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Celebrating a native heroine

SANTA FE, N.M. — Maria Martinez’s alchemy with pigment and clay stretched beyond the catalog of exquisite works of art.

The San Ildefonso Pueblo legend was equally brilliant in science and in marketing, said Peter Seibert, executive director of the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos.

The museum will celebrate the grand opening of a new gallery and permanent exhibit dedicated to the life of the internationally known potter today.

If you go
WHAT: Maria Martinez (1887?-1980)
WHEN: Opening reception 1-4 p.m. today
WHERE: Millicent Rogers Museum, 1504 Millicent Rogers Road, Taos
COST: Free

The approximately 6-by-6-foot space is a remodeling of the museum’s former library, Seibert said. Museum donors R. Kirk Landon and Pamela Garrison funded the $90,000 renovation.

Maria almost single-handedly revived the art of pueblo pottery, raising it well beyond the souvenir railroad trinkets and curios available at the time. An 1880 Smithsonian expedition noted that the people of San Ildefonso “have almost abandoned the manufacture of pottery.” Spanish tinware and Anglo enamelware had become readily available, making traditional pottery unnecessary.

Maria changed all that. Museum officials have nurtured an ongoing relationship with the artist and her descendants for more than 40 years, Seibert said. Known for her lavish jewelry collection, Millicent Rogers never knew Maria or her work. But her son and museum founder Paul Peralta-Ramos inherited the Standard Oil heiress’ love of collecting and Native American art.

“Paul was friends with her,” exhibition curator Carmela Quinto said. “He definitely collected Maria, among other potters.”

As a result, the museum houses what may be the largest public collection of pottery, artifacts, tools and documents relating to Maria’s life and family.

“We’ve been opening and welcoming to them,” Quinto said. “It’s about treating people with respect. Because these objects belong to them. We’re just the host.”

Potter Maria Martinez sits with her sisters. The Apache basket on the right is exhibited in the new Maria Martinez Gallery in the Millicent Rogers Museum, Taos. (COURTESY OF THE MILLICENT ROGERS MUSEUM)

Potter Maria Martinez sits with her sisters. The Apache basket on the right is exhibited in the new Maria Martinez Gallery in the Millicent Rogers Museum, Taos. (COURTESY OF THE MILLICENT ROGERS MUSEUM)

The Da family (the relatives of Popovi Da, Maria’s son) donated much of the collection in the 1970s and 1980s. Within the past year, the Gonzales family has added even more to the trove. Renowned potter Barbara Gonzales is Maria’s great-granddaughter; Cavan Gonzales is her great-great grandson.

Even after Maria’s 1980 death, the family continued to donate items to the museum, creating a collection of “several hundred,” Seibert said.

Pottery, photographs, tools and the artist’s baptismal record tell of Maria’s journey from pueblo to White House.

A series of photographs shows her demonstrating the different stages of hand-coiling pottery. The display includes her polishing stones and pigments.

Maria’s talents as a scientist emerged when she developed her “black-on-black” style that both evoked ancient styles but seemed somehow breathtakingly modern with its silvery sheen. The arduous process involved six steps, including collecting the clay, forming the pot, scraping and sanding the pot to remove surface irregularities, applying an iron-bearing slip, polishing and burnishing it to a high sheen. Then her husband Julian decorated it with another slip before Maria fired it.

Most of New Mexico’s clay is red.

“If you get the fire going in the first 25 minutes at 1,202 degrees, then you smother the pot with manure, then it will oxidize the red clay and turn it to black,” Seibert said. “Gun metal is what they called it.”

The collection includes some of Maria’s experimental pots created before she fired them.

She created her sienna color by firing the clay twice.

“You can see this evolution of style where she is really pushing the limits,” Seibert added.

Born in either 1881 or 1887, Maria was given the Tewa name “Povika,” which means “Pond Lily.” Little is known of her early years, except that she was exposed to pottery making through several aunts. Her mother’s sister Nicolasa Pena Montoya became an early influence and mentor. By the early 1900s, Maria was producing pottery for trade and sale. She would make it for the next 80 years. Photographs of her making and selling her work show an expansive range of designs, from traditional double-necked wedding vases to shallow table bowls resembling Midwestern and Eastern art pottery.

In traditional pueblo culture, women made the pots; the decoration was for men. Maria’s husband Julian added the prehistoric designs to her work until his death in 1943. Afterward, their son Popovi Da, daughter-in-law Santana and grandson Tony Da each added their own touch to the surface.

Maria’s creativity flamed after anthropologist/archaeologist Edgar Lee Hewett discovered glossy blackware pottery fragments in the Pajarito Plateau that seemed of a “modern” nature. Hewett asked Maria and her husband Julian, already known for their polychrome work, to try to reproduce the colors and textures seen in the ancestral pottery of Frijoles Canyon. At the time, most Native American pottery was made for the cheap tourist “curio” trade, not for the art market. Hastily formed and painted, it lacked both the precision and the sophistication of Maria’s bowls.

Maria created her first successful black-on-black piece in 1913. Her early works were all unsigned. She had no idea her pieces would become so spectacularly popular. When the sales came, she began signing her work “Marie.” She thought that name would be more recognizable to her non-Indian collectors. “Marie + Julian” remained the official signature until her husband’s death.

The exhibition opens with a set of “curio” pots, uneven in both shape and design, with blurred edges in the painting. Case after case of vessels range from the lipless Spanish pitcher known as the olla to more contemporary forms, including table bowls, cylindrical vases and low bowls with small mouths, as she traveled from New York to California.

Maria and Julian straddled several artistic worlds when it came to decoration, incorporating traditional designs like stairstep and rain forms into complex geometric patterns. Feathers, avanyus or horned water serpents, birds, roadrunner tracks, mountains and zigzags also appeared in their design portfolio. Early pieces show a traditional basketweave design centering a plate; in a more whimsical moment, Popovi added a skunk on the bottom left side of another. Later in her life, while working with her grandson Tony Da, Maria added turquoise nuggets.

What curators believe is Maria’s hand-woven Navajo jacket hangs between the exhibition cases. The never-seen-before squash blossom necklace, earrings and bracelet she wore to Lyndon Johnson’s 1967 White House hangs in another.

The museum also houses the many medals Maria won for her work, including the Order of the Academic Palms presented by the French government in 1956. In 1973, she received the initial grant for the National Endowment for the Arts to fund a Maria Martinez pottery workshop.

To sell her pottery, Maria traveled to four world’s fairs and beyond, including Chicago’s 1934 Century of Progress.

“Maria is the brilliant marketer who understood how Native American pottery was seen and understood,” Seibert explained. “And to raise the bar of what pottery was.”

She was also a pueblo matriarch and the wife of a governor who did not hesitate to share her techniques within her community, Quinto said.

“It’s more than pottery,” she explained. “It’s about being a matriarch to her family and her people. It’s a Native woman who was a heroine. Her whole life was a model and it still is.”