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Molded masterpieces: Exhibit traces a 330-year history of San Ildefonso vessels

Jar, ca. 1850-1880, San Ildefonso Pueblo.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — San Ildefonso Pueblo potters mold pieces born of ancestral traditions into visual prayers.

“San Ildefonso Pottery, 1600-1930” explores that heritage at Santa Fe’s Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. The exhibit runs through Aug. 31, 2020.

The show encompasses 170 works, nearly 80 percent of which have never been seen before, guest curator Bruce Bernstein said.

Bernstein partnered with contemporary San Ildefonso Pueblo potters Russell Sanchez and Erik Fender on the exhibition.

To the general public, San Ildefonso pottery often conjures images of the blackware created in the 1920s by the legendary Maria Martinez and her husband, Julian, with the encouragement of the Museum of New Mexico. But its scope reaches well beyond those limitations.

“The truth is that they were potting for millennia,” Bernstein said. “The (black-on-black) style is good, but it’s a tiny fraction of the story.”

Blackware jar, ca. 1880-1900, San Ildefonso Pueblo. (Courtesy of the Museum Of Indian Arts And Culture)

Pottery making was often a group effort, he said.

“Even with the signature, the people didn’t make pottery alone,” he said. “It’s community-based.”

The MIAC collection includes more than 300 polychrome vessels made from 1875 to 1915.

Maria Martinez was one in a long line of great potters, Bernstein said.

In the 1870s, Yellow Deer initiated a pottery revival nurtured with both male and female collaborators. Seven distinct pottery styles emerged from this time.

Yellow Deer created large, elegant shapes decorated with realistic birds. Her style signified a sweeping change not seen since the mid-1700s, when artists transformed their work to integrate the growing consumption of wheat.

“You can see elements that continue on through the 1920s,” Bernstein said. “She uses black and red in the same bird and leaf forms.”

San Ildefonso pottery has always reflected the societal circumstances of the pueblo, Bernstein said, dating from the ancestral migration from Mesa Verde to the Pajarito Plateau. Innovation began hundreds of years ago. Within the first quarter-century of Spanish settlement, San Ildefonso potters made European-style soup bowls and candlesticks. Other adaptations included large bowls to mix and knead bread from wheat introduced by the Spaniards.

Polychrome pot by Maria and Julian Martinez, 1925, San Ildefonso Pueblo.

The designs always reflect fertility and rain, he said.

“If there are birds on pots, those birds and feathers are what carry the prayers to the clouds,” he said. “These images bring the clouds that bring the rain that brings the green crops.

“We say it’s great art because it’s beautiful,” Bernstein said. “But it’s so much deeper than that.”

Julian Martinez was not the first man to help create pottery.

Florentino Montoya likely learned his technique from Yellow Deer. He expanded on her design repertoire, using red and black together, making elegant, precisely formed lines. He also incorporated leaf and flower forms from Acoma Pueblo pottery.

“Men have always helped in collecting the clay,” Bernstein said. “They always helped with the firing.

“People talk about going to their auntie’s or grandmother’s house after school and finding a lump of clay to play with. The idea is that people sit and work together. (The potter) Barbara Gonzales talks about seeing four women polishing a pot.”

These pots were not signed. It wasn’t until 1923 and the advent of the Santa Fe Indian Market that signing occurred, privileging individuals over community.

Maria and Julian’s black pottery represented a revival of what occurred in the 18th century.

Canteen by Maria and Julian Martinez, ca. 1918-1922, San Ildefonso Pueblo. (Courtesy of The Museum Of Indian Arts And Culture)

Museum of New Mexico archaeologists excavated the Pajarito Plateau between 1910 and 1920. In 1908, Edgar Lee Hewett, an archaeologist and director of Santa Fe’s Laboratory of Anthropology, had excavated some 17th century black pottery shards and asked Maria if she could duplicate them.

“She took the shard from Hewett, but he had no idea what would happen next,” Bernstein said.

The new black-on-black style emphasized form and materials. To accentuate and elongate the pieces, Maria and Julian placed the design field on the necks and shoulders of their vessels. Creators in the older polychrome styles painted the designs across the entire body of the pot. Julian developed a new design language, borrowing from rock art and ancestral pottery.

Established in 1922, the Santa Fe Indian Market (then known as the Indian Fair) created the ideal vehicle to sell this innovative style.

“One of the great things about this art form is that we can tell it’s from San Ildefonso, but the individual hand is still there,” Bernstein said. “Even with the signature, the people didn’t make pottery alone. It’s community-based. And amid great adversity, they made the pottery and shared it with the outside world.”

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