Thursday, December 13, 2012

All About Maria

Maria Martinez
San Ildefonso Pueblo
          As I searched for female artists to select for my doctoral thesis, I wanted to include women of color with varied backgrounds. In addition, I was looking for artists that used similar media so I could compare their work, opportunities, and success, during the early years of the twentieth century. I chose two painters, two sculptor/potters, and two photographers: three from the East and three from the West. I discovered an artist who I believed was an obscure Native American potter from a pueblo in New Mexico. That woman turned out to be Maria Martinez, who, unbeknownst to me, was an internationally known artist whose work continues to be collectable and increasingly more valuable since her death.

María Antonia Montoya, the second eldest of five daughters, was born on an unrecorded date between the years 1881 and 1887. For nearly one hundred years, until her death in 1980, Martinez lived modestly on the pueblo, eager to greet visitors and share her craft. The family was supported by her father, Thomas Montoya, who worked variously as a farmer, a carpenter, and a cowboy. Martinez was given the Tewa, or pueblo name Po’ve’ka, or "Pond Lily."[1] 

Her fascination with pottery-making began when she was a young girl, as she would watch her aunt making pots for cooking, food storage, mixing bread dough, and for bathing. When asked how she learned the art of pottery making, Martinez was quick to respond, "I watched my aunt, Nicolasa, my mother’s sister who had married my father’s brother, so we are all in the family…Nicolasa…and my grandmother—they didn’t teach, nobody teaches pottery…But in 1932, much later, someone took me to the government Indian school in Santa Fe and told me to teach. I said no, I come and I work, and they can watch."[2]

          This manner of observation/instruction was—and is—part of the structure of each day. The isolation and the slower pace of pueblo life that still exists permits time for direct learning by imitation, from verbal directions, and through observation. Indian daily life is organized so that it sets up sequences of repetitions that become frameworks for a subtle educative process.[3] Life on the pueblo remains much the same as it has always been. There are no street names, most of the roads are still unpaved, and the houses are not numbered. Bread continues to bake in outdoor adobe kiva ovens and costumes worn for ancient rituals and religious ceremonies are painstakingly hand-sewn, for each event.

Maria and Julian
ca. 1931
 As Martinez came of age and decided to marry, her family was not particularly enthusiastic about her relationship with Julian. A painter, Julian possessed a craft, but did not have any skills with which to provide for a wife and family. In a break from tradition, the marriage was not arranged by either of their parents, but by the couple themselves. Martinez was a man caught between two worlds. His inability, or lack of interest, in farming as his ancestors had in the past, resulted in his being viewed as marginal, by those on the pueblo. To compensate, Martinez regularly performed a variety of tasks that included chopping wood for the San Ildefonso School, and janitorial work at the Museum of New Mexico, which later proved to be an important connection and turning point in their lives.

          For a woman born and raised on a small pueblo in New Mexico, Maria travelled extensively during the early years of her marriage. The couple spent their first months together as part of the Indian Exhibit at the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri. At that point, Maria spoke only Tewa, and allowed her husband to communicate with the public since it was “the man’s place to talk to outsiders anyway.”[4] As potters, the couple was creating the traditional polychrome ware, with Maria as the potter, and Julian as the decorator. They refined their pottery techniques and were asked to demonstrate their craft at several additional important expositions, including the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, the 1914 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, and the 1934 Chicago World's Fair. At the 1939-1940 San Francisco Golden Gate Exposition, the couple spent their time on Yerba Buena Island, in a large pueblo built by archeologist/anthropologist Edgar Hewett of the Museum of New Mexico. There, the couple met “that Geronimo,” the fierce Apache. Maria observed, “He was already old, a big man. We talked in Spanish because we didn’t know each others’ Indian.”[5]

          Maria and Julian left the pueblo while he worked under Hewett (founder and first director of the Museum of New Mexico), as one of the natives hired to assist with an excavation at the Pajarito Plateau in 1907. Hewett discovered that Maria was an excellent potter and requested that she and Julian try to replicate the technique he unearthed on shards of pottery not typically found in the Southwest. The pieces were jet and charcoal in color, some highly polished.

Martinez was confident that she possessed the ability to replicate the shapes of the pottery from the shards, but she had no knowledge of how to duplicate the deep black finish of the clay. The couple experimented with a variety of techniques, but the early pots fired in about 1910, were not traditional San Ildefonso pottery and they felt the quality of the initial pieces was not satisfactory.During this early phase of experimentation, Maria and Julian stored the wares. However, when Hewett brought a group from the museum to see the pots, they were effusive in their appreciation of the beauty and sheen of the black wares. The couple was encouraged to continue their work.

Maria and Julian Martinez
Black on Black Jar with Feather Motif
ca. Early 20th century
As early as 1920, Maria and Julian began to receive requests for more work than they could produce with quality so, they enlisted members of their family to help meet the demand. Maria was concerned that their financial success would result in tension and resentment within the pueblo among those who did not share in the wealth. She requested permission from Julian to teach the black ware technique to anyone in the village who wished to learn. Martinez also supported and encouraged the other women of the pueblo to create and sell their own pots. Her enthusiasm was infectious and her constant inspiration and sharing of her knowledge and ability helped to keep the art alive and thriving. Martinez was also willing to share beyond her pueblo, with other potters, as she traveled. “I’m lucky! People take me all around. I go to so many places, a long time. I travel many years.”[7]

Collected, displayed, and available for purchase, most of the wares created by Martinez over a period of seventy years or more were sold as soon as they were fashioned. Even during the 1930s, when pots went for as little as two dollars per item, they were sold quickly, because the family needed the small profit each pot would bring. “I used to make big, big pots for $1.00 or $1.75,” she said.[8] Maria claimed to have made hundreds of large pots but they seem to have disappeared into private collections. Sadly, upon reflection, Maria admitted that it never occurred to them to keep any of the pieces, or to pass them down to their children.

Martinez was well into her nineties when died, on July 20, 1980, at the same pueblo where she was born and spent her most of her life. At the time of her death, pottery production was the primary and single most important source of income for many of the pueblos of the Rio Grande. Maria’s children, Popovi Da, and John Martinez (d. 1966) learned from Maria and continued to carry on her work, while grandchildren Kathy Sanchez, Johnny Cruz, Barbara Gonzalez, and Martin Martinez carry on the black ware pottery tradition of their late great-grandmother.[9] Martinez dedicated her life to the pueblo and to her people, with a vision of purpose. Martinez was quoted by Richard Spivey in his book María as saying "My Mother Earth gave me this luck. So I'm not going to keep it. I take care of our people."[10]

Monochrome, Polychrome, and Black on Black Pottery Group
Maria Martinez, San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico

1. Peterson, The Living Tradition of Maria Martinez, 83.
2. Ibid., 82.
3. Ibid., 82.
4. Marriott, Maria: The Potter of San Ildefonso, 119. 
5. Peterson, The Living Tradition of Maria Martinez, 109.
6. Marriott, Maria: The Potter of San Ildefonso, 202.
7. Ibid., 94.
8. Ibid., 79.
9. Good (accessed June 24, 2011).
10. Liz Sonneborn, A to Z of American Indian Women, 2nd. ed. (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2007), 150.

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