Native American Icons: Maria Martinez

Maria Martinez Firing Pottery at San Ildefonso Pueblo

 

Maria Martinez (San Ildefonso Pueblo)

is one of the most famous Native American pottery artists of the twentieth century. Martinez reinvented and reinvigorated centuries-old pottery traditions of San Ildefonso Pueblo and established Native American pottery as an art form while maintaining a strong connection to her community, culture and traditions.

“She always made it a point to tell me almost every day, ‘Don't forget what you see. Don't forget what you hear. Remember, one of these days, what I did, what you’re doing, what we are doing, will be important.’” - Barbara “Tahn-Moo-Whe” Gonzales, great granddaughter of Maria Martinez in the February 2018 NMPBS ¡COLORES!: San Ildefonso potters Maria and Julian Martinez on New Mexico PBS

Plate by Maria Martinez

Along with her husband Julian, Martinez pioneered the black-on-black style of pottery that combines matte and polished black surfaces around 1920, drawing upon pottery artifacts being excavated at the time from ancient Pueblo sites. They shared their techniques with the rest of San Ildefonso Pueblo, which energized its economic and cultural life. Today, San Ildefonso black-on-black vessels are extremely valuable and one of the most recognized forms of Pueblo pottery in the world.

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“What was told to me and I think a lot of other potters in this present time is what my great great grandmother stated once, ‘We all come from the clay and the earth and we all return to the clay and the earth.’ So it's up to us to continue, to be happy, and continue the harmony of what we can express through our hands, minds and heart — it is through our art and ceremonial life that we will live on forever.” - Cavan “Eagle Trail” Gonzales, great great grandson of Maria Martinez in the December 2009 Notable New Mexican: Maria Martinez on New Mexico PBS

Pueblo pottery is known around the world for its remarkable beauty and craftsmanship and has been made in much the same way for over a thousand years, with every step of creation completed by hand. Pueblo potters do not use a wheel but construct pots using the traditional horizontal coil method or freely forming the shape. After the pot is formed, the artist polishes the piece with a natural polishing stone, such as a river stone, then paints it with a vegetal, mineral or commercial slip. Finally, the pot is fired in an outdoor fire or kiln using manure or wood as fuel.

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The “gunmetal” finish of Maria Martinez pottery has a distinctive mirror-like sheen that resembles the color of a gun barrel. Martinez achieved the unique sheen with her stone polishing technique and a very hot firing of the pot. Although Martinez was not the first potter to use the stone polish technique, she introduced the technique to a larger audience and influenced generations of Pueblo potters who took their art and knowledge to shows and museums outside of the Southwest and around the globe.

The Indian Pueblo Store offers an unsurpassed collection of original, handcrafted artwork and jewelry from talented Native American artists influenced by Maria Martinez's legendary black-on-black style. Below are acclaimed artists the Indian Pueblo Store works with who have been inspired by Martinez’s iconic style. Collectors will note that some Lonnie Vigil and Erik Fender pieces feature the gunmetal finish associated with Maria Martinez’s pottery.

Micaceous pot by Lonnie Vigil

Lonnie Vigil (Nambe Pueblo)

Vigil’s great-grandmother and great-aunts were potters and he learned to make pottery in the traditional way, by digging his own clay and firing it in an outdoor pit. He feels responsible for keeping the Nambe Pueblo culture alive and "making sure that the Clay Mother stays alive in my village.” Shop Lonnie Vigil

 

Pueblo Pottery Mug by Erik Fender

Erik Fender (San Ildefonso Pueblo)

Over the years Fender has worked in a variety of styles both traditional and contemporary, including polychrome, black-on-black and black-on-red with sgraffito carving. He is also known for his innovative green-on-black and green-on-red vessels. His designs often include traditional feather patterns as well as his own contemporary interpretations of petroglyphs and animal forms. Shop Erik Fender

 

Pueblo Pottery Mug by Denise Chavarria

Denise Chavarria (Santa Clara Pueblo)

Denise Chavarria began working with clay at age 16, inspired by her mother, Stella Chavarria, and her late grandmother, Teresita Naranjo. These matriarchs taught her all the fundamentals of working with clay, and encouraged her to continue the family tradition, perpetuating the legacy of pottery-making. Shop Denise Chavarria 

Helen Bird Contemporary Crowned Rim Bowl

Helen Bird (Santo Domingo Pueblo)

Helen Bird is a renowned Santo Domingo potter who makes elegant vessels in the traditional Santo Domingo style. Helen worked pottery with the Maria Martinez family in her younger years and learned technique as well as helped the family in some of the production work for Maria and other family members. Shop Helen Bird


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Black-on-black pottery is one of the most prized pottery styles in the world. Maria Martinez's pottery has left a lasting legacy on Native American art and continues to invigorate and inspire Native American artists. Martinez’s influence continues to impact Pueblo pottery as an exciting and dynamic form, with many artists pairing traditional techniques with innovative and stylized designs. Potters who continue to create pots using Maria Martinez methods and techniques possess an extraordinary level of skill, and their pots are highly valuable works of fine art that will be enjoyed for generations to come.

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1 comment

  • There is a new children’s book about Maria and her pottery. It is beautiful. Even the illustrations are shiny black. Congratulations to Barbara Gonzales for the publication.

    Dolores Elliott

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