Jar with Feather Motif (1943-1953) is a strikingly beautiful object made in the mid-twentieth century. Its maker, Maria Martinez (1887-1980), became world-renowned for her black-on-black pottery and is regarded as one of the most important Native American ceramic artists of the twentieth century. Maria’s distinctive pottery was developed with her husband, Julian (Pocano) Martinez (1879–1943), based on ancient ceramics made by her indigenous ancestors. They were of Tewa heritage of the San Ildefonso Pueblo in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico, present-day USA. Many of Maria’s family members were involved in pottery and she learned to make pots by watching her maternal aunt, Nicolasa Peña, and grandmother, Martina Montoya. By the age of thirteen, she was already celebrated for her skill. Traditional Pueblo ceramics, like many world pottery traditions, were a family and community endeavour undertaken mostly by women. Most often, each step in the process (pottery building, polishing, painting, and firing) was carried out by a different family member. It was a collective activity rather than one of individual artistic expression.
Maria worked with her sisters before she married, and then subsequently with her husband, Julian. Maria built and shaped the pots and Julian painted the designs. He was the first acknowledged male artist of their Pueblo to do so. Together, they revived techniques and motifs found on ancient pottery excavated in the region. They collaborated with Dr Edgar Hewett, archaeologist and director of the Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In 1908, Hewett had excavated some seventeenth-century black pottery shards and encouraged Maria and Julian to experiment with various firing and painting techniques inspired by ancient artefacts. Whilst helping Maria alongside subsistence farming, Julian became caretaker at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe. Maria and Julian studied the pottery in the display cases, observing form, motif, and technique. By 1921, they had mastered the process of making pottery with a highly glossed finish and matte-black designs. They found that smothering a cool fire with dried cow manure trapped the smoke, and that by using a special type of paint on top of a burnished surface, in combination with trapping the smoke and the low temperature of the fire, resulted in turning a red clay pot black.