San Ildefonso Pueblo, north of Santa Fe off Highway 502, stands in quiet simplicity beside the Rio Grande at the foot of stately Black Mesa as it has since 1300 A.D. The natives of this pueblo migrated from the Mesa Verde area to the rugged and beautiful canyon of Bandelier on the mesa above Los Alamos where they lived in multi-story dwellings carved out of the soft volcanic tuff. During a prolonged drought they climbed down to live beside the Rio Grande. They are one of the Eight Northern Pueblos; their language is Tewa.
Cultural tradition means a lot to San Ildefonso, which has approximately 750 enrolled members of the tribe. This pueblo is famous for producing elegant Black-on-Black pottery which Maria and Julian Martinez developed in the early 20th Century.
Investigating an excavation, Dr. Edgar Hewett, an archeological professor, director of the Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe, found some intriguing 17th Century black pottery shards. To help revive this technique, he turned to potter Maria Martinez, who experimented until she rediscovered the process and developed the Black-On-Black technique. She painted her coiled pots with a special red clay slip, immersed them in a cool fire and smothered them in dried cow manure. This reduction technique turned her red pot pitch black.
Maria produced her fine pottery in partnership with her husband Julian who painted them until his death in 1943. He was a janitor at the Museum of New Mexico where he and his wife studied Indian pottery styles, forms and techniques.
After her husband’s death, Maria worked with her two sons, Popovi Da and Adam and her daughter-in-law Santana. Greatly admired for her artistic skills, Maria Martinez was invited to the White House four times and received honorary doctorates from the University of Colorado and New Mexico State University. She is considered one of the most influential Native Americans of the 20th Century.
Maria was generous with her skills, willing to teach anyone who was interested. Her artistic techniques were passed down, generation by generation, first to her niece, Carmelita Dunlop. Maria raised Carmelita from a young age and Carmelita called Maria “grandmother.” Dunlop passed her skills to her daughter, Martha Appleleaf, and Appleleaf to her son Erik Fender, aka Sun Bird. Appleleaf said,“I grew up with pottery all around me. We would sit in a circle and make pots. We women would polish each other’s pots with stones. It didn’t matter whose pot it was.”
Most of the women made pots and also painted them, but during a long drought at San Ildefonso Pueblo, the men had nothing to do, Appleleaf explained, so they painted the pots for the women. Fender makes his own pots and also paints them. His signature style is Black-on-Black; the lighter part of the design displays a bluish tinge. Some of the abstract designs used on the pots are based on figures they find in petroglyphs or forms such as feathers that they observe in nature. He sometimes marks the bottom of a pot with a tiny double cross. “It’s a dragonfly,” Fender said. “My daughter is named Dragonfly.”
How do they create a perfectly symmetrical design that dances all the way around a pot? Fender said with a smile, “It takes a lot of practice. I looked at some of my earlier work, and… ugh! A line was off here, off there.”
Fender is also an accomplished easel painter in both oil and acrylic. Back in the 1930s Dorothy Dunn, a teacher at the Santa Fe Indian School, established a painting program for Native American students to help them create an authentic ethnic identity by painting subjects from their own cultural traditions. The “flat style,” simple and often symmetrical, was called “Bambi art.”
The San Ildefonso Self-Taught Group of Native American artists was encouraged by Dr. Hewett who connected them with white patrons. Julian Martinez, one of Dunn’s early students, went on to Los Angeles where he became an illustrator for the Walt Disney Studios.
For generations, certain art dealers have encouraged and supported the work of Native Americans including Gabe Abrums, owner of Chimayo Trading del Norte on Saint Francis Plaza in Ranchos de Taos. The polished wooden floor creaks as you walk into the old adobe building with the low ceiling, like walking into a small, well-preserved museum. It’s exciting to find yourself surrounded by beautiful Navajo weavings; lapis lazuli, opal and gold bracelets made by Abrums; colorful prints and paintings and exquisite pottery, both old and modern.
Abrums is the fourth-generation trader to specialize in the best con-temporary Native American art which he displays side-by-side with classic antique pottery from pueblos such as Taos, Zuni and San Ildefonso. One of the glass cases holds shining black pottery made by Dunlop. The glass countertop displays the interspersed pottery of Appleleaf and Fender.
Like their predecessors, both Fender and Appleleaf are always looking for innovative designs and techniques. Appleleaf said that when she was a girl she complained about her name. “Why did they name me Appleleaf?” She wanted a pretty name like her sister, Cynthia Starflower. But the name Appleleaf stuck and turned out to be prophetic. Her signature style is red pottery with a pale green design the color of an apple leaf, called Green-on-Red.
Will these pottery skills be passed on to the next generation? Both Fender and his mother looked doubtful. “People come and say ‘Teach me how to make pottery,’” Fender said. “I tell them I can’t teach them because making pottery has to come from the heart. But I can show them how. I tell them, ‘The first day we will go out and collect the clay.’”
“We don’t just take it,” Appleleaf interjected. “First we say a prayer to thank Mother Earth for letting us have her.”
“Then we collect the volcanic ash to temper the clay so it won’t shrink and crack,” Fender continued. “Before we can use the clay and the ash, we have to sift and clean them.”
“The clay requires so much work,” Abrums explained. “Usually they let it sit and ferment for about a year before they use it.”
The next step is to go out and collect the firewood that will be used to fire the ovens. “Some people get halfway into it and quit because it’s too much work,” Fender said. “They just want us to give them the clay so they can make it fast and make a lot of money. But that’s not how it works.”
Appleleaf said the next step is to pulverize the clay, which they do by tromping on it barefoot. All the children join in. It’s a family thing.
Fender added, “We’re not making pottery to get rich. We just want to be able to support our families and take care of our homes. But today the younger people all have those cell phones and they can’t put them down.”
A handful of Native Americans at San Ildefonso Pueblo still make pottery. But will these skills be taken up by the next generation? “Everyone used to make pots,” Appleleaf said. “We had to. But now you can get a job and buy one.”
Fender said he has been working to improve his skills for 27 years. He has won many awards including the Best of Division for ten years in a row at the Santa Fe Indian Market. He is currently working with a committee choosing pueblo pots from the Smithsonian collection to bring home to museums in New Mexico.
Appleleaf said in a quiet tone, “We have pottery in many museums all over the country.” In 2012 Appleleaf won the Best Traditional Pueblo Pottery Award. She also won the Tony Da Lifetime Achievement Award two years in a row, a remarkable achievement.
Phaedra Greenwood lives and writes in Taos, New Mexico.
This article appeared on page 15 of the 2016-2017 issue of SkiCountry Magazine.