Creating black ware pottery is a long process consisting of many steps requiring patience and skill. Six distinct processes occur before the pot is ready to be sold. According to Susan Peterson in The Living Tradition of Maria Martinez, these steps include, “finding and collecting the clay, forming a pot, scraping and sanding the pot to remove surface irregularities, applying the iron-bearing slip and burnishing it to a high sheen with a smooth stone, decorating the pot with another slip, and firing the pot.”


The first step in creating a pot is gathering the clay. The clay is gathered once a year, usually in October when it is dry and stored in an old weathered adobe structure where the temperature remains constant. When Martinez is ready to begin molding the clay to form a pot, the right amount of clay is brought into the house. A cloth, laid upon a table, holds a mound of gray pink sand with a fist hole in the center filled with an equal amount of blue sand. A smaller hole is made in the blue sand and water is poured into the hole. The substances are then all kneaded together, picked up within the cloth, washed, and covered with a towel to prevent moisture from escaping where the clay will sit for a day or two to dry. The pukis or “the supporting mold, a dry or fired clay shape where a round bottom of a new piece may be formed” builds the base shape of the pot looking like a pancake. After squeezing the clay together with one’s fingers, a wall is pinched up about an inch high from the pancake base. A gourd rib is used in cross-crossing motions to smooth out the wall, making it thick and even. Coiling long tube shapes of clay on the top of the clay wall and then smoothing it out with the gourd increases the pot’s height. Air holes are patched with extra clay and sealed away with the gourd rib like a patch being sewn on a pair of blue jeans.


After drying, the pot is scraped, sanded, and polished with stones. This is the most time consuming part of the entire process. A small round stone should be applied to the side of the pot in a consistent, horizontal, rhythmic motion. Rubbing the stone parallel with the side of the pot produces a shiny, polished, even look. Creating the polished finish with the stone is called burnishing. The pot is finally ready to fire after the secondary slip is applied, by painting onto the burnished surface various traditional designs.


Challenges and experiments

A long process of experimentation was required to successfully recreate the black-on-black pottery style to meet Maria’s exacting standards. There were many challenges. “As almost all clay found in the hills is not jet black, one specific challenge was to figure out a way to make the clay turn the desired color. Maria discovered, from observing the Tafoya family of Santa Clara Pueblo, who still practiced traditional pottery techniques, that smothering the fire surrounding the pottery during the outdoor firing process caused the smoke to be trapped and is deposited into the clay. Called “vacuum induction” by scientific minds, the clay was turned various shades of black to gunmetal color.”  She experimented with the idea that an unfired polished red vessel which was painted with a red slip on top of the polish and then fired in a smudging fire at a relatively cool temperature would result in a deep glossy black background with dull black decoration. Shards and sheep and horse manure placed around the outside and inside of the outdoor kiva-style adobe oven would give the pot a slicker matte finished appearance. After much trial and error, Maria successfully produced a black ware pot. The first pots for the museum were fired around 1913. These pots were undecorated, unsigned, and of a generally rough quality. Also, when Maria started developing her polishing skills, many burnishing techniques, tips and tricks were learned from Margaret Tafoya of Santa Clara Pueblo, who was more than happy to share this ancient knowledge.

The Evolution of Maria as a Potter

For more than eighty years, Maria Martinez produced pottery. Her body of work spanned everything from polychrome decorated wares that resembled the curios made and sold to the early traders to sophisticated designs that were on parallel with the finest studio work being produced in Europe, Asia and America.

To chronicle her changes is complex, as she also was a brilliant marketer of her work and as a result produced both traditional and contemporary designs. Photographs of her making and selling pottery show an incredible range of designs from double-necked wedding vases (a traditional form) to shallow table bowls that are more related to mid-western and eastern art pottery.

Maria’s influence on pottery making can be split into three areas:


Traditional pueblo pottery followed the old model of the lipless Spanish pitcher known as the olla. Maria produced many examples of the olla particularly when she showed at the various World’s Fairs. After World War Two, she began to experiment with more non-Indian forms including table bowls, cylindrical vases and low jars with small mouths.


It is clear that Maria straddled several artistic worlds when it came to the decoration of her pots. Many of her pieces incorporate traditional elements but they are applied in ways unlike other pueblo potters. She might have an Avanyu or water serpent situated in a complex geometric pattern or asymmetrically place animals on a plate.


Perhaps Maria’s greatest achievement was the finishes that she developed, particularly in the rediscovery of the black-on-black surface that became an icon of her technique. Maria and her family also were responsible for the development of the highly burnished gunmetal surface and sienna finishes she introduced after World War Two. Finally in the last years of her life, she worked with her grandson on the creation of turquoise and shell inlay pottery.

Description of black ware pottery

An olla jar has a slightly flattened rim and a marked angle at the shoulder. The one created by Maria and Julian Martinez is “decorated on the rims only above the angle of the shoulder with continuous paneled bands.” Light is reflected off of the shiny, smooth surface. The jet black ceramic product’s finish appears unblemished in any way. A band of a lighter black decoration stands out against a solid black matte background. The pot “depends on the decorative effect of the manipulation of the surface finish alone” to appear as though the decorations are scratched into the pot’s surface. The band wraps directly below the narrow neck of the pot. A wide-eyed avanyu, or horned serpent, encircles the pot and slithers inside the band. The serpent’s tongue almost touches the tip of his tail. The snake’s body movements seem alive; a tribute to the appreciation the Pueblo peoples have for nature and life. The decorations on the pot give the pot a personality and unique individualized look.

Black-on-Black Bowl Signed “Marie” Dated 1925 Gift of Charles Alberle 1982.075.001

Black-on-Black Bowl
Signed “Marie”
Dated 1925
Gift of Charles Alberle

It was just five years before this pot was made that Maria and Julian rediscovered and then worked to perfect the making of black-on-black pottery. By 1920, they were showing this ware at various museum shows in the Southwest. The use of geometric designs is typical of this early black-on-black ware.