The most famous of all Pueblo potters is Maria Martinez (1887-1980). She is credited as having created the first contemporary black Pueblo pottery, but in reality, that is not true. They had made black pottery at Santa Clara since the 1600's.
What she did do, was to create the famous "Black on Black" pottery with painted mat black designs on a beautiful black finish. It's a technical accomplishment and it was due to a 1908 archeological excavation led by the founder and director of the Museum of New Mexico. When they discovered ancient "Black on Black" pottery, he began looking for a contemporary potter who could re-create the ancient works and settled on Maria, who made the thinnest pots at San Ildefonso.
It took her a long time, but she succeeded and was responsible for the rebirth of that pottery style. If you are interested in a detailed description of how she did it, one of the best is on Wikipedia. She also gained a reputation for creating the smoothest, shiniest finish on the polished portion of pottery. People began to refer to her polish as a "gun metal" finish.
She first worked by herself, then with her husband, Julian, who was a well known painter. When he passed on, she worked with her son Adam and his wife Santana and later with her own son, Popovi. After his death, she continued to pot by herself, creating mostly undecorated, beautiful, shiny black pots.
Her signature continued to change depending on who she was working with. The best examples of these changes is found on the Adobe Gallery web site. Adobe Gallery in Santa Fe is owned by Al Anthony, one of my favorite people. Al has graciously allowed me to provide this link to examples of Maria's signatures on his site. Her signature style helps to determine about what date the pot was made.
I met Maria once. It was in the fall of 1969 and I was in school at the University of Colorado. My father called and asked what I was doing and I told him I had a photojournalism class that afternoon. He said, "Well, you need to skip that class and drive down to the Deer Dancer in Denver. They are having a show with Maria and her son Popovi. She is going to be there."
Well, I never needed a lot of encouragement to skip class, so I headed to Denver and walked into the Deer Dancer down on Larimer Street. It was owned by a wonderful woman by the name of Suzanne Helzer and she saw me come in.
"Come and meet Maria," she said and escorted me across the room to where this icon was sitting, patiently answering questions from people interested in her pottery. Her son, Popovi, saw us and came over and introduced himself and his mother.
I had my camera and asked her if I could take her picture. She just smiled and said, "It's ok." The photo I took is slightly out of focus and not a great portrait, but I treasure it. I actually turned it in as a class assignment for my photo journalism class and the professor gave me a "D"! But I like it anyway.
We have, over the years, put together a great collection of Maria's work. She was an icon and a role model for so many Pueblo potters. Anyone who is a serious, or even casual pottery collector, should have one of Maria's pieces. She was a gentle, talented woman who was happy to share her work with the world. She did not have a particularly happy life. She lost her husband early on, her son died at a young age and her grandson, Tony Da, probably the most talented potter in the family, had a motorcycle accident that seriously affected him, ending his pottery career. He died soon after that.
Through it all, Maria Martinez continued to create great works and to encourage other potters. She was an artist who helped to create a market and a livelihood for so many who would follow!
We have a great selection of her work on our website and encourage you to take a look at these pieces. You don't get too many chances to buy a piece of art by the most famous artist of her time! This could be your lucky day!
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Jackson Clark II