Of Tewa heritage of the San Ildefonso Pueblo in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico, Maria Martinez became world renowned for her black on black pottery. Martinez learned to make pots as a child from her aunt, Tia Nicolasa, and began with clay dishes she made for her playhouse. In 1908, New Mexico archaeologist Dr. Edgar Hewett asked her to put some shards together and reconstruct an entire pot. She was successful, and this activity further stirred her interest in making pots. It was then that Martinez and her husband, Julian (who painted the designs on the pottery after Maria shaped them), began an artistic collaboration that would last throughout their lives together.
Julian broke away from farming in San Ildefonso and became a janitor at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe. He and Martinez studied the pottery in the display cases, and then applied methods they observed. They discovered a method to get the black colors by smothering the flames with dried manure during firing, producing smoke that carbonized the pottery. They polished the surfaces with a smooth stone before firing, so the pottery, black-on-black, emerged with a silvery sheen. They also painted dull, velvet black decorations of ancient motifs on the pottery before firing. Julian replicated and was inspired by many pre-historic designs. He was fond of many motifs, using ancient symbols in new combinations. He often painted the avanyu, the horned water serpent, which he saw as a symbol for the rush of water after a hard rain, and as a metaphor for the pueblo itself. The couple refined their pottery techniques and were asked to demonstrate their craft at several expositions, including the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the 1914 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, and the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair.They sold many of their pots in Santa Fe but eventually Martinez became homesick for San Ildefonso, and the couple returned there, where she gave pottery lessons to other women. After Julian’s death in 1943, Martinez began working with her daughter-in-law Santana. Santana provided the painted decoration that was her father-in-law’s legacy. After 1956, Martinez also worked with her son Popovi Da. It was Popovi who helped market her work, building a shop at the pueblo and speaking about the pottery tradition of San Ildefonso at lectures across the country. One of the family’s most innovative potters is Martinez’ grandson Tony Da. Tony combined sculptural techniques with traditional forms to create unique forms. Due to a motorcycle accident, Tony no longer makes pottery, but he continues to work as a painter Martinez became so admired for her skill that she was specially invited to the White House four times, and she received honorary doctorates from the University of Colorado and New Mexico State University.Reference: AskArt.com, American Women Artists by Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein