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Santana Martinez, Feather Vase, 1983


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Santana Martinez
(American, San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico, b. 1909)
Feather Vase, 1983
earthenware with black on black slip design, 3 1/2" x 4 7/8"
Alice Tweed Tuohy Foundation Patrons and Subscribers Purchase Fund

Since clay is a ubiquitous and easily obtainable feature of soils everywhere, nearly every human society has a tradition of ceramics, each one revealing the unique marks of its culture through an astounding variety of forms, functions, and methods of surface decoration. Each culture uses local clays for pottery bodies and local minerals and plants for colorants and glazes, and so the products of the earth, combined with the skills of makers developed and passed on over generations, determine the particular look of pottery produced in any part of the world. The San Ildefonso Pueblo of New Mexico are known for shiny red and black pots with fine geometric designs. The band of feathers circling this small bowl by master potter Santana Martinez is related to a long tradition among many American Indian groups, of using feathers for decoration, and as a symbol geared toward adopting the bird’s power, grace and spirit. The earthenware pottery of Santana Martinez rises out of a centuries-old tradition of Pueblo ceramics that bear the designs and symbols of that Southwest American Indian culture. Her mother-in-law was the legendary potter Maria Poveka Martinez (ca. 1886–1980).


Along with her husband Julian, Maria brought ancient pottery making traditions of the Pueblo to the attention of mainstream 20th century culture, in part through numerous demonstrations of the couple’s forming, glazing and firing techniques. The elder Martinez and her husband passed this knowledge on to their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, just as Santana and her husband Adam Martinez have now done with their children and grandchildren. In this way, just as in ancient times, Native American culture is transmitted through the traditional techniques, forms and designs of their unique local pottery. These ceramic works are made from local clays dug on the reservation, by hand-forming and coiling the clay within dried gourd forms, and scraping them smooth with shards of dried gourd. Liquid clay slips are added and burnished smooth with stones, and delicate designs are then painted on with brushes made from the spine of yucca plant leaves, using other liquid slips. At this point, the pottery is leather hard and still red, the color of the local earthenware clay. They are rendered a rich black only when covered by dried manure and wood ash and fired in a primitive kiln fueled by cedar wood. This method firing with little oxygen present is what produces the distinctive shiny black surface of the Martinez’ wares.

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