifetime. This modest, traditional Pueblo woman received honorary degrees from major universities, countless medals and citations from governments and institutions, and special invitations to the White House from four different presidents.

Now, 35 years after her death, many newcomers to Southwest Indian arts ask what made Maria so famous. Certainly the basis of her reputation was an artistic and technical ability with the clay that was unsurpassed in her time and place. But Maria also was an innovator, most notably inventing the famous black-on-black pottery technique that truly elevated Pueblo pottery from craft to art. And most importantly, through her high standards and generous sharing of methods, Maria helped revive the art of pottery making among the Pueblos, reconnecting them to their ancestral form of artistic expression and traditional way of life.

The Pueblo people of northern New Mexico have a thousand year-old tradition of pottery making. By the time Maria Poveka Montoya was born, the Pueblos were in the midst of enormous cultural change and many traditional practices, including pottery making were in decline. Although many women in Maria’s Pueblo of San Ildefonso made pottery, it no longer was a necessary part of daily life. Inexpensive tin and enamel wares replaced traditional pottery storage jars and cooking pots. Because of pottery’s diminished importance, many potters spent less time and effort on their work, making ever smaller and simpler pieces that they sold for a few cents to the Santa Fe souvenir trade.

In this changing environment, young Maria was very fortunate to have as a teacher her aunt, Nicolasa Montoya, one of the finest San Ildefonso potters of her generation. Maria grew up watching Nicolasa make pottery, and at age seven or eight she learned to pinch small lumps of clay into the shapes of dishes she used for play. Driven by an intense desire to learn, and guided by a skilled teacher, Maria quickly developed her gift for pottery, mastering the ancient skills required to produce traditional, polychrome (multi-color) food and water storage jars.

In 1904 at about age 17, Maria was invited to demonstrate her skills at the St. Louis World’s Fair. She had been engaged to marry Julian Pocano Martinez (1885-1943) in that year, and on the afternoon of their wedding day the couple boarded a train for Missouri. At the Fair, Maria formed and fired pottery while Julian joined other San Ildefonso men demonstrating Pueblo dance customs to thousands of visitors from around the world.

The marriage of Maria and Julian proved to be a life-long union of two deeply artistic temperaments. Julian took an early interest in the colorfully stylized watercolor painting then being developed at San Ildefonso by his brother-in-law, Crescencio Martinez. Edgar Lee Hewett, Director of the Museum of New Mexico, recognized Julian’s aptitude with the brush, and in the first years of the century sought to encourage his work by giving him paints and paper.

With guidance from both inside and outside the Pueblo, Julian’s talents developed quickly. Over the next several years, Julian contributed a number of innovations to Pueblo painting such as the revival of ancient Pueblo mythological creatures. Julian’s most important contribution, however, was the combination of artistic imagination with exacting skill.

In 1908 Maria and Julian seized an unusual opportunity to unite their artistic endeavors. A year earlier, Edgar Lee Hewett had begun an archaeological excavation at an ancient Puebloan site on the Pajarito Plateau above San Ildefonso. Hewett, who well knew of Maria’s reputation as one of the Pueblo’s best young potters, asked if she could make bowls for the Museum using the designs found on prehistoric pottery being found. Maria visited the excavation and showed great interest in the old pottery and excitement in the new challenge.

It probably was no coincidence that Julian already had been working as a laborer on the same excavation. Also fascinated by what he saw there, be began keeping a notebook of sketches derived from the newly rediscovered designs. Given Julian’s interest and the fact that men often painted pottery for the women of the Pueblo, it was only natural that Maria asked her husband to join her in this new project for Hewett and the Museum. Thus began a legendary artistic collaboration that would transform the lives of Maria and Julian as well as the livelihood of their entire Pueblo and beyond.

Maria and Julian continued to refine their pottery techniques and, within a few years, they were widely recognized as among the best potters in the region. Maria distinguished her work by developing new pottery shapes that were simpler and more refined than the traditional forms of her predecessors. Her technical genius showed in pots of exceptional symmetry with walls of even thickness and surfaces free of imperfection. Maria was best known, however, for her unsurpassed skill at polishing, in which a damp coating of liquid clay was quickly burnished with a stone, resulting in a smooth, shiny surface once the pot was fired.


Julian Martinez. Photo courtesy Medicine Man Gallery.

Julian similarly excelled in both artistic and technical ability. Using his experiences with the Museum of New Mexico, he adapted historic and prehistoric pottery decoration to suit his distinctive contemporary vision. His design based on the prehistoric Avanyu, or horned water serpent, and his adaptation of the feather pattern found on pottery of the Mimbres culture quickly became standard decoration on pottery at San Ildefonso and neighboring Santa Clara. Fortunately, Julian also had the skill to execute his vision with a precise, even hand that set a new standard for his generation of Pueblo painters.

Of all their achievements together, Maria and Julian are best known for their invention of black-on-black pottery. Several Pueblos had a tradition of plain black pottery going back many generations. Maria made her exquisitely polished black ware as early as 1912, but it was not until about 1918 that she and Julian began to experiment with a style of pottery in which decoration was rendered through the contrast of matte black and shiny black surfaces.

Perfected by 1921, the black-on-black technique quickly was recognized as the greatest innovation in Pueblo pottery in generations. Drawn to its subtlety and elegance, non-Indian collectors flocked around Maria to buy every piece of black-on-black she could make. The Museum of New Mexico collected the first of several examples as early as 1920, and Maria’s work took top prizes at the annual Santa Fe Indian Market that started in 1922. By the early 1930s Maria and Julian’s annual income was unprecedented for Pueblo potters, and their work became famous around the world.

It is a testament to Maria’s character as well as her upbringing that as soon as she achieved success, she shared her secrets with other potters. “We want everybody to get something so we tell others how to make the pottery,” Maria told a researcher in 1934. No traditional Puebloan could separate her or his own life from that of family and village; success for one meant that all should benefit. By 1925 nearly all San Ildefonso potters were making black-on-black ware.

Maria not only shared her knowledge with her contemporaries. She also encouraged young women (and increasingly men) to take up pottery as a livelihood by teaching classes at San Ildefonso and the Santa Fe Indian School. Of course, Maria and Julian taught their children and grandchildren the techniques of pottery making as well as its longstanding cultural importance to their people; a tradition they had done so much to revitalize and refine.

When Julian died suddenly in 1943, Maria lost both her life partner and her artistic soul mate. Though devastated, Maria did not lose her resolve to make pottery. Her oldest son, Adam, took over the responsibility of digging the clay and then drying, crushing and refining it—the heavy work of pottery making that Julian had performed for Maria for nearly 40 years. Adam’s wife, Santana, took up the task of painting Maria’s large output of jars, bowls, and plates. Santana also was descended from a family of gifted potters and painters, having first learned the art from her aunt, Tonita Roybal. After marrying Adam, she learned Maria’s methods, but also had the opportunity to learn the pottery painting techniques of her father-in-law. Indeed, Santana faithfully carried on Julian’s painting style which over the previous 35 years had become a tradition in its own right.

Around 1950, Maria encouraged her third son, Popovi Da (pronounced “Day”) to try his hand at decorating pottery. Popovi already was an experienced and successful watercolor artist who had studied in Dorothy Dunn’s famous Studio at the Santa Fe Indian School. Augmenting his painting experience with pottery instruction from Santana, Popovi became so proficient at pottery decoration that Maria claimed he was every bit as talented as his father. By 1956 Popovi had become a full partner in Maria’s work, taking over the clay preparation and pottery firing from Adam and the painting from Santana.

Many experts feel that the pottery made during Popovi’s collaboration with Maria (1955-1971) was the best of Maria’s career. Popovi inherited the sure and precise hand of his father and, like Julian, he was a true innovator in pottery design and technique, as demonstrated by the work he did independently of Maria. Nevertheless, Popovi never imposed his own ideas on Maria’s pottery. He worked brilliantly but faithfully within the tradition he parents had created, always seeking to support Maria’s own choices and safeguarding her reputation.

In the exception that proves the rule, Popovi instigated one important development in Maria’s later work: the return to polychrome pottery. Maria and Julian’s black-on-black pottery was so instantly and enormously popular that most San Ildefonso potters had stopped making polychrome wares by the late 1920s, but Popovi wanted to revive and explore its artistic possibilities. Although their output of polychrome pottery was quite small, Popovi had helped Maria return to the origins of her interest in pottery making.

Over the course of her 93 years, Maria witnessed a remarkable transformation at San Ildefonso Pueblo. A dying craft tradition had been infused with new vitality and creativity. The once isolated village had become an important craft center and destination for travelers from around the world. The prosperity of the entire community increased as pottery making became the single largest source of income at the Pueblo.

Maria was not only the most famous of all Pueblo potters, she still is considered one of the greatest potters in the world. But that is not what it was all about for Maria. In her mind she was one of many traditional women of San Ildefonso who made good pottery. “God and the Great Spirit gave me [hands] that work….God gave me that hand, but not for myself, for all my people.”