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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THE STORYTELLER: From petroglyphs to pinewood

Roch Hart- Fine Furniture- Matthews Gallery

 Roch Hart with his pie safe “The Storytellers”

“Furniture is art,” says Roch Hart. It’s a credo the Albuquerque fine furniture maker repeats every time he brings a new creation to the gallery. In Hart’s case, it’s true: each hand-carved piece of sugar pine is as unique as a painting on our wall. This is nothing you’d find at IKEA.

Check out our blog post chronicling Roch’s journey from Spanish Colonial furniture enthusiast to bona fide sculptor, and then delight in the details of his latest creation. This pie safe, dubbed “The Storytellers“, holds quite a few tales…

SPIRAL

Roch Hart- Fine Furniture Detail- Matthews Gallery

Hart often draws inspiration from New Mexico petroglyphs.

“A spiral can mean a lot of different things depending on its context, but here it represents eternity or travel,” Hart says. In particular, this symbol refers to a journey from the depths of the earth.

FACES

Roch Hart- Fine Furniture Detail- Matthews Gallery

These symbols on the sides of the pie safe tend to appear together in glyphs. The one on the left with its mouth shut tight is the “listener”, and the one on the right is the “storyteller”. It’s the yin-yang of cultures that depend on the voice to pass down vital knowledge.

The designs surrounding the faces also have an important meaning. Just like the Zia on the New Mexico state flag, they represent the sacred, pervasive number four: four compass directions, four seasons, four stages of a person’s life.

PATTERNS

Roch Hart- Fine Furniture Detail- Matthews Gallery

“This is mimicking the Navajo rugs,” explains Hart. “I thought it would be a great border for the faces.”

Hart uses white ash to make his patterns bolder, rubbing it into the cracks by hand atop a layer of shellac. The finishing touch is a light coat of wax.

JOINTS

Roch Hart- Fine Furniture Detail- Matthews Gallery

Near the beginning of his journey to furniture mastery, Hart visited the Nicolai Fechin House in Taos. Fechin was a Russian painter and carpenter who moved to New Mexico in 1923 and purchased a small adobe home that he would greatly expand over the years. The home is now a museum, and when Hart visited to study the furniture he had a chance encounter with Fechin’s daughter Eya. She taught him about the different joints that her father used, including the sliding dovetail joint pictured here.

“That changed my life,” Hart says.  “I looked at [Fechin’s work] and said, ‘I can do anything. Nobody told him what to do.'”

WINDOW

Roch Hart- Fine Furniture Detail- Matthews Gallery

The grid Hart uses as a window for the pie safe doesn’t have an age-old legend behind it. It’s one of Hart’s signature designs that appears in many different manifestations in his work. Myriad influences come together in Hart’s exquisite furniture, but each piece is imbued with his unique sensibility.

See more of Roch’s creations on his artist page, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for daily gallery updates. Also, check out our upcoming exhibition FOUR CENTURIES: European Art from 1600 to 1950, opening June 13!