Black on black jar with geometric design 
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Maria Martinez, San Ildefonso, Black on black jar with geometric design
Artist: Maria Martinez
Pueblo: San Ildefonso
Dimensions: 3 1/4 in H by 4 in Dia
Item Number: masie6236
Price: $ 2300
Description: Black on black jar with geometric design
Condition: Very good
Signature: Maria Santana
Date Created: 1943-1956
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Maria Martinez

San Ildefonso
Maria Martinez
Feather design on a black on black plate
 

Undoubtedly the world's most famous Native American potter, Maria Montoya Martinez was born in the Tewa pueblo of San Ildefonso around 1887 (her baptism certificate says 1887, she herself thought she might have been 7 at the time). As she grew up, Maria observed her aunt, Nicolasa, and learned the basics of the traditional art of pottery making from her. In the early years of her career, Maria produced the traditional polychrome pottery of her village, generally black and terra cotta decorations painted on a background of white or tan. She shaped her pots the age-old way, by carefully hand-coiling and pinching the clay, then smoothing the inner and outer surfaces with gourd scrapers. Early on her pots were recognized as the thinnest, most beautifully shaped pots being made at San Ildefonso. Her husband, Julian, an accomplished painter of hides, paper and walls, decorated the pots for her, then worked with her in the firing of them.

Maria and Julian were married in 1904 and almost from the beginning of their relationship they were traveling to demonstrate their craft at various fairs and expositions. They spent their honeymoon in 1904 demonstrating pottery making at the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition at the St. Louis Worlds Fair. They demonstrated again at the Panama California Expo in San Diego in 1915, the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1934, and the Golden Gate International Expo in 1939. Native American craft fairs provided other marketing opportunities, and by signing her work Maria both heightened her visibility and commanded higher prices. In 1954, she won the Craftsmanship Medal, the nation’s highest honor, from the American Institute of Architects.

Contrary to legend implying that Maria "discovered" the black pottery process, Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett, Professor of Archaeology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and Director of the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, found shards of prehistoric black-on-black pottery while excavating in the ruins at Bandelier National Monument in 1908. To preserve and showcase that ancient product Hewett sought a skilled pueblo potter who could re-create that ancient pottery style for him. Everyone he asked referred him to Maria. Together they worked out a deal and he pre-ordered a series of black-on-black pots from her. That led to more than a decade of experimentation, until Maria and Julian were satisfied with their results in recreating that style of black ware. Their method required smothering the fire with manure during the firing process, effectively creating an "oxygen-reduction process" that turned the red pots black. Julian worked out the other half of the "black-on-black" process when he began painting his designs "in the negative," using a matte black slip on the polished pot surface to create his decorations. Once fired, that demonstrated the technique that has become so famous today. Still, Maria wasn't really happy with those first black-on-black pots until Hewett came to visit with some friends and students of his. Those visitors bought virtually every pot Maria had on hand and they encouraged her to make more. Maria responded by refining her process and technique with the clay and the fire. Julian responded by refining his designs and decorations. Together they elevated their art to a level not approached anywhere else for at least 10 years.

According to Susan Peterson in The Living Tradition of Maria Martinez, the six distinct steps involved in the creation of blackware pottery 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."

Julian faced a challenge in attempting to decorate Maria's pots. The process he finally settled on involved polishing the background first and then applying the matte slip decoration. In 1918, Julian finished the first decorated black ware pot with a matte background and a polished avanyu (horned water serpent) design. Many of Julian's decorations were patterns adopted from ancient vessels of the Pueblos. Some of the patterns consisted of feathers, birds, road runner tracks, rain, clouds, mountains, and zigzags or kiva steps.

As her pots attracted more and more attention for their unique beauty, Maria began to charge modest prices. With the demand for her pots growing, she realized that her work could enrich the lives of the people of her pueblo, artistically and economically. In the ages-old tribal manner, she generously shared her techniques with others. Martinez was the matriarch of a "craft lineage" that continues today. In a career that spanned seven decades, her pottery brought honors and acclaim, revitalizing the art and the economy of San Ildefonso Pueblo.

Even though Julian decorated the pots, Maria claimed all the work in the early years because pottery was still considered a woman's job in the Pueblo. Maria left Julian's signature off their pieces to respect the Pueblo culture until 1925. After that, "Marie + Julian" was the official signature on their decorated pottery until Julian's death in 1943 (and she used "Marie" because Chester Faris, Director of the Santa Fe Indian School, had convinced her that was a name more familiar to the Anglo buying public). Undecorated pots during those years were signed simply "Marie." Maria's family began helping more with the pottery business after Julian's death. From 1943 to 1956 Maria's son Adam took over collecting clay while his wife Santana took over painting decorations. "Marie + Santana" was the signature on their pots. Popovi Da began learning to paint with Santana in 1950 and in 1956 he took over doing most of Maria's painting. The signature became "Maria/Popovi" until 1971 when Popovi passed on. He'd also often been busy with tribal politics during those years and, at times, couldn't keep up with painting Maria's pots. As Maria almost never painted a pot, those pots are plain and signed "Maria Poveka" (Poveka being her Tewa name, meaning: "pond lily"). Today, values on Maria's work vary based on the signature on the bottom, those with "Maria + Popovi" being valued highest.

After making pots for almost 80 years, Maria passed on in 1980.


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San Ildefonso Pueblo

Sacred Black Mesa
Black Mesa at San Ildefonso Pueblo

San Ildefonso Pueblo is located about twenty miles northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico, mostly on the eastern bank of the Rio Grande. Although their ancestry has been traced as far back as abandoned pueblos in the Mesa Verde area in southwestern Colorado, the most recent ancestral home of the people of San Ildefonso is in the area of Bandelier National Monument, the prehistoric villages of Tyuonyi, Otowi, Navawi and Tsankawi specifically. The area of Tsankawi abuts the reservation on its northwest side.

The San Ildefonso name was given to the village in 1617 when a mission church was established. Before then the village was called Powhoge, "where the water cuts through" (in Tewa). Today's pueblo was established as long ago as the 1300's and when the Spanish arrived in 1540 they estimated the village population at about 2,000.

That village mission was destroyed during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and when Don Diego de Vargas returned to reclaim the San Ildefonso area in 1694, he found virtually the entire tribe on top of nearby Black Mesa. After an extended siege the two sides negotiated a treaty and the people returned to their village. However, the next 250 years were not good for them. Finally, the Spanish swine flu pandemic of 1918 reduced the tribe's population to about 90. The tribe's population has increased to more than 600 today but the only economic activity available for most on the pueblo involves the creation of art in one form or another. The only other jobs are off-pueblo. San Ildefonso's population is small compared to neighboring Santa Clara Pueblo, but the pueblo maintains its own religious traditions and ceremonial feast days.

San Ildefonso has produced fine ceramic art since early pre-Columbian times. The pueblo is most known for being the home of the most famous Pueblo Indian potter, Maria Martinez. Many other excellent potters have produced quality pottery from this pueblo, too, among them: Blue Corn, Tonita and Juan Roybal, Dora Tse Pe and Rose Gonzales. Of course the descendants of Maria Martinez are still important pillars of San Ildefonso's pottery tradition. Maria's influence reached far and wide, so far and wide that even Juan Quezada, founder of the Mata Ortiz pottery renaissance in Chihuahua, Mexico, came to San Ildefonso to learn from her.

San Ildefonso Pueblo location map


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Maria Martinez

San Ildefonso Pueblo

The Life of Maria

Legend: Light blue color: Events in Maria's life
Light green color: Signatures used on pottery (Signatures denote relative values)

1890
1887: Maria Montoya is born at San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico
1894-1900: Maria learns pottery making by watching her aunt Nicolasa
1900
1904: Maria Montoya marries Julian Martinez in the morning and they board a train together in the afternoon to demonstrate pottery making at the St. Louis World's Fair
1908-1943: Julian paints the majority of Maria's pots
1909: Maria's mother Reyes Montoya dies
1910
1914: Maria's father Tomas Montoya dies
1914: Maria and Julian participate in the San Diego World's Fair
1919: Maria and Julian develop black on black ware
1920
1922-1926: Marie signature
1926-1943: Marie & Julian signature
1930
1933: Maria meets Mae West
1934: Maria & Julian participate in the Chicago World's Fair
1939: Maria & Julian participate in the San Francisco World's Fair
1940
1943: Julian dies, Maria begins working with Santana, her daughter-in-law
1943-1956: Marie & Santana signature
1950
1950: Popovi begins working with Maria and Santana
1954: Maria is awarded the Craftsmanship Medal by the American Institute of Architects
1954: Maria receives the Bronze Award from the University of Colorado for having made the greatest contribution to the arts
1956: Popovi begins painting most of Maria's pots
1956: 'Marie' becomes 'Maria'
1956-1971: Maria & Popovi signature
1956-1971: Maria Poveka signature
1960
1968: Maria is presented with the Presidential Citation from the American Ceramic Society
1970
1971: Popovi dies
1971: Maria receives an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degree from New Mexico State University
1974: Maria receives the First Annual New Mexico Governors Award
1977: Maria receives an Honorary Doctorate degree from Columbia College
1980
1980: Maria dies

Pottery Care & Consideration

  • The most obvious tip: Yes, the pots will break if you drop them!
  • Do not expose pottery to water (Inside or outside). Do not wipe with a damp cloth.
  • Dust pottery only with a soft, smooth cloth (no terry cloth or textured fabric). A very soft paintbrush (sable or camel) can be used.
  • Always use two hands to carry your pot: one on top and one on the bottom, or one hand on each side. Be careful with handles, they can be fragile. Do not grip or lift pots by the rim. Take care when wearing jewelry, rings can scratch the finish.
  • Place a piece of felt or cloth between the pot and the shelf to protect the signature.
  • Avoid exposing pottery to extreme temperature changes.

For those who live in "earthquake country" (also good for mischievous pets):

  • Weigh pots down with a small zip lock bag containing sand, glass marbles, rice, etc. Do not fill the pot more than one third full as you want them bottom heavy. Remember to remove the weight before moving.
  • Secure your shelves; make sure they are well attached to the walls. Shelf brackets should be of sufficient length and strength to support the weight of your pottery.
  • Prevent pots from sliding. Consider attaching a small wooden molding to the front of shelves. Line shelves with non-slip material (a thin sheet of rubber foam, Styrofoam sheeting, etc.)
  • If you need assistance with special problems, major cleaning (your grandchild spills ice cream on your pot), restoration or repair (the cat breaks a pot), or replacement (irreparable damage), please feel free to call us.

We hope these ideas help you maintain the beauty and value of your pottery for years of enjoyment.

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