Maria Martinez learned to make black pottery by watching Margaret Tafoya.
The matriarch of Santa Clara Pueblo potters, Tafoya studied and refined traditional pottery methods, often carving a bear claw into the neck of her large vessels because “the bear always knows where the water is.”
Twenty-four examples of Tafoya’s work will be exhibited at El Museo Cultural, 555 Camino del la Familia, in the Santa Fe Railyard during “Objects of Art Santa Fe” Aug. 14-17 and the Antique American Indian Art Show Aug. 19-21.
The exhibit is being mounted by the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos and El Museo Cultural from the Four Winds Gallery in Pittsburgh 110 years and one day after Tafoya’s birth.
While Martinez painted her pottery, Tafoya used the intaglio method, specializing in large storage vessels that often soared 3 feet high. Introduced by her mother, the bear claw symbolized good luck.
“She stuck to the old method,” exhibition spokesman Walt Borton said. “People were buying clay and using wheels. All her clay for her pots came from the pueblo. Everything is hand-coiled.”
Known as “Cornflower” in her native Tewa, Tafoya lived and worked at Santa Clara for most of her 96 years. She learned traditional pueblo methods from her parents Sara Finna and José Tafoya, who were important potters in their own right. Like them, she baked her pots in an open fire, polishing them with special stones and corn cobs.
Tafoya and her mother expanded the Santa Clara tradition by creating both red and black works of mammoth size. Carving, long a decorative aspect of Santa Clara pottery, reached a new level through her distinctive patterns and restrained approach.
Albuquerque’s Maxwell Museum of Anthropology hosted Tafoya’s first exhibition in 1974. She won back-to-back Best of Show awards at the Santa Fe Indian Market in both 1978 and 1979. The Denver Museum of Natural History mounted a retrospective of her work in 1982.
In 1984, the National Endowment for the Arts named her Folk Artist of the Year and she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southwest Association of Indian Affairs, as well as a Master Artist Award from the Heard Museum in Phoenix.
In perhaps her greatest contribution, Tafoya and her husband Alcario added more than 70 potters from among their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren to the Santa Clara tradition. As a teacher, she could be demanding and exacting.
Granddaughter Nancy Youngblood, who won Best of Show at Santa Fe in 1989, said of her grandmother, “Experience was the operative word. She raised the bar so high and required the next generations to rise to that level.”