Probably the most famous American Indian artist of the twentieth century, the potter Maria Martinez spent all of her ninety-nine years in the place where she was born: San Ildefonso Pueblo in northern New Mexico, about twenty miles from Santa Fe. Pottery making had been an important part of her culture for more than two thousand years, and many Martinez family members—including Maria’s four sisters, her husband, two sons, a daughter-in-law, and several cousins—were also involved in producing pots.
Martinez learned to make pottery in the traditional way, by watching her aunt and grandmother at work. By age thirteen, she was already celebrated within the tribe for her creative skills. In 1904 she married Julian Martinez, a noted American Indian painter. Together they revived an ancient local process for making the all-black pottery (rather than the all-red or polychrome ware that had been common for generations) for which they became well known. Julian also painted designs on many of his wife’s pots.
Thanks to a book published about her work and the efforts to exhibit and sell her pots by Edgar Lee Hewett, director of the Museum of New Mexico, by the mid-1920s, Martinez’s blackware had become extremely popular outside the pueblo. Martinez was encouraged to sign her pots, which were beginning to be regarded as works of art rather than household rituals or vessels. Soon collectors, scholars, and busloads of tourists began visiting San Ildefonso to meet her and buy her pots. Although she had not had any formal training, Martinez was awarded two honorary doctorates, had her portrait made by the noted American sculptor Malvina Hoffman, and in 1978 was offered a major exhibition by the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery. Her enormous success enabled Martinez to support her family; it also made it easier for other artists to earn their living by making pottery. Having inspired five generations of artists, today she is considered one of the matriarchs of American Indian pottery.
niece of and influenced by Nicolasa Peña Montoya
sister of and collaborated with Maximiliana Montoya Martinez
sister of Desideria Montoya Sanchez
sister of Clara Montoya
sister of Juanita Montoya Vigil
wife of and collaborated with Julian Martinez
mother of Popovi Da
mother of Adam Martinez
mother-in-law of and collaborated with Santana Roybal Martinez
grandmother of Tony Da
Honorary Degree, Columbia College, Chicago, IL, USA (1977)
First Annual Governor’s Award, New Mexico Arts Commission, Santa Fe, NM USA (1974)
Symbol of Man Award, Minnesota Museum of Art, St. Paul, MN, USA (1969)
Louisiana Purchase Exhibition, St. Louis World's Fair, St. Louis, MO, USA (1904)