NEW LANDSCAPES, NEW VISTAS: Early Pueblo Pottery

 Maria Martinez- Revolutionary San Ildefonso Potter- Matthews Gallery Blog- Photo Courtesy Steve ElmoreThe tale of our current exhibition NEW LANDSCAPES, NEW VISTAS: Women Artists of New Mexico begins twenty-three miles northwest of Santa Fe in the San Ildefonso Pueblo, population 458. The village has a long legacy of women potters, whose innovative ceramics techniques and designs inspired traditional and modernist artists who traveled to New Mexico in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. San Ildefonso is known as the epicenter of Pueblo pottery for good reason, as discussed by our guest blogger Steve Elmore. Elmore’s extensive pottery collection appears in the show. 

From 1875-1925, the polychrome or multicolored pottery produced at San Ildefonso reached a distinguished peak in the creative history of Pueblo pottery in the Southwest. Indeed, the residents of this small Pueblo village on the Rio Grande, northwest of Santa Fe, are direct descendants of the prehistoric Pueblo peoples of Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, whose tradition of potting spans a thousand years of human history.

Juana Leno- Acoma Polychrome Olla circa 1965- Matthews Gallery BlogJuana Leno, Acoma Polychrome Olla, c. 1965

San Ildefonso remains a small village. In 1900 there were only 30 households and in 1910 eight women are noted in the census as potters. We are fortunate to the know the names of these early potters. At the turn of the century, the most established potters were the husband and wife team of Martina Vigil (1856-1916) and Florentino Monotoya (1858-1918). Martina’s excellent molding combined with Florentino’s skilled painting produced many exquisite jars, including many fine large storage jars. Most are polychromes. Born in the 1850s, they were certainly potting by the 1870s if not earlier, and their joint efforts became a model for the production of San Ildefonso polychromes: a family effort involving both partners.

Traditionally, San Ildefonso pottery was decorated with black designs over a gray slip on a bulbous rounded form. The use of red clay was confined to the rim and a narrow band around the base of the jar. With arrival of the Santa Fe Railway in the region, potters at San Ildefonso began introducing red clay into the painted design on the main body of the jars. What prompted this introduction of red is unknown, but most scholars suggest that the arrival of thousands of travelers from the Eastern United States on the new railroad sparked the change. The tourists were eager to purchase pottery, and the polychrome wares of Acoma Pueblo quickly led the market. Acoma pottery, with precise four-color drawings on thin symmetrical jars, set the standards for the tourist trade.

Acoma Polychrome Olla- Matthews Gallery BlogAcoma Polychrome Olla

Certainly the innovators of their time, Montoya and Vigil might have been the first at San Ildefonso to use red with the black design. Perhaps a trader suggested it directly or merely showed them the brightly colored Acoma pieces which were their competition. By the early 1880s, hundreds of polychrome jars were being produced annually by the skilled potters of San Ildefonso for the tourist and museum trade. In response to this demand, and for almost fifty years thereafter, the potters of San Ildefonso created well molded pots traditionally decorated in black and red, whose size and beauty have not been surpassed.

Most traditional San Ildefonso water jars were painted with a mix of black geometric and floral patterns. With the addition of red paint, the drawings themselves begin to develop into elaborate flowing motifs covering the entire jar. The addition of red heightens the intensity of the black design and seems to urge the painter on to larger, more complex drawing. Previously simple designs are repeated in a larger and more intricate manner.

Nampeyo- Black on Red Hopi Seed Jar, c. 1900- Matthews Gallery BlogNampeyo- Black on Red Hopi Seed Jar, c. 1900

Beginning in the 1880s, an amazing array of both realistic and abstract bird motifs are also introduced along with other pictorial elements. I suspect Nampeyo‘s Sikyatki Revival in Hopi pottery influenced this emphasis upon bird designs. Her seed jar form was clearly copied repeatedly by at least one San Ildefonso potter along with her curvilinear drawings. The shape of the San Ildefonso vessels also evolves, from bulbous jars with small necks to elegant tapered vases with small bases and flared out rims: the classic “Tunyo” form. For fifty years of San Ildefonso pottery making, we can study the steady growth and development of an art form as it crests into a peak!

As Pueblo pottery enjoyed increasing popularity with the American public, many distinguished potters took the polychromes to new heights of creativity and expression. Among these were Maria (1887-1980) and Julian Martinez (1879-1940), Maria’s sister Anna and her husband Crescencio, and Tonita and Juan Roybal. Montoya and Vigil were perfect role models for the younger Martinezes who built upon their success.

Maria and Julian Martinez- San Ildefonso Blackware Plate circa 1925- Matthews Gallery BlogMaria and Julian Martinez, San Ildefonso Blackware Plate, c. 1925

This florescence of polychrome production was brought to an abrupt halt by the Martinezes’ invention of painted blackware around 1920. As Ruth Bunzel, author of The Pueblo Potter, observes, the attraction of the blackware is the minimized painted matte designs which emphasize a dominant polished slip. This subtle, monochromatic aesthetic is the exact opposite of the polychromes where intricate black and red designs were sharply contrasted against the midtone grey sip. In time the blackware style won the marketing war and by 1925 Bunzel could no longer find a single piece of polychrome ware in the village.

It is perhaps ironic that the Martinezes, known best for their blackware, themselves began as polychrome potters and were among the greatest of them. Although most of their output became blackware, Maria and Julian continued to produce occasional polychrome masterpieces up until Julian’s death in 1943. One cannot help but wonder if the bold artistic tradition of the polychrome pottery didn’t occupy a special place in their hearts. Martinez family members and other San Ildefonso potters have continued to produce the polychromes in limited numbers, particularly Popovi Da, his son Tony Da, and today, of course, Cavan Gonzales and Russell Sanchez.

Stay tuned for next week’s blog, where we’ll explore the links between early Pueblo pottery designs and modernist aesthetic innovations. See all of the artwork from NEW LANDSCAPES, NEW VISTAS on our homepage, and connect with us on Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest for daily gallery news. 

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STATE OF THE ART: A Survey of New Mexico Artists

The very first artists who came to work in New Mexico found themselves on a harsh frontier. Harold Elderkin and his wife moved to Santa Fe in 1886 to run a gallery and teach painting lessons, but left for El Paso two years later. An artist named George Stanley tried the same thing in 1897 and failed even faster.

The 1920s saw an influx of artists who had already established their careers on the East Coast. The Southwestern landscapes they sent home would build this region’s reputation for stunning natural beauty and great art. Nowadays, Santa Fe is one of the nation’s largest art markets and New Mexico is a magnet for artists from across the globe.

Though New Mexico has changed a lot since those first creative pioneers settled here, the independent spirit of the frontier lives on through art. Our April 5-18 exhibition “State of the Art”showcases the work of seven recognized contemporary masters who work in New Mexico. Their art may be as diverse as our desert sunsets, but it’s all influenced by the Land of Enchantment.

Jamie Chase moved to Santa Fe in 1980 from his home state of California. He initially found success here painting traditional landscapes, but started exploring other styles and subject matter as he developed his own visual vocabulary. His current work includes non-objective paintings, abstract landscapes and abstracted figurative paintings. “State of the Art” will feature his elegantly abstracted female figures, who roam among dazzling color fields in search of transcendence.

The landscape-based abstract paintings of Terry Craig are literally rooted in the earth. He uses powdered pigment, marble dust and other materials to explore the tension between careful geometric order and wild gestural strokes. The Albuquerque artist draws inspiration from colors and patterns he sees in nature, but when he puts brush to surface he surrenders to his subconscious.

Annie O’Brien Gonzales was born and raised in Oklahoma and got her BFA in painting and art history at Oregon State University. She pursued fiber arts for many years but recently switched back to painting. You can still see traces of her fiber work in the bold patterns and colors she incorporates into her still life paintings.

Form and line, and observation, are the tools of the passage of my self-discovery,” says 89-year-old Santa Fe artist Robert W. Hinds. The sculptor worked as an illustrator and graphic designer before deciding to explore the third dimension. His bronze sculptures are of animals and people, and often show surreal interactions between them. Hinds’ abstracted style is contemporary, but the stories he tells through his sculptures recall Classical myths.

Frank Morbillo was raised on Long Island, but moved to Montana and then Santa Fe as a young adult. His sculptures speak the same language of entropy and change as New Mexico’s majestic rock formations, with an added element of political dialogue that you’ll find in his inquisitive titles. “I often find myself walking the line between artist and activist,” he says.

You’ll find old letters, candy wrappers, bits of string and other flotsam and jetsam in Kate Rivers‘ mixed media works. The artist, who grew up in Ohio and now lives in Santa Fe, uses these often overlooked objects to investigate memory and metaphor. Her most recent works are enormous collages made of dozens of stitched-together book bindings. Fragments of titles jumble together, encouraging new associations between the stories and characters behind them.

Diane White may be well versed in traditional still life techniques, but a closer look at her serene paintings of ceramic pots and other vessels will lead to fantastical discoveries. The Santa Fe artist, who worked for many years as a potter before studying painting at the Loveland Art Academy, weaves elements of magical realism into her works right under the viewer’s nose. Magical realism is a literary genre made famous by writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez that illustrates extraordinary events in the context of a quotidian setting. Pay attention to every detail in White’s work and you’re sure to discover something supernatural, from a leaf transforming into a butterfly to a bouquet of lilies melding with the night sky above it.

State of the Art” opens Friday, April 5 from 5-7 pm and runs through April 18, 2013. Check out our Facebook and Twitter pages for more information.