Maria Martinez (1887-1980)
Maria Martinez meeting physicist Enrico Fermi in 1948
Maria Martinez meets Enrico Fermi, 1948

San Ildefonso Polychrome
Signature: Maria + Popovi

Undoubtedly the world's most famous Native American potter, Maria Montoya Martinez was born in the Tewa pueblo of San Ildefonso around 1887. As she grew up, Maria observed her aunt, Nicolasa, and learned the basics of the traditional art of pottery making from her.

In the early years of her career, Maria produced the traditional polychrome pottery of her village, generally black and terra cotta decorations painted on a background of white or tan. She shaped her pots the age-old way, by carefully hand-coiling and pinching the clay, then smoothing the inner and outer surfaces with gourd scrapers. Early on her pots were recognized as the thinnest, most beautifully shaped pots being made at San Ildefonso. Her husband, Julian, an accomplished painter of hides, paper and walls, decorated the pots for her, then worked with her in the firing of them.

Black on black jar
Signature: Marie (painted by Julian)

Maria and Julian were married in 1904 and almost from the beginning of their marriage they were traveling to demonstrate their craft at various fairs and expositions. They spent their honeymoon in 1904 demonstrating pottery making at the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition at the St. Louis Worlds Fair. They demonstrated their craft again at the Panama California Expo in San Diego in 1915, the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1934, and the Golden Gate International Expo in 1939. Native American craft fairs provided other marketing opportunities, and by signing her work Maria both heightened her visibility and commanded higher prices. In 1954, she won the Craftsmanship Medal from the American Institute of Architects, the national institute's highest honor.

Black on black plate
Signature: Marie + Santana

Contrary to legend implying that Maria "discovered" the black pottery process, Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett, Professor of Archaeology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and Director of the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, found shards of prehistoric black-on-black pottery while excavating in the ruins at Bandelier National Monument in 1908. To preserve and showcase that ancient product Hewett sought a skilled pueblo potter who could re-create that ancient pottery style for him. Everyone he asked referred him to Maria. Together they worked out a deal and he pre-ordered a series of black-on-black pots from her. That led to more than a decade of experimentation, until Maria and Julian were satisfied with their results in recreating that style of black ware. Their method required smothering the fire with manure during the firing process, effectively creating an "oxygen-reduction process" that turned the red pots black.

Black on black pot
Signature: Maria + Popovi

Julian worked out the other half of the "black-on-black" process when he began painting his designs "in the negative," using a matte black slip on the polished pot surface to create his decorations. Once fired, that demonstrated the technique that has become so famous today. Still, Maria wasn't really happy with those first black-on-black pots until Hewett came to visit with some friends and students of his. Those visitors bought virtually every pot Maria had on hand and they encouraged her to make more. Maria responded by refining her process and technique with the clay and the fire. Julian responded by refining his designs and decorations. Together they elevated their art to a level not approached by any other pueblo potter for at least 10 years.


Plain black pot
Signature: Maria Poveka

According to Susan Peterson in The Living Tradition of Maria Martinez, the six distinct steps involved in the creation of blackware pottery include, "finding and collecting the clay, forming a pot, scraping and sanding the pot to remove surface irregularities, applying the iron-bearing slip and burnishing it to a high sheen with a smooth stone, decorating the pot with another slip, and firing the pot."

Julian faced a challenge in attempting to decorate Maria's pots. The process he finally settled on involved polishing the background first and then applying the matte slip decoration. In 1918, Julian finished the first decorated black ware pot with a matte background and a polished avanyu (horned water serpent) design. Many of Julian's decorations were patterns adopted from ancient vessels of the Pueblos. Some of the patterns consisted of feathers, birds, road runner tracks, rain, clouds, mountains, and zigzags or kiva steps.

Black on black plate
Signature: Maria + Popovi

As her pots attracted more and more attention for their unique beauty, Maria began to charge modest prices. With the demand for her pots growing, she realized that her work could enrich the lives of the people of her pueblo, artistically and economically. In the ages-old tribal manner, she generously shared her techniques with others. Martinez was the matriarch of a "craft lineage" that continues today. In a career that spanned seven decades, her pottery brought honors and acclaim, revitalizing the art and the economy of San Ildefonso Pueblo.

Even though Julian decorated the pots, Maria claimed all the work in the early years because pottery was still considered a woman's job in the Pueblo. Maria left Julian's signature off their pieces to respect the Pueblo culture until 1925. After that, "Marie + Julian" was the official signature on their decorated pottery until Julian's death in 1943 (and she used "Marie" because Chester Faris, Director of the Santa Fe Indian School, had convinced her that was a name more familiar to the Anglo buying public). Undecorated pots during those years were signed simply "Marie." Maria's family began helping more with the pottery business after Julian's death. From 1943 to 1956 Maria's son Adam took over collecting clay while his wife Santana took over painting decorations. "Marie + Santana" was the signature on their pots. Popovi Da began learning to paint with Santana in 1950 and in 1956 he took over doing most of Maria's painting. The signature became "Maria/Popovi" until 1971 when Popovi passed on. He'd also often been busy with tribal politics during those years and, at times, couldn't keep up with painting Maria's pots. As Maria almost never painted a pot, those pots are plain and signed "Maria Poveka" (Poveka being her Tewa name, meaning: "pond lily"). Today, values on Maria's work vary based on the signature on the bottom, those with "Maria + Popovi" being valued highest.

After making pots for almost 80 years, Maria passed on in 1980.

The Life of Maria Martinez

1887: Maria Montoya is born at San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico

1904: Maria Montoya marries Julian Martinez in the morning and together they board a train in the afternoon to demonstrate pottery making at the St. Louis World's Fair

1914: Maria's father Tomas Montoya dies
1914: Maria and Julian participate in the San Diego World's Fair
1922-1926: Marie signature

1933: Maria meets Mae West
1934: Maria & Julian participate in the Chicago World's Fair
1943-1956: Marie & Santana signature

1954: Maria is awarded the Craftsmanship Medal by the American Institute of Architects
1954: Maria receives the Bronze Award from the University of Colorado for having made the greatest contribution to the arts
1956: 'Marie' becomes 'Maria'

1971: Popovi dies
1974: Maria receives the First Annual New Mexico Governors Award

1980: Maria dies










1894-1900: Maria learns pottery making by watching her aunt Nicolasa

1908-1943: Julian paints the majority of Maria's pots
1909: Maria's mother Reyes Montoya dies

1919: Maria and Julian develop black on black ware

1926-1943: Marie & Julian signature

1939: Maria & Julian participate in the San Francisco World's Fair
1943: Julian dies, Maria begins working with Santana, her daughter-in-law
1950: Popovi begins working with Maria and Santana
1956: Popovi begins painting most of Maria's pots
1956-1971: Maria & Popovi signature
1956-1971: Maria Poveka signature
1968: Maria is presented with the Presidential Citation from the American Ceramic Society
1971: Maria receives an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degree from New Mexico State University
1977: Maria receives an Honorary Doctorate degree from Columbia College
Julian Martinez gathering clay San Ildefonso Pueblo 

c. 1940 Photo by Wyatt Davis Neg. No. 50082

Courtesy Museum of New Mexico
Maria Martinez pottery tools

San Ildefonso Pueblo c. 1950

Photo by Tyler Dingee Neg. No. 120158

Courtesy Museum of New Mexico
Maria Martinez scraping bowl walls San Ildefonso Pueblo c. 1950 Photo by Tyler Dingee Neg. No. 120176 Courtesy Museum of New Mexico
Maria Martinez polishing bowl

San Ildefonso Pueblo c. 1950

Photo by Tyler Dingee Neg. No. 73448

Courtesy Museum of New Mexico
Maria Martinez loading firing pit

San Ildefonso Pueblo c. 1950

Photo by Tyler Dingee Neg. No. 73449

Courtesy Museum of New Mexico
Maria Martinez removing pottery from firing pit

San Ildefonso Pueblo c. 1950

Phote by Tyler Dingee Neg. No. 12069

Courtesy Museum of New Mexico
Maria Martinez holding pottery after firing

San Ildefonso Pueblo c. 1950

Photo by Tyler Dingee Neg. No. 73452

Courtesy Museum of New Mexico