Maria Martinez was self-taught potter, who, with her husband, Julian Martinez, revived black pottery. In the late nineteenth century, pottery usage and production had been in decline as commercially produced goods became more common in New Mexico, a trend that started with the opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821. Maria and Julian reinvigorated interest in Pueblo pottery and helped transform the utilitarian item to an art. Maria, who lived into her nineties, was one of the most written about and photographed Pueblo potters
Maria was born in San Ildefonso Pueblo, a Tewa speaking community about twenty miles northwest of Santa Fe. Born to Tomas and Reycita Peña Montoya, Maria was the second of five daughters. She attended St. Cathrerine’s Indian School in Santa Fe for two years. As a child, Maria learned to make pottery by observing women in her community, including her maternal aunt, Nicolasa Peña Montoya and Martina Montoya, a respected potter.
In 1904, she married Julian Martinez, also from San Ildefonso. On the same day they married, they headed to St. Louis World’s Fair, where they demonstrated pottery making and traditional dances. In 1907 the School of American Research, under the direction of Dr. Edgar L. Hewett, undertook an excavation of the Pajarito Plateau, a prehistoric Pueblo site. Julian was among the local men hired to dig the site. Maria became interested in pottery shards uncovered at the excavation. Hewett encouraged her to replicate some of the ancient pots, while Julian reproduced wall and pottery designs from the site. Julian, a talented painter, is credited with adapting the avanyu (water or plumed serpent) from ancient sources. As collaborators, Maria shaped the pots and Julian painted them.
Maria and Julian lived and worked at the Museum of New Mexico from 1909 to 1912. Their early pots were polychrome, a style prevalent in San Ildefonso. Around 1912, they began making plain polished black pottery. The pueblos of San Ildefonso, San Juan, and Santa Clara had a long tradition of black pottery. Maria and Julian built on this style, creating a more highly polished finish. By 1919, they developed black-on-black, matte-and-polish pottery, a style that became popular with consumers and was emulated by neighboring Pueblos. Maria was one the first Pueblo potters to regularly sign her work.
Maria received numerous national and international awards and honors, including several honorary degrees. In 1934, she was the first Native American woman to receive a bronze medal for Indian Achievement from the Indian Fire Council, a national organization. Maria attended world’s fairs in St. Louis, San Diego, Chicago, and San Francisco and visited the White House four times. Such notoriety and trips outside of the Pueblo, made Maria, and Julian, ambassadors of their community as they educated non-Indians about Pueblo cultural ways. Maria has also been credited with improving the economic conditions of her community.
Maria and Julian passed on their knowledge of pottery making and traditional ways to their children, and subsequent generations continue to make pottery. After Julian died in 1943, Maria collaborated with her daughter-in-law, Santana, and later with her son, Popovi Da. Maria maintained a traditional Pueblo lifestyle with family and community remaining central in her life. Her legacy as one of the matriarch’s of Pueblo pottery continues.
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