New Mexico, San Ildefonso Pueblo Motif Black Pottery

Of Tewa heritage of the San Ildefonso Pueblo in the Rio Grande Valley of New
Mexico, Maria Martinez became world renowned for her black on black pottery. Her
pottery was first exhibited beyond her pueblo at the St. Louis World’s Fair in
1904, and many decades later at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, the
Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos, and the Heard Museum in Phoenix.

She learned to make pots as a child from her aunt, Tia Nicolasa, and began with
clay dishes she made for her playhouse. In 1908, New Mexico archaeologist Dr.
Edgar Hewett asked her to put some shards together and reconstruct an entire
pot. She was successful, and this activity further stirred her interest in
making pots.

Julian, her husband, broke away from farming in San Ildefonso and became a
janitor at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe. He and Maria studied the
pottery in the display cases, and then applied methods they observed. They
discovered a method to get the black colors by smothering the flames with dried
manure during firing, producing smoke that carbonized the pottery. They
polished the surfaces with a smooth stone before firing, so the pottery,
black-on-black, emerged with a silvery sheen. They also painted dull, velvet
black decorations of ancient motifs on the pottery before firing.

They sold many of their pots in Santa Fe but eventually Maria became homesick
for San Ildefonso, and the couple returned there where she gave pottery lessons
to other women. After her husband’s death, she worked with her sons, Popovi Da
and Adam, and others, which insured that her pottery making techniques lived

Maria Martinez became so admired for her skill that she was specially invited
to the White House four times, and she received honorary doctorates from the
University of Colorado and New Mexico State University.

Sources: Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein, American Women Artists and Toni
Michnovicz Gibson and Jon Michnovicz, Images
of America: Los Alamos 1944-1947

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