October/November 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 6
The hands of Pueblo potter Maria Martinez have reached back across more than seven hundred years of history to create pottery that is now proudly displayed in museums and private collections all over the world.
The configuration of these pieces which had survived provided her with a clue to the shape of the original pots, and they were quickly reproduced. Giving the finished pots the odd black sheen of the ancient fragments was another matter. The shards held no clues here, but through patient experimentation Maria and her husband, Julian finally contrived a solution. After each pot had been shaped and dried, Maria polished its surface with a smooth stone, a tedious and time-consuming job that produced a finish of remarkable clarity. The pots were then placed together in a pile, shielded with pieces together in a pile, shielded with pieces of sheet metal so as to form a kind of ventilated oven, and layered over with—of all things—dry cow dung. The manure was put to the torch, and once the fire had taken hold, the whole pile was smothered in ash and additional manure so that the heat and smoke from the organically rich fuel could carbonize the surface of the pots. When they were finally pried out of the pile with sticks, the finished pots glowed with a black intensity that suggested Milton’s description of the fires of hell: “…dark with exceeding bright.”
Over the next several years, Maria and her husband refined the process, ultimately adding to it painted designs taken from the traditions of their tribe, the Tewas. The pots became famous—and expensive—and are now displayed proudly in museums and private collections all over the world. Maria and Julian, too, became famous. They found themselves and their work in demand at galleries, museums, fairs, and exhibitions; Maria herself laid the corner-stone for New York’s Rockefeller Center in 1933. Yet in spite of more fame and fortune than had ever come to any member of the Tewa tribe, they lived as they always had lived at San Ildefonso, producing pots and children.
Julian died in 1943, but Maria continues to practice their art. Even more importantly, she has given her knowledge to her chidren, her grandchildren, and most recently her great-grandchildren. She hopes that when the time comes it will also be given to some of her great-great-grandchidren, thirty-two of whom have now been born. In any case, the art she rediscovered seventy years ago seems likely to survive. Maria herself believes it. “When I am gone” she once told her great-granchildren (as quoted in Susan Peterson’s recent book, The Living Tradition of Maria Martinez ), “other people have my pots. But to you I leave my greatest achievement, which is the ability to do it.” That is a legacy worth the treasuring: the hands of Maria Martinez have reached back across more than seven hundred years of history.
It has been nearly four generations now that these hands have been doing their work, bringing a special genius to an art form last seen on this planet two centuries before Coronado’s expedition straggled into the American Southwest in 1542. The hands belong to Maria Martinez.
Maria lives in the Indian pueblo of San Ildefonso, New Mexico. She does not know her age with any precision, only that it is somewhere between ninety and one hundred years. What she does know with precision is pottery, clay taking on form and life under the movements of her hands. What she produces has been called art, but it is not an art that belongs to her time or to ours. It goes back to a people so far lost in memory that they emerge only as shadows even in the long oral tradition of Indian history.
Call them the people of the thirteenth century, scraping out an arid existence in an arid land. They were not simple people. There are no simple people. In any given society of human beings, the anthropologists tell us, a certain amount of genuis often expressed itself in art—functional art, more often than not, but art with as sure a sense of beauty as anything produced by larger societies.
So among these shadowy people of the thirteenth century there was art, left behind in the form of bits and pieces of pottery. In 1908 in Frijoles Canyon near San Ildefonso, an archaeological team headed by the Museum of New Mexico’s Edgar Lee Hewett came across a scattering of shards. No ordinary pre-historic shards these: they shone black, unlike anything encountered in the American Southwest before. Already, young Maria Martinez had achieved local renown as a maker of pots, and Hewett sent for her at San Ildefonso and asked if she could re-create the kind of vessels from which the strange shards had come. She agreed to try.