July 30, 2013

Maria Montoya Poveka Martinez (c1887-1980), master potter


Maria Montoya Poveka Martinez, master potterMaria Montoya Poveka Martinez (c 1881 to 1887-1980) is one of the native american pottery masters and probably the most famous of all pueblo potters. She and her husband, Julian, discovered in 1918 how to produce the now-famous black-on-black pottery, and they spent the remainder of their careers perfecting and producing it for museums and collectors worldwide.

Much of the vitality of contemporary native pottery stems from her inspiration and inovations.

Martínez was born María Antonia Montoya in a pueblo community in San Ildefonso, New Mexico, on an unrecorded date between the years of 1881 and 1887. Most sources give her birth year as 1887, but several earlier dates are also recorded.

The San Ildefonso pueblo at that time was a small group of about twenty adobe houses on the eastern bank of the Rio Grande. After her birth, Martínez was given the Tewa, or Pueblo, name Po-Ve-Ka, meaning “Pond Lily” by her mother, Reyes Peña, and her father, Thomas Montoya. She was the second eldest of five daughters supported by her father’s varied work as a farmer, carpenter, and cowboy.

Maria Martinez Family

Husband: Julian Martinez,  also known as Pocano (1879-1943),  meaning “Coming of the Spirits” in Tewa. Julian researched traditional designs and reproduced them on the pottery Maria made, later modifying traditional designs to create his own. He was famous for his  avanyu, a mythical water serpent, and his feathers, adapted from the prehistoric Mimbres feather designs. Julian was also an easel painter, painting scenes of Pueblo rituals and abstract designs with colored pencil and watercolor, and featured Western figurative types against blank backgrounds.  He painted murals at the former Santa Fe Indian School in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.

Mother: Reyes Pena
Father: Tomas Montoya

Son: Adam Martinez, oldest son 
Daughter-In-Law: Santana Roybal, wife of Adam. After Julian died in 1943, Santana began painting for Maria until Maria began collaborating with her son Popovi Da. Then Santana and Adam began making pottery of their own, around 1956. They earned widespread respect for their abilities in making and painting pottery and they passed on their techniques to their seven children who have also distinguished themselves in pottery making.

Son: Popovi Da was born April 10, 1923 at San Ildefonso Pueblo. Born Antonio (Tony) Martinez, he legally changed his name to his Indian name in 1948, which means Red Fox.
Grandson: Tony Da, son of Popovi Da

Son: Juan (John) Martinez

Son: Philip
Daughter: A daughter died in infancy.

Sibling: Clara Montoya
Sibling: Juanita Vigil
Sibling: Maximiliana Martinez
Sibling: Desideria Montoya

Maria Martinez learned to make pottery from her aunt as a small child.

She made her first pottery at the age of seven or eight, toy dishes for her dolls, from watching her aunt, accomplished potter Nicolasa Peña. When she learned the traditional techniques, the craft was on the verge of extinction. Cheap enamel pots and storage vessels had all but eliminated the need for creating pottery.

The railroad had finally arrived in New Mexico in 1880. At that time, pottery was still made for utilitarian purposes, crafted whenever it was needed for cooking or carrying and storing food and water, but it was not much decorated. As the need to make pots diminished with metal and enamel pots becoming more widely available, the traditional pottery skills were nearly lost. 

Prior to that time, Hispanic and Pueblo people of the middle and northern Rio Grande valley depended upon Pueblo pottery for most of their household cooking and storage needs, and they had little need of cash money.  Within ten years of the railroad reaching the Southwest, most Pueblo communities replaced their traditional pottery with metal pots and containers, and the knowledge of pottery making began to rapidly decline.

As an influx of tourists entered the area, a few people were selling small plain and crude pots to the tourist trade, but pottery was not yet considered an art form, and many of the traditional processes had been lost in subsequent generations. 

The Martínezes started their career crafting small-scale pieces painted in multiple earth-toned colors and sold them as curios from 1908 until 1912. 

An archeology dig unearths shards of ancient black pottery

Julian had been taking extra work as a farmer in 1907 when he met archaeologist Edgar Lee Hewitt, a member of the Museum of New Mexico’s anthropology and archaeology department. Hewitt was excavating a site in the Frijoles Canyon that had, at one time, been populated by ancestors of the Pueblo, the Anasazis. He recovered, among other artifacts, ancient black pottery shards from the plateau at Pajarito near the San Ildefonso pueblo which was different than the current San Ildefonso style. 

Julian Martínez participated as one of the native workers hired to help with the excavation, and María was hired to cook for the team conducting the dig. Hewitt, having heard of María’s skill as a potter, approached the couple about reconstructing the prehistoric pottery. Martínez accepted the challenge, and through careful observation and trial and error, she learned how to mix the appropriate clay base to make the thin, highly polished pots of her ancestors. However, it was quite by accident that she discovered how to give the pots their distinctive black coloring.

Julian perfected a painting technique that gave a matte finish to the paint on the pot, completing the famous black on black pottery they are now famous for. 

It was 1918 when Maria and Julian discovered how to produce the now-famous black-on-black pottery, and they spent the remainder of their careers perfecting and producing it for museums and collectors worldwide.

In 1923 the Martinez’s changed their process to reverse the pattern on the pots so that the body of the pot was shiny and the applied design was painted in a matte finish on top. Original pieces by Martinez are rare and greatly sought after. Pots that sold then for $3 to 4.00, now start at about $3,000 and go up to as much as $15,000, sometimes more.

The rapid success of the couple’s products and the steady influx of non-native tourists and culture introduced Julian to both fame and alcohol, and the pueblo community to increasing tourism. Tragically, Julian Martínez fell victim to alcoholism and died in 1943.

Their younger son Tony, who took the Pueblo name Popovi Da, provided the artistic painting for his mother’s pots after his father’s death. Martínez also collaborated with her older son Adam and his wife, Santana. Martínez retired from active potting in 1971, and in 1974 her family began providing the non-native public with pottery workshops in the summer months at the Idyllwild campus of the University of Southern California. 

The different signatures of Maria Martinez

Until 1923, Maria Martinez did not sign her work. It was the belief of the Pueblo culture that the work of making pottery is a group effort, and no one person should take all the credit.

Encouraged by the founder of the Museum of New Mexico, Maria began signing her work. Until Maria began signing her work, pottery wasn’t really thought of as an art form. Up until this time, pottery making was thought of as a ulitarian endeavor. Once she began signing her work, this made it collectible, and many native art collectors immediately wanted to add her work to their collections.

Early works by Maria and Julian are unsigned (1918-1923).


By 1923, Maria began signing Marie on pieces made by her and Julian. His name was omitted because making pottery was “woman’s work.” Pottery made by Maria and painted by Julian, signed Marie, was most probably made between 1920 and 1925.


Pottery made by Maria and painted by Julian between 1925 and 1943 bears the dual signature Marie + Julian. By 1925, and until his death in 1943, Maria shared the signature with Julian.


Following the death of Julian, their son Adam and his wife Santana helped Maria with the design and firing of her pottery. Pieces made between 1943 and 1954 are signed Marie + Santana.


When Maria began signing pottery, she was told, probably by Chapman, that “Marie” was a more familiar name than “Maria” to the non-Indian public. She therefore signed the name “Marie” for about 30 years. Following the publication of Alice Marriott’s book, Maria: The Potter of San Ildefonso, she began signing her true name, “Maria.”


Around the mid-1950s, Popovi Da began working with his mother, helping her with designing and firing her pottery. They began to co-sign pieces and Popovi started putting a date on each piece, probably around 1959.


Maria often made small pieces of pottery without the assistance of her husband, her son, or her daughter-in-law. These are always plain, polished, undecorated pieces and are usually quite spectacular and affordable. They are signed Maria Poveka.

She soon began to develop a following in the nearby community of Santa Fe. As her contact with the non-Pueblo world grew, so too did her reputation as an artist.

Edgar Lee Hewett recognized her talent as a potter. After the founding of the Museum of New Mexico, he and Kenneth Chapman drew upon her expertise in their research of the prehistoric Southwest. They and other like-minded individuals encouraged her and provided opportunities for Maria to earn a living from her craft.

As the appreciation for Pueblo pottery grew, a segment of Santa Fe’s leaders took it upon themselves to help preserve what they believed was a dying art. They did this in two major ways: establishing a fund for the Museum of New Mexico to purchase fine pieces of Pueblo pottery and by starting the Santa Fe Indian Fair, where prizes were awarded for the best Indian art, and which continues today.

Rose Dugan, a long-time Santa Fe resident, provided funds for the Museum of New Mexico to purchase Indian art. With this, Edgar Lee Hewett and others purchased pottery they thought was of exceptional quality. They were willing to pay a significant premium over the regular price if the work met their standards, thus encouraging potters to make fewer, but better pieces.

From a young age, Maria Martinez served as an ambassador of her pueblo, and of Indian people in general. As early as 1904, she and her husband Julian demonstrated at the Louisiana Purchase International Exposition in St. Louis. In the following years, she participated in fairs in San Diego, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. Despite the prevailing cultural sentiment, in which Indian people were considered a “primitive race,” she and her work were well received.

Maria’s contact with the non-Native community was not limited to fairs and expositions. With the development of tourism, spurred by the opening of the transcontinental railroad, Indian pueblos became a tourist destination. Following their employment at the San Diego Panama California Exposition, Maria and Julian were hired by the Fred Harvey Company to lead tours of San Ildefonso Pueblo, allowing them to take advantage of the economic possibilities represented by the newly-mobile American tourist. She also frequently demonstrated pottery making at the museum.

The legacy of Maria Martinez extends far beyond the world of art. By helping to create a demand for well-made pottery, she enabled others in her community to make a living at the pueblo. At the time of her birth, just thirty families lived within the pueblo of San Ildefonso. Today, artists and galleries thrive there and at other nearby Pueblo communities, where many of Maria and Julian’s techniques and designs have been adopted.

Maria’s renown extends to others who share her name, and artists who can establish a connection to her have benefited from their family relationship. These and other artists are recognized for their individual achievements in a manner similar to that which Maria enjoyed seventy-five years ago.

Maria Martínez died on July 20, 1980, in the same San Ildefonso, New Mexico, pueblo where she was born and where she lived most of her life.


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