Maria Martinez

Maria Martinez was a world-renowned potter from the San Ildefonso Pueblo, just north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. She perfected the art of making beautiful, satiny, jet-black pottery. She is very special to me because when my parents visited Santa Fe in the early 1970s, they visited San Ildefonso and met Maria. My mother brought home a pot made by her and told me her story. I never forgot Maria or her story and later when I visited Santa Fe with my kids, we visited San Ildefonso. This summer, Maggie and I again visited San Ildefonso and the shop of Maria’s granddaughter, and we came home with some beautiful pottery from a new generation of San Ildefonso potters.

The pot shown in the photo is the pot my mother bought back in the 1970s and you can see Maria’s signature on the bottom. (You can also see a crack, which I am fully responsible for. Suffice it to say, it was lucky for my husband, kids, and my clean criminal record that I, rather than one of them, dropped the pot.)

Maria was born in 1887 in San Ildefonso. She learned pottery-making from her aunt and perfected not only the techniques her aunt taught her, but also revived lost traditional pottery-making techniques, adding her own discoveries to make the pots authentic and beautiful.

Maria’s pottery was made using a process using unfired red clay pots that are painted with a red clay slip and then fired at a relatively cool temperature in a fire that is smoldered with manure, which removes the oxygen while holding in the heat and turns the pots a velvety-smooth, jet-black color. The designs—based on nature, such as rain, corn, rivers, etc.—were painted with guaco, which turns a matte-black color and contrasts with the silky black of the rest of the pot, bringing out the design. She made perfect clay pots without using a wheel—something that amazes me beyond measure.

Maria got interested in mastering black-on-black pottery technique after working with her husband Julian on an Ancestral Pueblo archeological dig in the early 1900s, which uncovered remnants of jet-black pottery dating back to the Neolithic period. She and Julian began trying to revive this ancient technique in about 1910, with the first firing for museum pieces occurring in about 1913. The signature on the bottom of my mother’s pot is “Maria + Santana.” Santana was Maria’s son’s wife, with whom Maria worked for about 30 years after Julian died.

Despite her own fame, Maria remained committed to her community and taught her pottery technique to others in San Ildefonso. When you go to San Ildefonso today, you can find the Sunbeam Gallery, operated by Maria’s descendants, but you can also find numerous other shops, some set up in people’s living rooms, where San Ildefonso potters sell their beautiful, jet-black pottery.

Maria died in 1980 at the age of 93.

Here is a documentary about her pottery technique. And, If you’re interested in reading more about Maria, check out this book.

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