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Maria Martinez

Native American

Santana Martinez

Native American


1.125 x 6.375 x 6.375 in.
Gift of Richard A. Harrison

María Montoya Martinez is one of the most influential potters in the world and has had a definitive impact on the development of ceramics in the American West. Martinez, of Tewa heritage, was born in 1887 in the San Ildefonso Pueblo within the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico, approximately twenty miles northwest of Santa Fe. Around age eleven, she learned pottery techniques by watching her aunt and grandmother make clay dishes. She quickly became known among her peers for her proficiency and precision with clay.

In 1908, while excavating in the Rio Grande Valley, Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett (a professor of archaeology and director of the Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe) uncovered seventeenth-century black-on-white biscuitware shards. This style was distinct from earlier types of pottery in the region. Hewett wanted to preserve the art form in museums, so he began searching for a Puebloan potter who could recreate the style. This search led him directly to María.

Through the colonization of what is now the American Southwest, traditional pottery techniques among the Puebloan peoples were nearly lost, as settlers brought tin and cast-iron cookware to the region. With Hewett’s encouragement, María and her husband Julian began a long process of trial and error. Through this experimentation, they developed their own unique style of polished black-on-black ware—a combination not previously seen among Native American ceramics in the Southwest.

The production of an object like Jar with Cloud and Feather Decoration was complex and could require weeks. María and Julian’s distinctive style combined glossy and matte surfaces. First, they gathered clay and volcanic ash from the land surrounding the pueblo. Mixing these materials created the basic clay body, which was shaped with traditional gourd tools. Once dried, the surface was brought to a high polish with a river stone.

The firing process determined the coloring of the clay. In Plate (date unknown) the black color is achieved through a reduction firing, which reduces the oxygen by smothering the flames with dry horse dung. This causes a chemical reaction that blackens the clay body with trapped smoke. In the similarly designed Plate (1940), the fire was not smothered, which instead produced a rich, red-brown color. Julian, an accomplished painter and watercolorist, would then use liquid clay to paint the desired contrasting matte surface design.

Among Puebloan cultures, signing artwork was taboo. As María and Julian’s work grew in popularity and achieved success on the market, the couple was encouraged to sign their work. Olla (1984.1455) is likely the oldest object produced by the couple in NEHMA’s collection, since it lacks a signature. The black-on-black Olla (1984.1457) was signed “María + Julian.”

After Julian’s death in 1943, María continued to produce work with her children, including Popovi Da Martinez, and daughter-in-law, Santana Martinez. Plate (1950) and Bowl (1950) come from this later period. They are much smaller than other examples of her work, which produces a sense of intimacy.

María, Julian, and their family demonstrated their techniques at world’s fairs, workshops, and to potters and collectors who visited them in New Mexico. María freely shared her knowledge with others and uplifted her community economically. She remains a crucial historical figure in the history of the vessel tradition and the revival of Native American ceramics in the twentieth century.

Matthew Limb

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