Martinez, Maria Montoya (1887–1980)

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Martinez, Maria Montoya (1887–1980)

Tewa potter, known primarily for developing matte black-on-black ware, who was the key figure in the 20th-century revival of Pueblo pottery . Name variations: Marie. Signed work: Poh've'ka, Marie, Marie & Julian (1923–1922); Marie & Santana (1943–1956); Marie Poveka (Pond Lily); and Maria/Popovi (1956–1971). Born Poh've'ka or Pond Lily (Tewa) or Maria Antonita Montoya (Spanish) in the Tewa Pueblo P'owo'ge, or Place Where the Waters Meet (in Spanish: San Ildefonso, New Mexico) on April 5, 1887; died on July 21, 1980, in Santa Fe, New Mexico; daughter of Reyecita Pena and Tomas Montoya; attended St. Catharine's Indian School (Santa Fe, New Mexico); married Julian Martinez, in 1904 (died 1943); children: Adam Martinez (who married Santana Roybal Martinez); Juan Diego Martinez; Popovi Da Martinez; Felip Martinez; and a daughter and son who died in infancy.

Survived epidemic that decimated Pueblo population (c. 1890); participated with husband Julian in"Anthropology Exhibit" at St. Louis World's Fair (1904); with Julian, joined archaeological excavation of the Pajarito Plateau at Tyuonyi and Frijoles Canyons under Dr. Edgar L. Hewett (1908); began reproduction of ancient Frijoles pottery, originally polychrome; employed at the Museum of New Mexico (1909–10); experimented with black-on-black ware (1910–12); developed black ware; exhibited at San Diego World's Fair (1912–15); discovered matte-on-black ware method (1919–21); developed pottery-making as full-time industry (1921–22); exhibited at Chicago World's Fair (1934); demonstrated pottery-making at San Francisco World's Fair with Julian (1939); Julian died (1943); worked with Santana Martinez (1943–1956); worked with son, Popovi Da (1956–1971); Popovi Da died (1971).

Awards and shows:

Bronze Medal, Chicago World's Fair and Indian Fire Council's Bronze Medal for Indian Achievement (1934); University of Colorado Bronze Medal (1953); American Institute of Architects Craftsmanship Medal and France's Palmes Academie Award (1954); Rockford College-Jane Addams Award for Distinguished Service (1959); the "Three-Generation Show," sponsored by the Center for the Arts of Indian American, featuring Maria, son Popovi Da, and grandson Tony Da (1967); American Ceramic Society Presidential Citation (1968); Minnesota Museum of Art "Symbol of Man" Award; honorary Ph.D. in Fine Arts from New Mexico State University at Las Cruces; NEA grant for pottery workshop, Idyllwild, California (1973); New Mexico Arts Commission Governor's Award for Outstanding Service to the Arts (1974); National Council on Education for Ceramic Arts Award (1976); honorary Ph.D., Columbia College, Chicago (1977); "Maria: The Legend, The Legacy," retrospective exhibition presented by Wheelwright Museum, New Mexico (June 1980).

Twenty-five miles northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the Rio Grande snakes through high desert covered by pinyon pines, sits the Tewa Pueblo named P'owo'ge ("Place Where the Waters Meet"). Situated on the river bank between the Jemez Mountains on the west and the snow-capped Sangre De Cristos on the east, the Pueblo has been inhabited since 1300 ce and was renamed San Ildefonso by Spanish invaders in 1617. The once-thriving Tewa community of 3,000 tumbled into a 200-year spiritual and physical decline reaching rock bottom at the end of the 19th century when an influenza epidemic reduced the population to 80. Among the survivors was young Maria Montoya. Her mother Reyecita Montoya is said to have taken the child's resilience to be a sure sign that she would withstand great hardship in years to come. Indeed, Maria, who grew up to become one of her Pueblo's greatest potters, overcame personal tragedy many times in her long life.

As with most native endeavors, pottery-making is an ancient blending of the practical with artistic and spiritual expression. The designs and techniques of Pueblo pottery date back centuries and employ materials natural to the region: clay from the four sacred mountains, vegetal pigments (guaco) for color, and the sharp bristles of the yucca plant for brushes. Unlike European potters, North American natives never used the potter's wheel, preferring to coil rather than throw and to bake the pots in a hot fire of sheep dung rather than in a man-made kiln.

Maria's first attempts at making pottery began when she was a girl. She would later tell author Susan Peterson : "I watched my Aunt, Nicolasa … she didn't teach. Nobody teaches pottery. I was about ten or twelve." She also had the advantage of watching Martina Montoya (no relation) who was, and still is, considered one of the finest Tewa potters of all time. Despite these artists, however, the early 20th century saw a serious shortage in quality pottery coming out of the Pueblos, a circumstance which could be attributed to the overall economic and cultural depression experienced throughout all of the Pueblos in the southwest. So in decline was the Pueblo culture that many experts feared the Pueblos were on the verge of dying out altogether.

Myriad factors fueled this deterioration. Like many children from Indian nations, Maria and her sisters were sent away from the Pueblos to Indian schools, where speaking their native language (Tewa) was forbidden, and even Spanish was considered a language secondary to the preferred English. Traditional religious practices were frowned upon by priests who continued the centuries-old practice of their predecessors of attempting to convert the natives. For the Tewas, relinquishing their spiritual identity was impossible because of the intertwining of Tewa ceremonial life with daily living, with the cycles of planting and harvest, and with the cycles of birth and death. These ideas are sustained throughout the culture, and particularly in the art work. From the beginning, Maria's work reflected the close ties to family, as well as to Pueblo and ceremonial life, of a Tewa Indian.

In 1904, the 17-year-old Maria married Julian Martinez, who was from her village. A saddlemaker by trade, Julian agreed to learn farming, the Montoya family business. Maria's father Tomas was to teach his new son-in-law everything he knew, so that Julian could be a steady provider. But Maria's and Julian's lives were soon to take another turn. In an understatement about what some consider to be one of the most covertly racist events in the 20th century, she later told curator Richard Spivey: "When I was married in 1904, I went to the St. Louis Fair and there I made little pots." Maria's narration said more about her generous and forgiving nature than it did about the event.

I just learned [pottery] for myself. I learned it with … my whole heart.

—Maria Martinez

Deciding that the citizens of the United States needed to be exposed to "primitive" cultures, the architects of the St. Louis World's Fair set about creating an "Anthropological Exhibit." To that end, they sent for native peoples from across the United States and the world, inviting them to participate in what amounted to living dioramas: little scenes depicting "primitives" in their natural habitats. The visitors to the fair, largely descendants of white European settlers, viewed dioramas that featured cultures and peoples as diverse as African Pygmies, Fiji islanders, and Native Americans. Even the great Apache warrior and mystic Geronimo was featured as an attraction. Maria and Julian were viewed depicting scenes in the life of the Pueblo Indians. Maria, fluent in three languages including English, was curious and startled by the rude comments made by whites about the indigenous peoples, whom they assumed could not understand them. Though Maria may have been quietly offended by the paternalistic remarks, her experience and spirituality provided a means by which to maintain an interest in, and liking for, people of all races and backgrounds.

Later that year, the couple returned to San Ildefonso. Julian set about the task of learning his adopted occupation; unfortunately, he did not particularly enjoy farming, making it all the more difficult for him because at the time no one was making a good living. Maria gave birth to their first son almost immediately and to a daughter the following year.

In 1907, the couple suffered their first tragic loss when their infant girl died of a sudden illness. Maria was consumed with grief, and the child's death may have been a watershed event for Julian, who developed a drinking problem. For many native people, the hardships of economic oppression seemed unending. Though alcohol was forbidden in Indian territory, saloon owners made a habit of strategically placing their bars just off Indian land. No matter how much he fought it, Julian suffered bouts of chronic alcoholism for the rest of his life.

In 1908, Dr. Edgar L. Hewett, professor of archaeology and director of the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, began archaeological excavations of the ancient Tewa Pueblos at Tyuonyi and Frijoles Canyons. Native men were offered work as diggers and, though it meant his leaving the Pueblo for an extended period, Maria urged Julian to take the job, hoping that the isolation of the digs would help curb his appetite for alcohol.

Hewett and his colleagues were successful at unearthing ancient polychrome ware, examples of the characteristic black-on-red or black-on-cream pottery. But they also found fragments of pottery not previously discovered in the Southwest. These shards were jet and charcoal black in color, and some were polished. Unable to find a piece intact, the archaeologists wanted a native woman to recreate the unusual style of pottery. Maria Martinez, who at the time signed her polychrome pots with her given name Poh've'ka, made the thinnest, roundest pots in the least amount of time. She was thrilled when asked to attempt the recreations.

For the next year, Maria and Julian began to experiment with different methods of firing the clay to achieve the black ware. At the same time, she continued to make polychrome pieces that Julian painted with traditional Tewa symbols, in particular the avanyu or plumed serpent. Though it was unusual for a Tewa man to participate in any phase of pottery-making, Julian and Maria's collaboration was not only a perfect artistic match but it was also probably critical to keeping their marriage intact, as they were able to augment their income with sales of their work. This period—from 1907 until Julian's death in 1943—is considered the first phase of Maria's long career. She told Spivey in 1979: "Julian helped me. He helped me with everything. … And when Dr. Hewett came … there's where we started making money, and we were very happy."

Edgar Hewett was excited by the success of Maria's reproductions. He and a colleague, Dr. Kenneth Chapman, encouraged the couple to continue their experiments which they were convinced would spark a renaissance in Tewa pottery. So positive were Hewett and Chapman in this prediction that by 1911 Maria, Julian, and several other potters had been hired to demonstrate their craft at the Museum in Santa Fe and to sell directly to the public. By 1914, when the Museum sent

a group of potters, including Maria and Julian, to the San Diego World's Fair to demonstrate this work, a full-scale revival was on the rise. Though they were accomplished at rendering beautiful pieces of traditional pottery, and their efforts were critical in improving the artistic integrity of the native ware, Maria and Julian had not yet made their own artistic mark. That was soon to come.

Around 1919, the couple reached a turning point in their lives and work. The more Maria worked with black ware, the less Julian was needed in their collaboration, and it seemed that whenever Julian was at creative loose ends, he found his way into a saloon. Fortunately, the couple decided to experiment with the black ware. With a red clay slip, Julian painted a design on one of Maria's black pots after she had polished it but before it was fired. Neither of them knew what would result. To their great surprise, when the pot was pulled from the fire a new kind of pottery had been created—matte black (where Julian had painted) on polished black.

The black-on-black pottery became an instant success both artistically and commercially. The first black-on-black pots were finished in matte with a polished design. The couple continued to perfect the new style, and eventually the technique was reversed, producing the Martinez family signature style seen today: a polished design within a matte band on a highly polished, silvery black vessel. In addition to being the innovators of the matte black-on-black ware, the Martinezes were the only Tewas who worked with black fired clay. The potters of the Santa Clara Pueblo have been working for decades in black ware and are most known for the "bear claw" pottery, its design fired into the clay.

While the family grew to include two more sons, Juan Diego and Popovi Da, and their pottery-making flourished, Maria and Julian's accomplishments were not well accepted by the rest of the Pueblo, who viewed the success of the group as more important than the achievement of any individual. Sensitive to the Pueblo's attitudes, Maria willingly shared what had been a secret technique, and her generosity single-handedly turned around the economic conditions of the village. Also helpful was a road which opened San Ildefonso to tourists from Santa Fe in 1924. Maria's pots were already well known, and now her neighbors' wares were sought after as well.

Maria and Julian worked on improving their techniques while teaching and displaying the black-on-black ware nationwide. By 1931, when the rest of the country was in the midst of a depression, Maria's income was over $5,000. She hired a Spanish maid to take over the household chores and to help with the three youngest boys (the last son, Felip, was born during this time), which allowed her to work at her craft full time. Martinez's life, however, was not without challenges. She lost another child, a son, in infancy and was given the care of her baby sister Clara Montoya when their mother Reyecita died in childbirth.

Julian's bouts with alcohol increased with time. Even as his drinking became progressively worse, the couple traveled extensively throughout the 1930s and 1940s, demonstrating their skills and accepting various awards and citations. Their reputation as master artisans was becoming known nationwide. Meanwhile, with alcoholism not yet recognized as a disease, Julian went untreated. In 1943, he disappeared for several days before he was found dead in the mountains near the Pueblo where he was born.

His death marked both an ending and a beginning for Maria. She mourned the man with whom she had lived most of her life. But she could not let the grief destroy her when she had her children, and by now grandchildren, to consider.

Her eldest son Adam had married Santana Roybal (Martinez) , a woman from a respected family of Pueblo artisans. Julian had instructed Santana in his painting techniques, and Maria now began a collaboration with Santana. Their work together, which lasted seven years, continued the Maria-Julian tradition.

In 1956, Maria Martinez began the third phase of her artistic career when she began working with her son Popovi Da. Like his father, "Po" was a painter by nature and used his skill to decorate his mother's pots; he had also inherited his father's spirit of experimentation. By this time, Martinez's technical excellence had reached its zenith, and together they developed a new line of pottery: sienna ware and black-on-sienna ware. Po added his trademark signature when he invented a polished gun-metal finish. This period, one of Martinez's most creative, came to an abrupt and tragic end with Po's untimely death. Before his passing in 1971 at the age of 50, he was Martinez's last living child. Juan Diego and her youngest son Felip had died in 1966. Martinez, now 84, had survived her husband and most of her children.

After Popovi's death, Martinez retired as a practicing artist, though she continued to teach. In 1973, a National Endowment for the Arts grant allowed her to hold a pottery workshop at Idyllwild, California, in the mountains above Los Angeles, where she passed on her techniques to a new generation of potters.

After decades of national and international recognition, Martinez was honored by her home state of New Mexico with a retrospective exhibition at the Wheelwright Museum. Opening June 15, 1980, it was to be the last tribute during her lifetime. She died just over a month later, on July 21, 1980. Her work can be found in many private collections and museums including the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe. Martinez's legacy continues in the work of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as that of the hundreds of other potters she inspired.


Marriott, Alice. Maria: The Potter of San Illdefonso. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1948.

McGreevey, Susan Brown. Maria: The Legend, The Legacy. Santa Fe, NM: Sunstone Press, 1982.

Peterson, Susan. The Living Tradition of Maria Martinez. San Francisco: Kodansha International, 1977.

Spivey, Richard L. Maria. Northland Publishing, 1979.

Trimble, Stephen. Talking With Clay. Santa Fe, NM: American Research Press, 1987.

Deborah Jones , freelance writer, Studio City, California

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Martinez, Maria Montoya (1887–1980)

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