The Pueblos of San Ildefonso and Santa Clara: A Ceramic Legacy

Bureau of Indian Affairs Museum Program

From the Pueblo communities of San Ildefonso and Santa Clara, a unique type of pottery emerged.

Black and sometimes red pottery that has been polished to a high sheen, is a trademark style for these skilled ceramic artists.

For hundreds of years, potters in northern New Mexico have made a wide variety of ceramic vessels.

In the early 1900s, archeologists led by Dr. Edgar Hewett were excavating on the Pajarito Plateau (now Bandelier National Monument). They found black-on-black prehistoric ceramic sherds unlike any previously seen.

Julian Martinez, husband of skilled San Ildefonso potter Maria Martinez, was working for Dr. Hewett at the time. Dr. Hewett asked if Maria could make pottery similar to the newly discovered sherds.

After much trial and error, Maria successfully created black pottery that looked just like the excavated sherds.

Since Maria’s first experimentations more than 100 years ago, the polished black pottery from San Ildefonso and Santa Clara has become some of the most recognized Native American pottery in the world.

Many steps are required to create the polished solid black pottery.

The clay must be dug from the ground and prepared before it can be made into pots.

The artist must add “temper”—fine sand, ground rock, or ground potsherds—to the clay. This is important so the clay will be strong enough to shape and not crack as it dries.

The pots are formed using the “coil and scrape” method. The artist will wrap and stack long coils of clay, and then smooth them on the inside and outside to form the pot.

While the clay is still damp, the artist may carve or paint decorative designs onto its surface.

Several techniques set the pottery of San Ildefonso and Santa Clara apart from pottery made in other pueblos.

The trademark polished black surface is created by rubbing the still-damp clay with a smooth polishing stone.

Sometimes, liquid clay (“slip”) is painted on the surface to create an unpolished matte design. You can see that technique used here to create the feather design.

Polishing the surface of the damp clay and slip smooths it to a bright black. It is a difficult step: too much pressure will scratch the surface while too little pressure will not create the sheen. The polishing must be finished before the clay and slip dry to avoid scratching the surface.

Once the pot is polished, carved, and decorated, it is left to dry slowly so that it does not crack.

You can see the marks left from polishing on this pot.

The firing technique used by San Ildefonso and Santa Clara potters is called a reduction firing. It is done above ground with the pots placed on a metal grate or in metal containers to protect the pots. Wood and dried manure are then placed on top.

The pile of fuel is lit and allowed to collapse onto the pottery. This smothers the pots, reducing the available oxygen. The last step is to add powdered manure to the fire. This suffocates the fire even more, which creates the solid black pottery while retaining the high polish and slip design.

Using a similar firing technique, some artists make highly polished red pottery. Instead of smothering the fire to keep out oxygen, the fire is controlled so that oxygen is available, and the pots turn red. This is called an oxidizing firing. The same clay sources and polishing techniques are used for the red and black pots. The method of firing is the only difference.

This pot, made by Anita Suazo (b. 1937) from the Santa Clara Pueblo, has red and yellow mineral slip painted below the rim. Her designs are inspired by traditional pueblo and prehistoric images. She has won awards at the Santa Fe Indian Market and at the Eight Northern Pueblos Indian Arts and Crafts Show. Anita’s cousin is Margaret Tafoya, another well-known Santa Clara potter.

Artists of the Pueblo of San Ildefonso
Maria (1887–1980) and husband Julian Martinez (1879–1943), both from the Pueblo of San Ildefonso, experimented with creating polished black pottery more than 100 years ago. Maria built and polished the pots while Julian painted the slip designs. Maria taught her method to family members and to numerous artists in Tesuque, Nambe, and other nearby pueblos. Maria even taught her techniques to artists in Mexico. Generations of artists have been influenced by Maria, including her son, Popovi Da, and grandson, Tony Da.

Maria exhibited extensively, including in numerous World’s Fairs, presenting her pottery to a wide audience.

Today, the pottery of Maria Martinez is in museums and private collections worldwide.

Rose Cata Gonzales (1900–1989) was born in the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo (previously known as the Pueblo of San Juan). Her parents died in a flu epidemic and Rose was raised by a relative. She married Robert Gonzales in 1920 and moved to his community in San Ildefonso. Robert’s mother, Ramona Sanchez Gonzales, taught Rose how to make pottery.

Rose created some of the first carved designs on black polished pottery in 1930, getting the idea from a carved potsherd that her husband had found. This pot shows a uniquely carved stepped rim.

Rose received awards from the Santa Fe Indian Market and the Gallup Intertribal Ceremonial. Her son Tse-Pé, his wife Dora, and their daughter, Irene, are all well-known ceramic artists.

At the age of three, Blue Corn (1920–1999), also known as Crucita Gonzalez Calabaza, learned pottery-making from her grandmother. Blue Corn experimented with a variety of clays and colors. Her husband Santiago, and son Joseph, worked with her, helping to carve and paint her pottery creations.

Blue Corn won more than 60 awards, and in 1981, was honored with New Mexico’s greatest recognition for artistic achievement: the 8th Annual New Mexico Governor's Award.

Helen Gutiérrez (1930–1993), is known for her classic designs. This jar shows a bear paw detailed in polished black and flat black slip.

Helen received honors at the Santa Fe Indian Market. Her pottery may also be found in the collections of the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos, New Mexico.

Her sister Angelita Atencio Sanchez, and her daughters Carol Gutiérrez and Kathy Naranjo Gutiérrez, are all well-known ceramic artists.

Artists of the Pueblo of Santa Clara
In the Pueblo of Santa Clara, just north of San Ildefonso, artists developed their skills for making polished black pottery, maintaining traditional forms while forging ahead with experimentation and innovation.

Santa Clara artists are credited with creating the carved design technique as seen here.

This jar by Margaret Tafoya (1904–2001) is carved with Avanyu, a Tewa spirit associated with water and lightning. Avanyu is depicted in rock art throughout the southwestern United States and may be related to the Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent of Mesoamerica.

Margaret Tafoya, also known by the Tewa name Corn Blossom, learned to make pottery from her mother. A contemporary of Maria Martinez, Margaret Tafoya is credited with teaching polishing techniques to Ms. Martinez.

She is recognized for making finely polished pots with graceful carved designs. Avanyu, carved on this jar, and bear paws, are a common motif.

Margaret received many honors, including the 1978 and 1979 awards for “Best of Show” at the Santa Fe Indian Market, and the 1984 National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Margaret Tafoya is recognized as a Master Traditional Artist and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Women's Caucus for Art in 1992.

Margie Naranjo (1917–2006) comes from the large Naranjo family of Santa Clara potters. Her mother, Santanita Suazo, taught Margie how to make pottery. Her sisters Shirley Duran, Mae Suazo Tapia, and Candelaria Suazo, are also well-known potters.

Margie is recognized for detailed miniature polished back pots with finely detailed designs, like the feather design shown here.

Geraldine “Geri” Naranjo (b. 1952) is known for her miniature carved pots.

This small jar depicts Avanyu.

Geri won three Best of Division awards for her miniatures at the Santa Fe Indian Market.

Other Pueblo Pottery
Pottery made by artists from pueblos located close to San Ildefonso and Santa Clara has similarities, but also shows distinct styles.

Lorencita Pino (1899–1986) lived at at the Pueblo of Tesuque, located thirty miles south of Santa Clara.

This double-spout wedding vase is a popular pueblo vessel form. The spouts symbolize the individual bride and groom and the handle above represents their union in marriage. The design detail is painted in black slip on the polished surface.

This pot with a carved design is made by Aurelia Garcia Garduño from the Pueblo of Nambe. It is similar to pottery from Santa Clara, located about 15 miles northwest of Nambe.

The Pueblo of Pojoaque, ten miles south of Santa Clara Pueblo, was home to artist Cordelia (Cordi) Gomez (1929–2017).

She learned to make pottery from Santa Clara artist Rose Naranjo. Cordi is known for decorating her pottery by making fingernail marks in wet clay. This technique is used here for the eye detail.

The art of Cordi Gomez is also in the collection of the National Museum of the American Indian.

The pottery of Pojoaque shows influence from Santa Clara and San Ildefonso artists, as seen in this polished red pot by Feliciana Viarrial.

For more than 100 years, the artists of San Ildefonso and Santa Clara Pueblos have created works of clay that inspire students, potters, and collectors from all over the world.

The tradition of passing pottery skills from parent to child, and among other family members, maintains this legacy as a vital part of life in these pueblo communities, as generations of potters learn from the past and explore creative expression for the future.

Bureau of Indian Affairs Museum Program
Credits: Story


The Pueblos of San Ildefonso and Santa Clara: A Ceramic Legacy was developed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs Museum Program, December 2017.

Tracy Murphy, Museum Curator.

Annie Pardo, Museum Program Manager.



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