Maria Martinez Biography and San Ildefonso Pottery

Maria Martinez Biography: Few craft artists, Native American or otherwise, can claim worldwide fame and appreciation, but these accompanied the life of potter Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso Pueblo. Through her hard work and generous sharing of her techniques, Maria reintroduced the art of pottery making to her people, providing them with a means of artistic expression and for retaining some aspects of the pueblo way of life.

San Ildefonso Pueblo is a quiet community located 20 miles northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Inhabited since A.D. 1300, the pueblo saw many changes that resulted in a rich culture, in which ancient traditions mix with Spanish festivals and Anglo conveniences. Life in the Tewa-speaking village on the Pajarito Plateau is filled with love for one’s neighbor and respect for the God-given gifts of the earth. Into this community, at a time of great transition from isolation to increased contact with other peoples, Maria Antonia Montoya was born, probably in the year 1887. For nearly one hundred years, until her death in 1980, Maria lived in the pueblo, eager to greet visitors and to share her craft with those who would like to watch and listen.

Maria Martinez with pot

Maria’s fascination with pottery-making started at a young age, when she would watch her aunt making pots, after her chores were done. Although many women in the pueblo knew how to make pottery, by Maria’s time it was no longer a necessary part of daily life. Inexpensive Spanish tinware and Anglo enamelware had replaced traditional containers and cooking pots. In many ways, the art of pottery making was facing extinction. Fortunately, Maria’s interest and willingness to experiment with techniques prevented this from occurring.

Maria Martinez by polychrome pottery by B. Schroeter

Photo Courtesy B. Schroeter

Not long after her marriage to Julian Martinez, Maria was asked to replicate some pre-historic pottery styles that had been discovered in an archaeological excavation of an ancient pueblo site near San Ildefonso. These excavations of 1908 and 1909, led by Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett (who was also the director of the Museum of New Mexico), produced examples of many pre-historic pottery techniques. Dr. Hewett asked Maria, who already had a reputation in the pueblo for being an excellent pottery-maker, if she could make full-scale examples for the museum of the polychrome ware. It was then that Maria and her husband, Julian (who painted the designs on the pottery after Maria shaped them), began an artistic collaboration that would last throughout their lives together.

Maria and Julian refined their pottery techniques and were asked to demonstrate their craft at several expositions, including the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the 1914 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, and the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair. Part of their success came from their innovations in the style of black-on-black ware.

Although other pueblos, such as Santa Clara, had been producing black wares, Maria and Julian invented a technique that would allow for areas of the pottery to have a matte finish and other areas to be a glossy jet black. Through experimentation that began in 1919, they created a style that would become world famous.

Part of the unique-ness of San Ildefonso pottery is the clay that is used, which comes from their reservation. Dried clay and volcanic ash are collected yearly from selected locations throughout the reservation, and later combined with water in small batches. The clay from each pueblo has its own mineral composition, allowing for rich differences in texture and color. The watery clay slip that is used on the black wares, for example, has a rich iron content that turns black when fired in a particular way.

After a batch of clay is mixed and has set for a few days, a “pancake” of clay is formed and pressed into a puki, beginning the process of building a pot. The puki is a bowl-shaped form that supports the bottom of the pot as it is being built. Most commonly, pots are formed with a coil technique, in which long snake-shaped coils are circled around the base of the pot and blended together to create the walls of the vessel. A potter’s wheel is not used in traditional pueblo pottery making. When the height and the amount of clay are just right, the walls of the pot are smoothed and shaped into curves with pieces of gourd, called kajepes.

The pot is left to partially dry after the form is completed. In its semi-dried state, the pot is ready to be scraped, which refines the shape and removes any irregularity. Then the pot is sanded with sandpaper to rid it of any grit. The red slip is applied next, and the pot must be burnished with a stone before the slip dries completely. This step is most critical for the glossy nature of the black wares.

A decoration is painted onto the polished surface, resulting in matte areas once the piece is fired. Traditionally the men of the pueblo do the painting, but women were taught the process and painted during the times that the men had left the pueblo for work. Julian replicated and was inspired by many pre-historic designs. He was fond of many motifs, using ancient symbols in new combinations. He often painted the avanyu, the horned water serpent, which he saw as a symbol for the rush of water after a hard rain, and as a metaphor for the pueblo itself.

Black wares become so in the firing process. This labor-intensive task is done after many pots have been made, to maximize efficiency. Wood and dried cow manure are piled around an iron grill, upon which the pottery has been carefully stacked. The pile is lit and left to burn for a specified amount of time, until the fire has reached its maximum heat. At this time the fire is smothered with ash or fresh manure, producing a smoke-filled reducing atmosphere that turns the pots black. Variations in the process can produce pottery with black areas and red areas, which are also popular.

For many years, Maria and Julian produced their pottery together amid raising a family and carrying out traditional duties for the pueblo. Their children were taught the importance of the craft, and they participated in various ways. After Julian’s death in 1943, Maria began working with her daughter-in-law Santana Martinez. Santana provided the painted decoration that was her father-in-law’s legacy. After 1956, Maria also worked with her son Popovi Da. It was Popovi who helped market her work, building a shop at the pueblo and speaking about the pottery tradition of San Ildefonso at lectures across the country. One of the family’s most innovative potters is Maria’s grandson Tony Da (1940-2008). Tony combined sculptural techniques with traditional forms to create unique forms. Due to a motorcycle accident, Tony no longer makes pottery, but he continues to work as a painter. Many other family members and people from San Ildefonso continue to make pottery, carrying on the tradition so openly shared by Maria.

Maria signed her pieces several different ways over the course of her life, and to some extent, these signatures can help to date her work. At first, she signed her pots “Marie” because she was told that this name would be more familiar to those who would buy her work. Through the years her pieces were signed “Poh ve ka,” “Marie,” “Marie & Julian,” “Marie & Santana,” “Maria Poveka,” and “Maria/Popovi.”

Since her death in 1980, the pottery of Maria and her family has become increasingly more collectible and difficult to find. J. Mark Sublette, Medicine Man Gallery continually searches the country for fine examples of her work.

Maria Martinez polychrome pottery

Photo Courtesy Laura Gilpin, Santa Fe

Tony Da Biography: Tony Da, (pronounced day) was the grandson of Maria and Julian Martinez, and the son of Popovi Da all were talented potters and masters in the art of watercolors.  Popovi Da Tony’s Da’s father was born Anthony Martinez in 1922; his Tewa name was Popvi Da which he legally changed in 1948. To understand Tony Da’s artistic career, one must start from his artistic influences.

Julian Martinez, Tony Da’s grandfather, was the first to create black on black pottery when polychrome pottery was the mainstay of San Ildefonso pueblo.  Popovi Da, Maria and Julian’s son began making his pottery in 1962 and experimentation with different pottery types.  In 1964 Popovi Da made a pot he referred to as “Carmel” which became known as Sienna. In 1967 Popovi Da added scraffito, (incised design elements) to his pottery and inlay turquoise a first for a pueblo potter. This process his son, Tony Da would take to another level of artistry accomplishment.

Tony Da Avanyu redware pottery

Tony Da was born in 1940 Anthony Edward Da also known in San Ildefonso as Thun-Phoe-She or Sun Dew.  Tony learned to make pottery from his famous Grandmother, Maria Martinez after he finished his Navy duty in 1964.  Tony lived with Maria Martinez and began his apprenticeship at twenty-six from one of the most well-known pueblo potters.  Maria encouraged Tony to become a potter and ” go ahead and make good pottery”.

Tony Da would make thinner pots than his grandmother Maria Martinez, and over time he began his own style.  He first started producing pottery that he signed in 1967. In August of that year he entered the Gallup Inter-Tribal Ceremonial and won four first-place awards and one second for pottery.  His pottery career had begun in a spectacular fashion and was recognized in the “Albuquerque Journal” for his excellence.

The first signature used 1967-68 was D’a or D’A from that point on he would use simply DA, he used this same signature for his paintings from 1975-1982.  Tony would use carve his DA usually on the bottom of the pot after firing and used a beveled appearance a characteristic of his signature.

With Maria Martinez’s encouragement, he switched the majority of his time from painting to making pottery.  In Tony’s mind, he was always a painter, but most of his fame came from his ornate pots.

Tony was known for his intricate designs, inlay and unusual forms.  The avanyu or plumed water serpent was a favorite of Tony’s.  He also employed numerous designs from the prehistoric Mimbres culture of southern New Mexico.  Like his grandfather Julian Martinez, he liked to use a feather motif.  Deer and Buffalo imagery using a heart line design were also favorite.  Like his father, Popovi Tony Da used inlay turquoise in his pots, but Tony took the endeavor to a new level using large high-grade turquoise cabs, heishe, and Zuni inlay motifs. Animal pottery including turtles and bears, which became a trademark for the artist.  His intricate turtle designs have brought some of the highest prices of any of Tony Da’s pottery styles.

His Great Aunt Clara, Maria Martinez’s sister, who was deaf, was known in the family as one of the great polishers of clay.  She would help Tony polish his vessels until she retired around 1978-1979. Popovi would help Tony fire his pots, often using a gunmetal finish a process that Popovi had perfected which required an extremely hot fire and careful use of fuel to keep the fire’s oxygen reduced yet to burn very hot.  This gunmetal slip is now considered some of the most desirable finishes on pueblo pots.

Tony Da is considered to be one of the finest pueblo potters.  His artistic life was cut short on April 15, 1982; he was only 42, a motorcycle accident left him damaged for life.  Tony Da had hit his unprotected head when he laid down his bike, which caused a significant brain trauma.  The accident robbed him of a long career, not unlike his father Popovi who died in 1971 at age 48 and his grandfather Julian Martinez who died in 1943 at age 46.

Tony would continue to make occasional watercolor paintings in a much more simplistic design but would never return to working with the clay.

His legacy however is insured with the exquisite varied pottery he left the world, which can be found in most of the major Southwest Museums.  The Millicent Rogers Museum in Santa Fe has one of the best collections of Maria Martinez and Tony Da pots.  A seminal book on Tony Da “The Life and Art of Tony Da” is a must read for those who appreciate the artistic talent of Tony Da.

Permission to reproduce photos and paintings in this online catalog secured by J. Mark Sublette. All rights reserved. No portion of this online catalog may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from J. Mark Sublette, Medicine Man Gallery, Inc.