Maria, the Pottery Maker
Famous for her distinctive pottery, Maria's work is exhibited in museums throughout the nation. No where else has Indian Pottery been produced to match that created in New Mexico, Land of Enchantment.
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An excavation, in 1908, led by Edgar Lee Hewett, a professor of archaeology and the director of the Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe, discovered examples of black-on-black pottery. While searching through the sandy dirt and red clay of the New Mexico desert terrain, broken pieces of polished, jet-black pottery were uncovered. At this time, few people were aware that during the Neolithic period, the Pueblo peoples crafted this style of finished ware. The Historical Pottery of the Pueblo Indians 1600-1800 text states that the finished ... pottery held a glossy, melted appearance which was only used for decoration on the pots. Sometime during the end of the 18th century, the use of plant pigments and finely powdered mineral substances became the preferred technique of painting and slowly caused the extinction of glazed pottery.
Hewett sought a skilled pueblo potter who could re-create this ancient pottery style. His intention was to place re-created pots in museums and thus preserve the ancient art form. Maria Martinez was known in the Tewa pueblo of San Ildefonso, New Mexico for making the thinnest pots in the least time. Hewett saw her as the perfect Pueblo potter to bring his idea to life.
A long process of experimentation was required to successfully recreate the black-on-black pottery style to meet Maria’s exacting standards. There were many challenges. As almost all clay found in the New Mexico desert was red, one specific challenge was to figure out a way to dye the red clay jet black. Maria discovered that smothering the fire surrounding the pottery during the firing process caused the smoke to be trapped. The carbon in the smoke caused the pottery to turn to a black ash color. She experimented with the idea that an unfired polished red vessel which was painted with a certain paint on top of the polish and then fired in a smudging fire at a relatively cool temperature would result in a deep glossy black background with dull black decoration. Shards and sheep and horse manure placed around the outside and inside of the outdoor kiva-style adobe oven would give the pot a slicker matte finished appearance . After much trial and error, Maria successfully produced a black ware pot. The first pots for the museum were fired around 1913. These pots were undecorated, unsigned, and of a generally rough quality.
Embarrassed that she could not create high quality black pots in the style of the ancient Pueblo peoples, Maria hid her pots away from the world. A few years later, Hewett and his guests visited the little Tewa Pueblo. These guests asked to purchase black ware pottery, similar to Maria's pots housed in the museum. Maria was greatly encouraged by this interest and resolutely began trying to perfect the art of black ware pottery. Her skill advanced with each pot, and her art began to cause quite a stir among collectors and developed into a business for the black ware pottery.