Maria Martinez (1881 or 1887–1980) was born Maria Antonia Poveka Montoya) in the ancient Pueblo of San Ildefonso (Powhoge). It was one of twelve Tewa-speaking pueblos on the Pajarito Plateau located along the Rio Grande.
Puebloan pottery was made by families to be used until Anglo influence brought tin and enamelware options for use in the 19th century. The need for hand made pottery declined.
In 1908/9, Edgar Lee Hewett, founder and director of the Museum of New Mexico, uncovered ancient shards of black on black pottery during excavations. Hewett sought someone who could re-create this type of pottery. Maria, already known for making thin walled pots, worked for many years on learning how to create the black on black ceramics. Her first success came about 1913, and by 1920 she was exhibiting her work. Maria’s pottery went on to win many honors, ribbons, and awards.
Puebloan pottery is a laborious and time-consuming process. Clay was gathered first and several processes are required before the pot is finished.
One of the most famous female ceramists of the 20th century, her work is world renowned and widely celebrated. As the pottery grew in popularity, sales revived the pueblo’s economy. The shiny areas contrasting with the matte areas using traditional native designs both sinuous and abstract is extraordinarily handsome. On occasion, the designs expanded into new forms and shapes.
Maria made the pots and her husband, Julian (1897–1943) painted the vases and the bowls, now primarily non-functional but as art objects. Highly collectible, the pottery tradition was carried on with Maria by their son, Popovi Da (1922–1971) and grandson, Tony Da (1940–2008), both of whom died in their 40’s. Maria’s sisters and other relatives also created the sought after pottery.
In 1948, an award winning book on Maria was published (Maria: The Potter of San Ildefonso by the University of Oklahoma Press), was written by anthropologist, Alice Lee Marriott (1907–2000), and illustrated with charming drawings by Margaret Lefranc, who became a trusted friend of Maria’s for the rest of the potter’s life, and a very good friend and colleague of Alice’s. Marriott received a Rockefeller Foundation grant to study and write about Maria. While each of these three artists left their own lasting legacy, in this book, they came together to create a cultural masterpiece.