Review by Dwight P. Lanmon
The Legacy of Maria Poveka Martinez

Richard L. Spivey. The Legacy of Maria Poveka Martinez. Photographs by Herbert Lotz. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2003. xvi + 208 pp.; color and bw illus., bibliography, indes. $60.00 (clothbound).

In the late 1800s the populations of the Pueblo tribes in the American Southwest declined precipitously. Museums in the eastern United States dispatched anthropologists to document what they feared were dying cultures and to collect and document their crafts. The production of pottery vessels to store water and grain and other necessities of life was also declining due to the availability of imported metal pans, dishes, and other vessels. The emergence of a huge, new, voracious market—tourists—led to further craft deterioration. 

Anthropologists, archaeologists, and interested collectors in the Southwest endeavored to reverse the trend in the early 1900s. They helped Pueblo potters and other artisans sell their products at higher prices in urban centers such as Santa Fe and Albuquerque. In 1922, they organized an Indian fair in Santa Fe, which eventually became the enormous Indian Market that annually attracts about 1,200 artists and artisans and 100,000 buyers from around the world. The original organizers focused on traditional Indian crafts and rejected anything that was considered to be nontraditional. They purchased many of the objects in advance, to ensure the high quality of the displays, and (as they are today) prizes were awarded for significant examples.

One of the potters recognized at the first Indian fair was Maria Martinez (ca. 1887–1980) of San Ildefonso Pueblo, located northwest of Santa Fe. Initially she and her husband, Julian, made polychrome-decorated pottery. In 1907 Edgar L. Hewett—founder of the School of American Archaeology (now the School of American Research) and the Museum of New Mexico, as well as one of the major proponents of the Santa Fe Indian fairs—encouraged her to make copies of pottery he had excavated on the nearby Pajarito Plateau. Maria and her husband later developed a new style of decorating pottery, known simply as black-on-black, which became world famous. Maria Martinez eventually became the best-known Pueblo potter of all, widely recognized by just her first name. (In the following comments I shall mostly use the name Maria, but I recognize that the production of pottery associated with her and her family entailed the work of several gifted people. Indeed, this is true for almost all Pueblo pottery, which was usually made by family groups.)

Although Indian fair organizers focused on preserving traditional potting and decorating techniques, the objects that Maria and others made had a new and nontraditional function: they were, in the view of buyers, “art.” In keeping with the production of art, organizers urged potters and other craftspeople to sign their wares. Some resisted, for it is anathema among Pueblo people to seek individual recognition, but Maria was one of the first to do so. Her pottery commanded significantly higher prices than did the work of other potters. Now, prices can be stratospheric: a large black-on-black storage jar by Maria and Julian sold in 1999 for a record auction price of $255,500.[1]

Maria’s superior abilities as a potter were recognized almost immediately. She and her husband participated in the California-Pacific Exposition in San Diego in 1915. The first major biography on the potter was published in 1948, another was published in 1977, and several more have followed.[2] Richard Spivey’s book is the latest contribution to our understanding of Maria, her family, and their pottery.

Spivey was personally acquainted with Maria and her descendants, and he writes knowledgeably about them and their work. He published his first book on Maria in 1979, followed by a revised edition in 1989. This book is technically a revised edition of the latter, but in many respects it is an entirely new work.[3] Notably, all of the pottery photographs were taken specifically for this edition, and there have been significant additions to the text, which has also been reorganized. 

The text is now arranged chronologically, and Maria’s work and contributions are put in the context of the history of potting at the Pueblo of San Ildefonso. Spivey discusses the pottery that Maria made for Hewett and details Julian’s role in its decoration. (Maria almost never decorated her work.) Spivey also explains the accidental discovery, in about 1919, of the process used to make the quintessential Maria black-on-black pottery, and includes quotations from lengthy interviews he conducted with her in 1977, to help readers understand what she did, how, and why. There are several photos of her and her family; more important, however, is the inclusion of several early examples of her and Julian’s work, including all seven of the known large storage jars.

Detailed histories of the work of Maria’s sister (Clara), her daughter-in-law (Santana), her sons (Adam and Popovi Da), and grandson (Tony Da) follow. All of these discussions are major additions to earlier editions of the book. There are also chapters devoted to signatures on Maria’s pottery and a listing of the numerous awards and honors she received. The book concludes with two interesting essays by Popovi Da (relating to Indian values and Indian pottery); a memorial to Popovi Da by the photographer Laura Gilpin; a letter from the famed English potter Bernard Leach; and a detailed genealogical chart of Maria’s Pueblo family.

What are the significant contributions in this new edition? The text has been reorganized significantly from earlier editions, and it is much clearer as a result. (In the earlier editions, however, Maria’s comments were coordinated with a series of photographs showing her and Julian making and decorating pottery, which helped make the process more understandable.) The discussion of signatures and their dating is clear and concise. The photographs of pottery are significantly better than in previous editions, with the objects placed against neutral backgrounds and well lighted. Gone are the artsy, disturbing, outdoor settings of pottery placed against backdrops of sandstone and yucca. (I suppose the photos in the earlier editions make for a sort of period piece in photographic style, but they certainly detract from the objects.) Likewise, the accuracy of the color in the new edition is vastly improved over the reproductions in earlier editions. The biographies and work of Santana and other family members are new or much expanded, and there are significant and lengthy quotations from several of the potters. For anyone interested in the work of Maria’s descendants, this is the essential book.

What are the criticisms? Surprisingly, the pottery itself is largely ignored in the text. There is little discussion of any of the objects, and the author does not discuss the chronology of Maria’s black-on-black pottery designs. While it may be impossible now to discern a progression of styles, if there were any hope of distinguishing a chronology in Maria’s work, it would have been helpful to organize the illustrations chronologically. The present organization of the illustrations seems at times haphazard. Forgeries of Maria’s pottery are mentioned (p. 161), but no examples are shown or discussed. Given the high prices that Maria’s pottery and that of her family now command, it would be useful to know how to detect problem pieces. The photographs are the best published to date of Maria’s work, and highlights emphasize the incredible mirror finish that Maria achieved on her pottery, but the matte decoration is not always clear. Photographing Maria’s pottery using techniques perfected for silver objects might be advantageous. The index is incomplete. It is a technical issue, but to show such care and sensitivity in the reorganization and editing of text from earlier editions, and to invest the time and funds necessary to produce so many new photographs, it seems inconceivable that the index should receive less attention. Often personal names are not indexed, even when those names appear in the text as being significant. For example, the noted Pueblo artist Awa Tsireh (and brother of Santana, Maria’s daughter-in-law) is discussed and his important influence on Julian Martinez is explained, but he is listed only as “Alfonso Roybal (Awa Tsireh)” once, without a corresponding cross-reference, and at least one reference to him as Awa Tsireh is missing altogether. Likewise, Sallie Wagner is quoted repeatedly and extensively, but her name is missing from the index. It is hoped that this technical fault will be corrected in future editions.

Despite these relatively minor complaints, this new edition of Spivey’s book The Legacy of Maria Poveka Martinez is a major addition to our understanding of the work of this gifted potter and her family. In my view, it is mainly the ensemble of discussions of Maria’s descendants that make Spivey’s new book a major contribution to our knowledge. The title indicates clearly the author’s intent: Maria’s legacy is the focus, and the book is of value to anyone interested in a comprehensive overview of this pottery. In addition, for serious students and collectors of Maria’s pottery, and for those who wish to understand her even better, I would recommend Susan Peterson’s The Living Tradition of María Martínez for its additional quotes from Maria and photographs.

Dwight P. Lanmon
Santa Fe, New Mexico

Ceramics in America 2004

  • [1]

    Important American Indian Art, sale cat. (New York: Sotheby’s, November 30, 1999), lot 4.

  • [2]

    Alice Marriott, María: The Potter of San Ildefonso (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1948); Susan Peterson, The Living Tradition of María Martínez (Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International, 1977).

  • [3]

    Richard L. Spivey, Maria (Flagstaff, Ariz.: Northland Press, 1979 and 1989).