Maria's exact birth date is not known, but 1887 is generally accepted as the year of her birth. As a child, Maria learned pottery making from her aunt, Nicolasa Pena Montoya.
Maria and her husband, Julian, were among eighty-three survivors of an influenza epidemic at San Ildefonso in 1918. They had already been making pottery, mostly polychrome. Archeologists working under Edgar Hewett at Bandelier National Monument, asked Maria to reproduce vessels like the pieces of broken pots (shards) they were finding. Maria and Julian began to make black pottery, aiding the revival of this style.
Around 1919, Julian experimented with painting on one of Maria's polished pots. Black on black pottery was born. The black on black technique--painting the design in the negative on a polished pot and doing a reduction firing--became very popular. Julian apparently liked it so well, he even painted matte black designs on the Model-T automobile Maria purchased!
Maria and Julian were a team: she shaped and polished the pots and Julian painted them. The Mimbres feather design as well as the avanyu (water serpent) were adapted by Julian as design elements. After Julian's death in 1943, Santana, the wife of Maria's oldest son, Adam, worked with her to decorate the pots. This period was probably the most prolific for Maria. Popovi Da, another of Maria's sons, also worked with her. It is the opinion of some that this was the period of the most exquisite work done by Maria.
Maria Martinez died in 1980. Her legacy lives on in her descendants as well as in other potters whom she influenced.
Click here to see some of Maria's works.