Shaping a Revolution
Gangelhoff, Bonnie, Southwest Art
Maria Martinez's name is almost synonymous with Native American pottery. Born around 1887, the San Ildefonso Pueblo artist-together with her husband, Julian, and later with other relatives-helped revive the dying art of pottery making and introduced revolutionary techniques and designs. Her work, and that of her descendants, is the subject of an exhibition on display through September 14 at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, AZ. In addition, writer Richard L. Spivey and the Museum of New Mexico Press have released a new book, The Legacy of Maria Poveka Martinez, a revised and expanded look at the artist's life and family based on his 1979 book Maria. Spivey, a pueblo pottery expert, was a close friend of Maria's and continues that relationship today with her relatives. His new book contains rarely seen photographs of the
artist and her work. In addition, excerpts from the writer's personal interviews with the artist give an intimate glimpse into the soul of one of the world's most renowned potters. The following excerpt from Spivey's book explores Maria's rich legacy.
MARIA'S LEGACY IS A SIGNIFICANT ONE. In the first part of the 20th century, pueblo pottery making was in serious decline and economic conditions at the pueblos were at an all-time low. There were many who predicted a total demise of the art. Then came Maria and Julian Martinez, who by their example became the key figures in a pottery revival. Their influence was quickly felt at San Ildefonso and soon extended to the other pueblos as well, and pottery making once again became an important economic product. Edgar L. Hewett [the director of the School of American Research who, in 1907, began excavations of prehistoric pueblos near Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico] felt so strongly about the importance of Maria's influence that he wrote, "If Maria Martinez, famous potter of San Ildefonso, for any of the reasons that cause ladies to change residence-matrimony, kidnapping, elopement, and so on-should have been transplanted to Zuni, it is safe to say that there would have resulted a revolution in the ceramics of that community."
Today, Maria's legacy is no less important. Pottery making has become the single most important source of income at most of the pueblos, and many potters arc now at an income level that can be described as affluent. Today's prices are a far cry from those of just a few years ago, when a major piece of pottery could be purchased at a relatively low price. Perhaps even more significantly, Maria and Julian saved an important part of the American cultural heritage from extinction.
IF PO [MARIA'S SON and collaborator Popovi Da] had not been working closely with Maria she probably would have retired in the early 1960s. With her advancing years, pottery making became increasingly difficult. She no longer made large pieces, and even the small pieces became heavier in contrast to the fine, thin-walled pottery of earlier years. During the last few years Po would straighten some of the pottery before it began to dry, since it was not always totally symmetrical. Maria retired from pottery making in November 1970, although some of her pieces carry a 1971 firing date. She continued at times to demonstrate the making of small pieces that were left unfinished.
I recall some incidents that illustrate Maria's awe-inspiring presence as well as her warmth and humility. We were having lunch together at the Pink Adobe restaurant in Santa Fe when I looked up and saw the entire staff of the restaurant gathered in the doorway to see Maria. She didn't seem to notice. Another time, at the Compound restaurant, as Maria entered, the dining room went silent; one could have heard a pin drop.
In 1979 Maria and I were having a book signing at the San Ildefonso Pueblo Museum. When she arrived, I greeted her at the car and escorted her to the museum building, trying to get her quickly through the waiting crowd. Maria suddenly stopped and, with open arms, said, "If they want to take a picture, they can. …