Her pottery saved the pueblo and impressed the art world
San Ildefonso Pueblo, N.M. — The plaza of northern New Mexico's San Ildefonso Pueblo is surrounded by low adobe structures. In this tiny village a Tewa Indian Potter, Maria Martinez, easily the most famous of all native American potters, lives here with her son Adam and his wife, Santana.
Maria Martinez, whose career spans most of this century, is frail yet vibrant , her trembling voice sometimes lilting upward with startling joy. With graying hair knotted behind with purple yarn, strands of red and white beads contrasting with her dress's turquoise print, she is handsome still, her artist's sense of color and design still as apparent as in her younger days.
Mrs. Martinez is a legend, the recipient of numerous medals, awards, and honorary degrees. She has been the subject of films, a guest at the White House, and hostess to First Ladies.
Early in this century, Mrs. Martinez, with her late husband, Julian, achieved a lasting fame by developing a striking "black on black" pottery. Gradually swept up by an impressed Anglo art world,l she became known for "the magnificence of the shape and technical execution of her work her wonderful eye for form and symmetry." Black-on-black pottery featured dull, dusky designs against a fiercely glowing backround. Mr. Martinez painted the designs.
Their accomplishment was not negligible. Its success has enable San Ildefonso to survive, not only reviving pottery as a craft, but resurrecting a pueblo community that was almost dying from economic problems, disease, and persistent difficulties with an Anglo government. Today San Ildefonso's population has quadrupled and the market for pottery so expanded that a splendid storage jar by Mr. Martinez once traded for a shawl worth $21.50 is now valued at more than $10 ,000.
The Maria and Julian Martinez style of pottery widely duplicated throughout the pueblo and now considered as typical of San Ildefonso ware-is an amalgamation of tradition and innovation. Glossy from polishing and not from glazes, painted with yucca brushes as well as Japanese brushes, fired in the open (the blaze fed by cow chips and cedar), this pottery reflects habits of centuries of Indian craftsmen.
In essence, however, it is pottery for Anglos. The technique of smothering the fire to achieve the rich black color has meant temperatures too low for watertightness no problem for "art," but certainly a problem for use. And usefulness was once a standard for an Indian potter.
The exquisite designs, though Indian in origin, are used as decoration and not as symbol. Pottery used for sacred purposes is kept hidden from the non-Indian eye. The pottery is no less beautiful because of these concessions to the market place, and without these concessions it would not be sold. As Mrs. Martinez greets visitors today, she successfully belies her complex and difficult past, a past that has included the loss of her husband (in 1943) and three of her sons, as well as family and pueblo conflicts. Proud and serene, she has an honest dignity. Her legacy is the founding of an artistic dynasty.
The home Maria shares with son Adam and Santana is a center of creativity. Though Adam, a kindly man with features reminiscent of his handsome father, Julian, is not a potter, he is intimately involved in securing and preparing special clays and in the delicate process of firing the pots. His wife is a superb craftsman in her own right, only a natural shyness making her less a public figure than Maria.
There are five generations of potters in the family, and though Maria's son Popovi Da-Adam's brother passed on in 1971, he was Maria's collaborator for 15 years, and his son, Tony Da, is both a gifted potter and painter. Adam and Santana's daughter Anita is a potter as well, as is her daughter Barbara Pino Gonzales. Mrs. Gonzales is an inventive artist who teaches the "Maria Martinez Method" in work-shops throughout the country; her young sons, Cavan and Aaron, have begun to work with clay as well.
Maria Martinez's dynasty actually goes far beyond her family and includes an entire pueblo, with many potters who have learned their skills at her side. There are perhaps other potters whose gifts have equaled hers but who have not gained international recognition. Mrs. Martinez earned celebrity by adding personal grace and strength to her artistic attributes.
Generous, joyous, and only mildly vain, she has been an inspiration to both Anglos and Indians. Peggy Pond Church, who grew up near San Ildefonso Pueblo, once wrote in a journal of "Maria of Ildefonso": "Her home was the first Indian house I ever entered. Cool and immaculate, fragrant with the sweet smell of burning pinon and frying tortillas, warm with welcome to whoever came, whether friends or curious strangers. She is a truly great artist whose work has become the standard of excellence throughout the Pueblos."