UNLV Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art

Black Ware Potters

by Michael Freborg

Black Ware Potters

Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art volunteer and freelance journalist Michael Freborg revisits some of the the black ware pottery in the museum's collection.

While researching the black ware potters of Santa Clara Pueblo, San Ildefonso Pueblo, and Mata Ortiz last year, I discovered some striking similarities between them. The people of these communities started out with limited resources, but, over the course of time, passed on their pottery skills from one generation to the next, eventually creating prosperous art centers. Today, their families produce some of the highest quality, most avidly collected, black-on-black pottery in the world. They only use local clay, and their founders were either self-taught or learned the trade from their parents. Two of these pioneers, Maria Montoya Martinez (1887-1980) of the San Ildefonso Pueblo and Juan Quezada Celado (b. 1940) of the Mata Ortiz Potters have more in common than I first realized. Both spent years trying to replicate ancient pottery sherds found near their homes, and, in the process, created their own unique styles while remaining true to the source material. They each had influential figures in their lives who helped them jumpstart their careers, and when they finally mastered their craft, they passed it on to their siblings, children, and grandchildren, building their own pottery-making dynasties. 

The success of these communities comes from the skills and knowledge the artists inherited from their ancestors. Some of the most well-known black ware pottery in the world comes from the Santa Clara Pueblo Potters of the Rio Grande River Valley. The indigenous people of the region have been making black- and red-ware since the 1600s, but their pottery-making goes back nearly 1,500 years. Formed with special clay from the ground, their highly burnished jars and pots are hand-coiled with deeply etched Native American designs. The most renowned of these potters were Sara Fina Tafoya (1863-1949), called Autumn Leaf in her native Tewa language, and her daughter Margaret Tafoya (1904-2001), who is often referred to as the Matriarch of the Santa Clara Pueblo Potters. Both mother and daughter were masters of their craft, and they were the first to carve designs into their pottery. They were also the first to share their artwork with the world. Margaret’s father was the salesman of the family business, often traveling up to five hundred miles with his wife’s pottery strapped to his burro. 

Tafoya and her mother made exceptionally large wedding, water, and storage jars, some as tall as thirty inches. These black ware pots were both decorative and utilitarian. She employed a 1200-year-old method of hand-coiling used by the Ancestral Puebloans of the Colorado Plateau. She usually added a bear motif to the neck of her vessels, which was the symbol of the bear’s healing power. “It is a good luck symbol,” Tafoya said. “The bear always knows where the water is.” Another powerful image found on her work is the sea serpent Awanyu, a Tewa deity who is the guardian of water. She also carved buffalo horns, rain clouds, mountains, and kiva steps. These were all symbols of survival to her people. She used the intaglio method of sculpting, cutting designs into the surface of the pottery, and using the sunken areas to hold the liquified clay. Tafoya believed her polishing stones, which had been passed down to her through many generations in her family, were the key to her success.

She and her husband traded pottery for clothing and other goods at the Indian Market in Santa Fe. They were able to make a living doing this, providing for their twelve children, even sending some of them to college. “I have dressed my children in clay,” the artist once said. Just as her parents had taught her, she passed her pottery-making skills on to her children and grandchildren, instructing them to only take clay from the Santa Clara Pueblo like their forefathers had done, and to only use natural fuels to fire their pottery. “We get clay where our ancestors used to take it,” Tafoya said. “My girls are still doing work from the clay that my great-great-grandparents used.” Tafoya had a deep spiritual connection to the earth, and would pray to Mother Clay each time her family dug soil for a new sculpture. “You can’t go to Mother Clay without the cornmeal and ask her permission to touch her,” she said. 

Tafoya’s artwork has been featured in museums and galleries throughout the United States. In 1983, more than one hundred jars made by six generations of her family were displayed at the Denver Museum of Natural History. A thirty-piece collection of her pottery, including eighteen pieces made by her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, was showcased at the Arizona State University Art Museum in 2013. The exhibition was called Born of Fire: The Pottery of Margaret Tafoya. Her work was also displayed at The Four Winds Gallery in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania in 2014, the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos, New Mexico in 2015, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C. in 2015 and 2016. To this day, Tafoya’s descendants, including her daughter Toni Roller, and her grandchildren Jeff and Cliff Roller, continue the family tradition of pottery-making. Other successful Santa Clara Potters are Gwen Tafoya, Dusty Naranjo, Stella Chavarria, Julie Gutierrez, and Candelaria Suazo. Their black-on-black pottery is highly cherished by collectors around the globe. 

While the artistic traditions of San Ildefonso Pueblo and Mata Ortiz do not stretch as far back as Santa Clara Pueblo, the stories of their founders are no less compelling. Maria Montoya Martinez was born in 1887 in San Ildefonso Pueblo, near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her Tewa name Poveka means Pond Lily. She started practicing her craft when she was just a child. At age eleven, she watched her Aunt Nicolasa and other relatives sculpt ceramic pots. Her first foray into pottery-making was making clay dishes for her playhouse. She also learned much from Sara Fina Tafoya. Like Tafoya and her daughter Margaret, Martinez felt a deep connection to her Pueblo heritage. She participated in tribal rituals and religious ceremonies, and chose to live on the land of her ancestors. Her husband Julian (1885-1943), also an artist, painted abstract geometric symbols on her clay pots. Taking inspiration from ancient Pueblo pottery, he drew clouds, mountains, birds, and kiva steps. Martinez gave pottery-making demonstrations to women in her village and nearby communities, educating them through observation, the same method in which she had learned. This gave her students a much-needed source of income. In 1932, the Santa Fe Indian School offered her a teaching position, but she declined. “I come, and I work, and they watch,” said Martinez. “Nobody teaches.”  

The founding father of Mata Ortiz pottery has much in common with Martinez, but what sets him apart is that he was completely self-taught. Juan Quezada Celado was born in 1940 in Santa Bárbara de Tutuaca, but moved with his family to the impoverished town of Mata Ortiz in Chihuahua, Mexico when he was just an infant. Like Martinez, Quezada started learning his craft at a young age. He began sculpting and painting when he was only seven years old, drawing on everything from paper, to wood, to the walls of his family home. He used natural resources like ground-up plants, rocks, egg yolks, and grasshoppers for paint. Even in his youth, he knew the location of every mineral deposit surrounding his village. This knowledge would be a key factor in the success of Mata Ortiz as a thriving art center during his adulthood.

As a teenager, Quezada found pottery sherds near the ancient ruins of Paquime nestled in the mountains surrounding his village. The people who made them were from the Casas Grande culture, which thrived during the twelfth to fifteenth centuries. Their reddish-colored pottery is usually decorated in black, brown, red, and blue colors. Quezada had no instructions to follow, so he studied the fragments for several years while experimenting with his own individual techniques. In 1971 he made his first successful piece. Wanting to share his success with his family and neighbors, he set out to teach the process to everyone around him. “I remembered a proverb my mother used to say: ‘You don’t give a fish to the needy, you teach them how to fish,’” he says. So, he gave everyone a bit of clay and told them that they would learn to make pottery.

Selling the black ware was not easy at first. Similar to what Margaret Tafoya and her husband had done, Quezada and some other villagers of Mata Ortiz traveled to the border and traded their pots for clothing and other goods. Eventually their perseverance paid off. Quezada founded an art dynasty where three generations make pottery in the style that he discovered in Paquime. His brother Nicholas is one of the top potters in Mata Ortiz. His sister Lydia makes pottery with her husband, Rito Talavera, and her two children, Moroni and Pabla Talavera Quezada. His nephew Jaime Quezada makes finely detailed black-on-black pots, such as the one that was displayed in the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art library last year. Today, approximately three hundred families, consisting of over five hundred artists, in the village of Mata Ortiz earn their income from making and selling pottery. 

Like Quezada, Martinez tried to reproduce ancient potsherds found near her home. In 1908, she and her husband were part of an archaeological dig on the Pajarita Plateau in New Mexico. At the site, the leader of their group, anthropologist Edgar Lee Hewitt, discovered pieces of ancient Pueblo pottery that were jet black with highly detailed markings. Maria and Julian spent years trying to imitate their designs. One challenge they had to overcome was that there was no clay in the local hills that matched the color of the pieces. Her solution was to use a traditional fire reduction method she had learned from the Tafoya family, whereby the flames surrounding the pots were smothered, letting the clay absorb the trapped smoke. This produced the shades she needed, ranging from black to gunmetal. 

The Mata Ortiz potters also use local clay and incorporate their own unique firing method. They dig up red, white, and grey clay in the hills surrounding their village and fire their pots outdoors. Quezada uses his own special “Single Coil Technique,” where he presses a clay doughnut onto a tortilla, pinching it and using a blade to smooth it out. He uses manganese deposits and iron oxide found in nature to produce the deep blacks and reds, and a toothbrush made of human hair to paint his meticulous designs. To give the pots their shiny appearance, he polishes them with bone fragments. For Quezada, quality has always taken precedence over quantity, a principle he instills in his students. 

Quezada and Martinez would never have achieved their level of success if not for the help of certain key individuals who believed in them. Without their encouragement and influence, the thriving art communities of San Ildefonso Pueblo and Mata Ortiz might never have been. For Martinez, it was Edgar Lee Hewitt (1865 - 1946). Hewitt played a pivotal role in revitalizing the interest in Pueblo pottery as an art form. He founded the New Mexico Museum of Art, the Museum of New Mexico, and the School of American Archaeology. He was instrumental in establishing San Ildefonso Pueblo as a Native American art center. In an indirect way, he paved the way for Martinez and other Pueblo potters who followed in her path. His memorandum to the U.S. Congress on ancient American Indian ruins in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah influenced the passing of the Antiquities Act of 1906. This bill led to the building of national monuments to protect archaeological sites in the Southwest states from pottery thieves. Hewitt provided studio space for up-and-coming Pueblo artists. He hosted the world’s first Pueblo watercolor painting exhibition in Santa Fe and helped establish the Southwest Indian Fair, the precursor to the Santa Fe Indian Market, which today is one of the world’s largest Native American art shows, attracting more than 115,000 visitors from around the globe. But most importantly, in Martinez’s early years as an artist, when she lacked the confidence to continue, Hewitt brought collectors to her home who were interested in purchasing her artwork. This gave her the reassurance she needed to continue experimenting and refining her craft until she had mastered it.

Like Martinez, Quezada had someone who helped him when he was first getting started in his profession. In 1976, five years after he made his first successful pottery piece, anthropologist and art collector Spencer Heath MacCallum (b. 1931) discovered three of his pots in a New Mexico junk shop. Impressed by their complex designs and flawless symmetry, he searched for Quezada in Chihuahua, Mexico, literally driving from town to town, and knocking on door after door. He eventually found him in Mata Ortiz. Quezada could not believe anyone would take an interest in his artwork, but MacCallum encouraged him to continue making pottery and gave him a stipend that allowed him the time he needed to perfect his craft. Over the next eight years, MacCallum helped Quezada establish himself as a successful artist, exhibiting his artwork in prominent galleries throughout the Southwestern United States. Since then his pottery has been displayed across North and South America, including the Franz Mayer Museum in Mexico City in 1999, the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe in 2001, and the American Ceramic Museum of Art in 2007. His clay pots can fetch between $3,500 to $10,000 and are highly sought by collectors around the world.

Martinez’s artwork has been featured in museums, galleries, and fairs across the United States, and resides in many private collections. Her work was displayed at the Smithsonian Institute’s Renwick Gallery in 1978 in a retrospective exhibition called Maria Martinez: Five Generations of Potters. It included large urns made by her and her husband, and many ceramic pots of varying shapes and sizes made by her children all the way down to her great-great-grandchildren. Throughout the years, her work as been shown at the Museum of Modern Art, the Taos Museum in New Mexico, the Art Institute in Chicago, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Martinez passed away in 1980 at the age of ninety-three, but her legacy lives on through her descendants and the other artists of the San Ildefonso Pueblo community, which is now a thriving tourist destination and a source for some of the finest quality black-on-black pottery in the world.

Quezada lives with his wife Guille, and their pet javelina Javier, at Rancho Barro Blanco. Their home, which overlooks his old village just a few miles away, is named after his pottery. Today, every family in Mata Ortiz makes their pots in the way that Quezada showed them. No two artists’ works are alike, yet they all remain faithful to their founder’s teaching. They use the same clay their ancestors, the Paquime Indians, used hundreds of years ago. The prosperous art center looks quite different from the poverty-stricken village Quezada grew up in. Now the old neighborhoods have paved streets and nearly every home has a kitchen and indoor plumbing. They also have a high school, a library, and even internet access. The locals still sing ballads about the man who saved their village from financial collapse. Or as Quezada’s mother might have put it, the man who taught them how to fish. 

Image: Jaime Quezada, Mata Ortiz Pottery, clay, ceramic, n.d. This artwork was donated to the Marjorie Barrick Museum Collection in honor of Randy Plumley. Jaime is Juan Quezada Celado's nephew.

Information in this article was sourced from the 2005 PBS feature, The Ballad of Juan Quezada, and the National Endowment for the Arts biography of Margaret Tafoya

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