Maria and Julian Martinez: Like Black on Black

Maria and Julian Martinez: Like Black on Black

Maria Montoya Martinez: 1887- July 20, 1980, San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico

Julian Martinez, 1879- 1943, San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico


Maria Montoya Martinez and Julian Martinez were two of the most highly acclaimed potters in the Southwest. They became known throughout the world for their highly polished, black on black and multicolored functional ceramics, also called pottery: works made of clay.  Of all their achievements together, Maria and Julian are best known for their invention of  “black-on-black” pottery.

WEB5At one time, Maria signed her work as “Marie”.

Maria and Julian were from a community called the San Ildefonso Pueblo, 20 miles away from Santa Fe, in the valley of the Rio Grande, in the Black Mesa country of New Mexico. They married in 1904, when Maria was age 17 and Julian age 25.

WEB2Maria and Julian and their Blackware and Polychrome pottery

New Mexico is also where the Artist Georgia O’Keeffe worked during the second half of her life. O’Keeffe was inspired by the landscape and nature of New Mexico.

Maria learned how to make pottery at an early age from her aunt. She only went as far as the third grade in school, and did not speak much English.

WEB3Maria Montoya Martinez at work

Traditional pottery making techniques were being lost, but Martinez and her family experimented with different techniques and helped preserve it.


In 1908 black-on-black pottery that had been crafted by the Pueblo people from the 1600s was found. Maria Martinez, known as a skilled pueblo potter, was asked to re-create this ancient pottery style. She experimented, finding that she could create pieces with a deep glossy black background and dull black decoration: black-on-black pottery, or “Blackware”.


Embarrassed that she could not create high quality black pots in the style of the ancient Pueblo Peoples, Maria  hid her pots away from the world. She worked tirelessly to perfect the art of Blackware pottery. Her skill grew with each pot, and her art began to be recognized by collectors and developed into a business, focused on the then-unique Blackware style.


Maria made her own clay. She gathered and combined red clay, and blue sand, and mixed it by hand. She only gathered what she needed. She built her pottery completely by hand, forming the base of the vessel and building up the size with “rope” coils.


Julian Martinez, Maria’s husband, began decorating the pots she made. Men often painted pottery for the women of the Pueblo. Their work together is famous and improved the life of their entire Pueblo. Julian did master the decoration process by trying and experimenting. He painted the designs with a clay paint called “slip” on the surface of the clay piece. Julian worked as a farmer, general laborer, and janitor, in addition to being an artist. He was elected governor of San Ildefonso


In 1918, Julian finished the first decorated Blackware (sometimes described as “black on black”). pot with a dull background and a polished, shinier Avanyu design. Avanyu, a horned or plumed water serpent is the “guardian of water”. Its curves suggest flowing water or the zig-zag of lightning. The snake’s body movements seem alive, showing the appreciation the Pueblo peoples have for nature and life.


“The first rush of water coming down an arroyo after a thunderstorm, a symbol of thanksgiving and for water and rain” was the interpretation by Julian of an Avanyu.


Avanyu may be related to the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl and is used as a decoration on Native American pottery of the Southwestern United States. The designs on each pot give the pot a personality and unique individualized look.


Many of Julian’s decorations were patterns adopted from old, old pottery of the Pueblos. Some of the stylized designs showed birds, road runner tracks, rain, feathers, clouds, mountains, and zigzags.

Julian had the skill to execute his vision with a precise, even hand that set a new standard for his generation of Pueblo painters.


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