An Exploration of the Martinez Family of Potters

Ella Ip is a senior at Hopkins School in New Haven, Connecticut, but her primary residence is Austin, Texas. She worked at the UT TARL Lab as a summer intern interested specifically in black-on-black pottery. She researched and wrote this opinion-editorial under Marybeth S. Tomka.

An Exploration of the Martinez Family of Potters

Ella Ip

I was first exposed to San Ildefonso pottery in my sophomore AP Art History class. We were introduced to the Pueblo people’s heritage and reason for continuing the art of pottery within their tribes. When I spotted the blackware pottery created by the Martinez family on a tour of the University of Texas at Austin, Texas Archeological Research Laboratory (UT TARL Lab), I knew I had to investigate the pieces even further. The purpose of my research was to investigate the ethnographies of the Pueblo people, document multiple donations of Pueblo pottery, and explore the Martinez Family Potter’s efforts to revitalize the traditional way of creating pottery.

My first step in researching was to develop a foundational knowledge on the people of the Pueblo communities. According to Edward P. Dozier, Pueblos are the most easily delimitable group in the greater Southwest and exhibit the most resistance to change. Pueblo communities are set apart from their indigenous neighbors by two main criteria: farming as a principal basis of subsistence and residence in compact villages. The contemporary groups are identified by linguistic affiliations: Hopi, Zuni, Keresan, and Tanoan. All the Pueblo Indians’ villages are situated in an arid climate and high altitudes (5,000 to 7,000 feet above the sea). An integral factor in understanding the Pueblo people was investigating the ethnographies of the Western and Eastern Pueblos of New Mexico and Arizona. Older classifications of the native cultural groups of the Southwest lumped all the Pueblo groups together without indicating a significant division between east and west.

The early 20th century divided the two groups, but not all have agreed to assign the same Pueblos to each category. The original classification of the American Southwest made a twofold division: a stationary people (the Pueblos) and a nomadic group (all other groups).

Florence Hawley Ellis’ Western division includes Hopi and Zuni, while her Eastern division includes the Tanoan Pueblos and most of the Keresan-speaking Pueblos, with Acoma and Laguna as transitional. Fred Eggan places Hopi, Zuni, Laguna, Acoma in his Western Pueblos, and Jemez as transitional. Eggan also used kinship types and other correlated social factors as a benchmark for his classification. The Western Pueblo social structure type, including Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, and Laguna, is described by Eggan: characterized by the kinship system called “Crow type”; a household organization based on lineage and clan. In some cases, the phratry group; an associational structure based around the ceremony and its symbol such as a raven or wolf in northwestern United States tribes with relationships to lineage, clan, and household; and a theocratic system of social control. The single exception is Jemez, the Tanoan-speaking Pueblos, as they have another social structure. This Eastern Pueblo type is characterized by a kinship system where the terms are descriptive and bilateral. The household is either of the nuclear types or else extended to include relatives of one or both parents’ sides.

There is no hint of lineage principle in the organization of the terms, the family structures, or the members’ behaviors. Beyond the household is a second division of the community, usually referred to as a moiety, whose functions are governmental and ceremonial. Moiety membership is required of all, and moiety affiliation is usually with father’s moiety but may be changed at marriage or other reasons. Other related structures include three types of sodalities or associations:

  1. Those with governmental and religious functions associated with the dual divisions
  2. Medicine associations embodying curing and exorcising practices
  3. Associations with special functions, such as those for war, hunting , and clowning.

Once I had a background knowledge of the Pueblo people, I could address the Martinez Family Potters. Maria Martinez often spoke of the Pajarito Plateau excavations at Tyuonyi and Frijoles Canyon, near San Ildefonso, in 1908 and 1909. Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett, a professor of archaeology and Director Museum of New Mexico, and who later became Maria’s mentor and friend, led these efforts. Hewett was commissioned to research abandoned pueblos and ancient burial mounds of the Tewa, and his work resulted in findings of exceptional interest. Hewett’s excavation, one of many directed in San Ildefonso over several years, turned up many pottery shards not frequently found in the Southwest. The shards were dark or black, some of them having a highly polished finish. They were different from traditionally found black-on-cream or black-on-red pottery, although some of these pots were also found in the area (whole and fragmented). He wanted to find an Indian woman in the area whom he could ask to make pots in this style and what she thought these pieces would have looked like whole. He was referred to Maria Martinez as she was known as a woman who could make the thinnest, roundest pots in the least amount of time. He visited her at the pueblo with some of the uncommon sherds and asked her to recreate the black pottery as close to the original ancient shards as possible. This was the beginning of the now-famous black pottery of San Ildefonso that Maria and her family have developed and perfected for more than half a century.

The last step of my research was to understand the process in which the black-on-black pottery is created. When discussing the pottery process, Maria described it as a kind of observation-instruction that is continuous in each day’s structure, in the isolation of pueblo life, for all who are part of it. She did not call the process teaching, but instead, real direct learning by imitating, demonstrating, and merely watching. Although this type of learning theoretically is most optimal in unstructured natural situations, Indian daily life is organized, setting up a series of repetitions that become the structure for a delicate educational process.

Firstly of all, the raw materials have to be gathered and processed carefully, or the final vessel will not fire correctly. To make the pottery stronger, it had to be mixed with a temper made from shards of broken pots reduced to a powder or volcanic ash. You start by taking large lumps of clay that are pried with a pick or file from the quarry, taken home, and laid out to dry in the sun for a couple of days. After the clay is evenly dried, it is placed into a vessel with enough water to cover and soak for two to four days. After several rinsings and then mixing, the solution is passed through a sieve to remove pebbles and other impurities, yielding a milkshake-like material. This mixture is allowed to “set up” for several days. Before the clay can be modeled, a filler or tempering agent made of volcanic tuff, basalt, obsidian, quartz, and other minerals are diligently mixed with the clay. This process helps counteract shrinkage and facilitates drying, thus lessening the likelihood of cracking. The potter takes a lump of clay about the size of a fist and pats it into a cone’s shape, forming the base. Using a shaping spoon or kajape usually made from a gourd, the potter scrapes and thins out the clay. Continually turning and working the wet kajape readies the base upon which rolls or coils of clay are built up into a roughly shaped vessel. Continual rubbing, moistening, and turning gradually smooths and thins out the walls and refines the shape. After curing a few days, additional scraping further thins and evens the walls.

After additional drying- 2 to 4 days depending on the weather- readies the pot for sanding. After sanding with coarse and very fine sandpaper, the pot is smoothed again by rubbing it with a wet cloth, which redistributes surface particles to fill in scratches. Next, a “slip” is applied to improve the surface texture and color. The slip is a suspension of clay in water with a thin cream consistency, and it is applied either by brush or small folded cloth. After one or two applications of the slip, the potter begins rubbing with a polishing stone, also known as burnishing. When fully burnished, a thin coat of hand-applied grease oil, followed by more rubbing, results in a highly reflective finish that some believe is a modern-day chemical glaze. Using the same clay formed by the slip, the potter makes a thin suspension as a paint. With a simple brush, sometimes a leaf from a yucca plant frayed or chewed at the end, the design is meticulously painted on (no erase is possible without sanding away the pattern and slipping and burnishing again).

When making black-on-black San Ildefonso pottery, the painted-on areas will be matte after firing, and the remainder of the surface will retain the shininess of burnishing. Additional decoration methods include carving the clay with tools, impressing a design in the moist clay, or incising an intricate image. Maria and Julian built these forms and decorations based on their own people’s art, adding some embellishments painted with an iron-rich solution created by pulverized iron ore or a reduction of wild plants called guaco. Some of the old stylized patterns are mountains, clouds, rain falling both near and far away, lightning, birds, feathers, leaves, seeds, pods, tracks of roadrunners, and mythical symbols such as water serpent. Santana made a series of upward zigzags, which she calls kiva steps.  Firing is the last step. For blackware, the materials and steps of preparing the clay, modeling, finishing, and decorating are the same as for red pottery. In a technique rediscovered by Maria and Julian Martinez, powdered cow (would have been bison dung in prehistoric or prehistoric times) dung is used to surround and cover a pot, thus blocking the entry of oxygen around the pot and preventing oxygen being absorbed by the pot. The clay is infiltrated with the black soot and earns its signature black color.

Throughout my entire process of studying pottery’s cultural significance, I learned about the emphasis on preserving the Indian experience. Often, Indians will not write down, speak, or give formal directions on performing cultural activities. They will live in it through various rituals, dances, art, music, and symbols. There is an intense pressure upon living the Indian life instead of having to learn it. Indians are not concerned with our lives’ consumer culture but the mundane tasks of everyday life. Maria continued to live in the pueblo with her family, away from the spotlight given to them because of Maria’s famed pottery. The sacrifice of living in isolation is worth it when you can preserve your traditions. The fear of corruption from the outside world is too great to allow outsiders to come into the community. Simplicity is celebrated, and complexity is shunned. Indian children are raised to assimilate the Pueblo culture in the same way they breathe. The same thing can be said about the beautiful black-on-black San Ildefonso pottery. You cannot be taught the ancient art of pottery but use the art of observation to learn. Maria always said that she was not taught pottery and that she grew up watching the women in her life making pottery. A piece of art purchased by collectors is also a piece of culture for the Pueblo people.

*Research and writing overseen by Marybeth S. Tomka


Dozier, Edward P. “The Pueblo Indians of the Southwest: A Survey of the Anthropological

Literature and a Review of Theory, Method, and Results.” Current Anthropology 5, no. 2 (April 1964): 79-97. Accessed May 30, 2020.

Fricke, Suzanne Newman. “Puebloan: Maria Martinez, Black-on-black ceramic vessel.” Khan Academy. Accessed June 16, 2020

Michaelis, Pamela. “How Pueblo Pottery is Made.” Collector’s Guide. Accessed June 16, 2020.

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