Credit Line: Gift of Carol Grant. In the Permanent Collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.
Marie Montoya Martinez was born with the indigenous name Povi-Ka, meaning Flower Leaf, near Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1887. She grew up in the San Ildefonso Pueblo, where she learned how to make pottery from her aunt and is said to have surpassed all other potters in the pueblo by 1915, able to make three beautiful pots in the time it took others to create just one. Today she is known around the world for her black-matte pottery. Working with her husband Julian, Martinez rediscovered the black-matte technique in the 1920s—through trial and error—after being given a recently excavated pieces of ancient black pottery. In 1954, she was awarded the Palmes Académiques by the French government for her contributions to arts and crafts. She passed away in 1981 at the age of ninety-three. Her family and others at San Ildefonso continue creating pottery in the black-matte tradition that she pioneered.
Making the black-matte pottery is a multi-step process. The first step involves gathering clay, which is generally done only once each year and stored. Martinez would then take a piece of the brownish-orange clay from storage, as needed, and mold it into the desired shape using a coil technique before applying the liquid clay, called slip, and polishing, or burnishing, it to a high sheen. This latter step was the most time consuming. Thereafter, a decorative layer of slip, this time left matte, would be applied before the vessel was fired. Early on, her husband Julian did the decorative patterns in matte; after he died, their daughter-in-law Santana, then later their son Popovi, took over this part of the process. The vessels are thus often signed with two names, Marie, the potter, above Julian (1934-43), Santana (1943-56), or Popov (1956-71), the decorator, a line separating the two names. The firing process and, specifically, smothering the fire with manure carbonized the clay, turned it black.
The pot displayed here was created in the first phase of Martinez’ work, when her husband Julian painted the designs. The small plate was created in the second phase and was painted by their daughter-in-law Santana. In both works, the shiny feathers that ring the vessels are the negative spaces, the areas left untouched when Julian or Santana painted on the final layer of slip. On the small plate, thirty-six feathers appear with slightly differing heights and widths, intentionally emphasizing the hand-made aspect of the work. Together with the disk in the middle, the plate also resembles a sun.
Written by Dr. April Eisman, Associate Professor, Art and Visual Culture for the exhibition (Re)discovering S(h)elves.