Of Tewa heritage of the San Ildefonso Pueblo in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico, Maria Martinez became world renowned for her black on black pottery.
She learned to make pots as a child from her aunt, Tia Nicolasa, and began with clay dishes she made for her playhouse. In 1908, New Mexico archaeologist, Dr. Edgar Hewett, asked her to put some shards together and reconstruct an entire pot. She was successful, and this activity further stirred her interest in making pots.
Julian, her husband, broke away from farming in San Ildefonso and became a janitor at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe. He and Martinez studied the pottery in the display cases and then applied methods they observed. They discovered a method to get the black colors by smothering the flames during firing. They polished the surfaces with a smooth stone before firing, so the pottery, black-on-black, emerged with a silvery sheen. They also painted dull, velvet black decorations of ancient motifs on the pottery before firing.
They sold many of their pots in Santa Fe, but eventually Martinez became homesick for San Ildefonso, and the couple returned there, where she gave pottery lessons to other women. After her husband's death, she worked with her sons, Popovi Da and Adam, and others, which insured that her pottery making techniques would live on.
Maria Martinez became so admired for her skill that she was specially invited to the White House four times, and she received honorary doctorates from the University of Colorado and New Mexico State University.