For more than eight decades, Maria Martinez continued and extended the centuries-old pottery traditions of San Ildefonso Pueblo in northern New Mexico. She is considered a matriarch of Native American pottery.
Many of Martinez’s family members were involved in producing pots, and she learned to make pottery in the traditional way—watching her aunt and grandmother work. By age thirteen, she was already celebrated within the tribe for her creative skills.
She and her husband, Julian Martinez, revived an ancient local process for making the all-black pottery. Their blackware stood in marked contrast to the the all-red or polychrome ware that had dominated the pueblo's production for generations.
By the mid-1920s, Martinez’s blackware had become extremely popular outside the pueblo, thanks to a book published by the director of director of the Museum of New Mexico. Martinez was encouraged to sign her pots, which were beginning to be regarded as works of art rather than household or ritual vessels.
Martinez was awarded two honorary doctorates, had her portrait made by the noted American sculptor Malvina Hoffman, and in 1978 was offered a major exhibition by the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery.