Maria Martinez Matriarch of New Mexico Potters

Maria Martinez Matriarch of New Mexico Potters  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Bonhams.

If you explore prehistoric pueblo village sites in the southwest it’s pottery shards that will often give you the clearest trace of what life may have been like among the ancient Native American peoples. 

In some of these sites hundreds of pottery shards saturate the landscape.  They’re scattered around the dry desert soil like ancient puzzle pieces.  They piece together a story about pottery making that dates back 24 centuries within the Southwest. 

Maria shaped and polished the pots; Julian painted them.  Maria and her younger sister Clara could polish better than most potters.  Her technique raised the bar on what was possible. 

Maria Martinez is the name most often associated with pottery making in New Mexico.  She was the matriarch of five generations of potters.

Only 83 people survived the 1918 influenza epidemic at San Ildefonso Pueblo. Maria and her husband Julian were two of them.  Their Native American ancestral lands are located 25 miles north of Santa Fe. 

The people who were still alive after the epidemic were poor.  Drought dehydrated their crops and fields and much of their land had been snatched up by neighboring Hispanic and Anglo people.

Tourist trade pottery surfaced as a lifeline for San Ildefonso, a way back.  It would ultimately shift the economy of the pueblo forever. 

Maria and Julian had already been making and selling pottery for ten years.  Maria shaped and polished the pots; Julian painted them.  Maria and her younger sister Clara could polish better than most potters.  Her technique raised the bar on what was possible. 

The couple also experimented with paints and polishes and Julian came up with a matte black design on a shiny black surface.  The eye-catching black-on-black pottery was so popular that by 1925 a number of pueblo families were supporting themselves from pottery sales. 

They developed the wares after Smithsonian Institution and Heye Foundation archaeologists made the request.  The archeologists had unearthed 2,000 year old black pottery shards during an excavation in 1908 at the nearby Puye ruins. 

They asked Maria and Julian to copy the black pots.  But first Maria had to be convinced black pottery was actually part of her heritage.  Rose Gonzales, another potter at San Ildefonso introduced carved wares and went on to gain recognition for the technique.  Redware was also perfected at San Ildefonso.   

Maria began to sign her pots in 1925.  It had a profound effect.  Prior to that people collected pots not potters and pots weren’t signed. 

Before long most potters were signing their pots and collectors began collecting potters.  Maria signed her wares “Marie” or “Marie/Julien.”

The couple showed anyone who was interested in black pottery at San Ildefonso how to make it.  They also didn’t stop potters from signing Maria’s name to their creations.  So there are black pots with Maria’s name that she never made or signed herself. 

Maria and Julian’s blackware is refined and elegant and it sold almost immediately back then as well as it does today.  Maria said she never thought about keeping her early pieces which are extraordinarily valuable now for her children or for herself. 

Today she’s remembered as a guardian of her culture’s pottery tradition. 

Maria died in 1980.

On Sept. 13, Bonhams & Butterfields, San Francisco, featured a selection of San Ildefonso pottery in its Art and Artifacts auction.  Here are some current values.

San Ildefonso Pottery

Blackware Plate; Marie & Julian; 11 ¼ inches diameter;  $732.

Blackware Vase; carved above the shoulder with twin panel scrolling; Rose Gonzales; 10 ¼ inches by 7 ¼ inches;  $732.

Blackware Jar; carved; Blue Corn; 6 ½ inches by 7 ½ inches;  $793.

Blackware Jar; painted about the shoulder with a sinuous water serpent motif and rain cloud complements; Marie; 5 ½ inches high by 8 ½ inches;  $1,342.

Rosemary McKittrick

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