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Maria Martinez, the Mother of San Ildefonso Pottery
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Maria Martinez, the Mother of San Ildefonso Pottery

Creating pottery is an ancient pueblo art. Shards of pottery have been found in the ruins of the dwellings of the Anasazi, thought to be the ancestors of today’s Pueblo Peoples. But pottery as an art form hasn’t always been the same. In fact, the thousand-year-old pottery-making tradition began to die out in the later 19th century.

However, collaboration between an anthropologist and a San Ildefonso potter in the early years of the 20th century changed that.

Forgotten Traditions

The railroad reached New Mexico in 1880, and manufactured products for cooking and storage became readily available, taking far less time to purchase than it took to make a pot. Any pottery still being made was made mostly for curio shops and tourists. This made many traditional pottery making techniques unnecessary, and they began to disappear.

Maria Montoya Martinez

Maria Martinez was born Maria Antonia Montoya in San Ildefonso Pueblo, located in northern New Mexico, in 1887. She learned to make pottery from her aunt and continued to perfect the techniques. Her reputation as a potter grew in the Santa Fe area; she was known by pueblo members and non-pueblo people.

When she married Julian Martinez, the two began to introduce pueblo pottery to the outside world. They demonstrated pottery making technique at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Although at that time Native American Indians were considered “primitive”, the beauty of the pottery caught the eye of many fair-goers and she and Julian were well-received. She and Julian continued to demonstrate at fairs in San Francisco, Chicago, San Diego and New York.

Tourism also brought visitors to New Mexico and to the pueblos. Maria and Julian were hired by the Fred Harvey Company to give tours of San Ildefonso Pueblo, providing the chance for further exposure of her pottery and pueblo pottery in general.

Bringing Back Pottery Techniques

Around the same time, archaeologist Edgar Lee Hewett, then director of the Museum of New Mexico, was conducting excavations at Bandelier National Monument. Maria’s husband Julian worked on the excavation crew, and Maria and Julian remained in contact with Hewett even after the excavation.

Hewett knew of Maria’s skill as a potter. In a 1908 excavation, he had found shards of black pottery, and in an effort to preserve the skill, he approached Maria about bringing back the practice to San Ildefonso Pueblo.

Black-on-Black Pottery

Maria and Julian began the process of recreating the San Ildefonso black-on-black pottery technique. The natural clay in the area is not black, so they had to experiment with the firing process. Maria also worked with potter Margaret Tafoya from nearby Santa Clara Pueblo, where they still made similar black-on-black pottery. The end result was a technique of smothering a pot during the firing process. This forced soot into the clay and gave the pot its beautiful black-on-black finish.

Julian, a painter himself, helped her decorate the pots, learning through trial and error the best way to paint and carve designs.

Maria’s Legacy

Maria’s and San Ildefonso’s pottery gained national attention, moving pueblo pottery from simple curios to beautiful works of art. It was a notoriety that spread to include pottery and crafts from pueblos across New Mexico and the southwest. She worked with Julian until his death in 1943, then began to work with her son, Popovi Da, a well-known potter in his own right, as well as with her son Adam and his wife Santana. Today, Maria’s knowledge and technique continues to be passed to the next generations of potters.

Maria’s efforts and art helped the world see pueblo pottery for the art that it is. This enabled pueblo artists to make a living fulfilling the demand for well-made pottery and other forms of hand-made art.

At Palms Trading Company, we are often proud to offer beautiful and rare pieces of Maria’s work in our selection. We also have pottery from those who have followed in her tradition, including well-known potter Erik Sunbird Fender. Come in to Palms today and see these beautiful works of art for yourself.