Personal Narratives Influenced by the Past

Maria and Julian Martinez, San Ildefonso Pueblo
About 1925

Students will discuss the historical and cultural influences found in Plate by Maria and Julian Martinez. Then they will reflect on historical and/or familial influences in their own lives and create a personal narrative describing those influences.

Intended Age Group
Secondary (grades 6-12)
Standards Area
Language Arts
Lesson Length
One to two 50 minute lessons

Students will be able to:

  • identify influences that have the capacity to make change;
  • introduce a topic and organize complex ideas, concepts, and information to make connections and distinctions;
  • provide evidence to support a central idea; and
  • create a well written, original narrative.


  1. Show students the image of Plate by Maria and Julian Martinez from San Ildefonso Pueblo. Ask them to identify what they see and talk about whether it reminds them of anything they have seen before. Show students details from the “Details” section of the About the Art section. Point out that the black is not paint or glaze, but is a result of how the clay was fired. Ask students how they think the design was created. After giving them some time to come up with ideas, explain that Maria burnished the nearly dry clay with a stone before it was fired until it was shiny. Her husband, Julian, then used a mixture of water and clay, called slip, to paint the design. After it was fired, the designed area came out matte and the rest stayed shiny.
  2. Direct students’ attention to the design. Maria and Julian decorated their pottery with traditional Tewa [TAY-wah] designs. The serpent figure is called an avanyu (ah-VON-you). Julian and Maria’s daughter-in-law says that Julian was the first potter at the San Ildefonso Pueblo to use the avanyu design, which she believes he got from old paintings he found on shards of broken pottery from a long time ago. Share more information about the designs of Plate from the About the Art section.
  3. Share with students more about how Maria and Julian discovered how to make black pottery from the About the Art section. Explain that they were asked by an archeologist who had found ancient pottery shards that were black to try to figure out how their ancestors had made clay like this. At first Maria was skeptical that the black pottery was part of her heritage because it was so different from what everyone else was doing. Maria would hide the black pottery pieces under her bed to keep them from being seen! Soon enough, though, almost everybody wanted to learn how Maria and Julian made pottery black, and Maria taught them.
  4. Discuss with students how the Martinez’s cultural heritage is evident in their art. In a way, they took something from the past and reinvented it. Ask students the following questions: Can you think of a time when you were influenced or taught something from an older relative or family friend? What was it? What significance did it have in your life? Have you tweaked what you learned? What was the change that you made? Or, can you think of another way in which someone has reinvented something from the past and fit it into modern life? Take a minute to brainstorm and then turn to your neighbor to discuss what you are thinking (this is called, “Think, Pair, Share”).
  5. Once students have clarified their thoughts, ask them to write a personal narrative describing how they are influenced by things in their past or their cultural heritage. Tell them to be sure to structure their narrative so that there is a main idea, supporting details, and a concluding statement. They should use effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences to communicate their point.
  6. Give students time to share their writing with a small group or the whole class when finished. If necessary, allow students to finish working on their narratives and share them in a second lesson.


  • Paper and writing implements or access to a word processor
  • Copies of the About the Art section on Plate (included with the lesson plan) or student access to this part of Creativity Resource online
  • Color copies of Plate, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards
  • Social Studies
    • History
  • Become familiar with United States historical eras, groups, individuals and themes
  • Visual Arts
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Research and Reasoning
    • Writing and Composition
21st Century Skills
  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction


About 1925

Diameter: 9.75 in.

Gift of Frederic H. Douglas, 1954.457

Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.

About the Artist

Maria Martinez is probably the most famous American Indian artist of the twentieth century. She was born in the late 1870s and produced pottery for over eighty-five years until her death in 1980. She learned the art of pottery-making from her aunt, Nicolasa Peña. Maria and her husband Julian created the first black-on-black pottery, of which this plate is an example, in the early 1900s. In Pueblo tradition women shaped and polished the pots, while men were responsible for painting the surface with designs. Maria and Julian worked within this convention.

Maria and Julian lived in San Ildefonso [ILL-day-FON-so] Pueblo, near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Their innovative methods and designs shaped a new tradition for San Ildefonso pottery and influenced many artists both within and outside the American Indian community. The black-on-black pottery was so popular with collectors that Maria began teaching the firing technique to others, and by the mid 1920s nearly all San Ildefonso potters were making black ware. Maria also shared her skills with her children and grandchildren, and many of her descendents carry on her legacy today through their own pottery.

What Inspired It

Maria and Julian began producing black pottery after an archaeologist asked them to recreate whole pots based on pieces of pottery that were found in the ruins of ancestral Pueblo homes. The couple experimented with various methods of firing the pottery and eventually achieved the black color by blocking oxygen from the pottery as it was fired. After discovering this technique, Maria and Julian continued to improve upon their pottery. Maria became extremely skilled at creating beautiful forms and achieving a smooth, glossy surface. Julian painted designs on the pottery after it was polished. He used a fine clay slip (a mixture of clay and water), which resulted in matte areas that provided a contrast to the highly polished background. In the beginning Maria was quite skeptical that black pottery was a part of her heritage. Until she finally acquiesced, she hid pottery she and Julian were making underneath the bed.

Drawing upon their heritage, Maria and Julian decorated their pottery with traditional Tewa [TAY-wah] designs. The design on this plate is an avanyu [ah-VON-you], a horned water serpent. The jagged line that comes out of the serpent’s mouth represents lightning, and the curves of its body symbolize flowing water. According to Santana, Maria and Julian’s daughter-in-law, Julian was the first painter at San Ildefonso Pueblo to use the avanyu decoration. “I think he got it from paintings on old pottery from the ruins,” she says. “Julian was a real artist, a real painter. He used to fill little notebooks with ideas for designs—he carried it wherever he went.”



Maria and Julian produced their first black-on-black decorated piece in 1919. This technique brought the couple worldwide acclaim, though they had been producing pottery for years prior to this time. The pottery is buried in ash during the firing process to keep out oxygen, causing the clay to turn black rather than red. Maria was once quoted as saying, “Black goes with everything.”

Shiny Surface

In order to achieve the glossy surface you see here, the pottery is first burnished with a stone to a high polish. This occurs before the piece dries completely, prior to firing. There is no glaze used in this process. Maria is admired for the mirror-like surface she could achieve using a stone to burnish the clay.

Matte Black

Designs are painted onto the polished surface of the piece with a fine clay slip, creating matte areas that contrast the shiny surface. Julian used the same clay that was used to make the plate to paint the matte design.


Maria made all of her pottery by hand, without the aid of a potter’s wheel. To smooth and shape pottery she used a scraper made out of a gourd. The smooth forms and shiny surfaces that she could achieve by hand are a testament to her incredible skill as a potter.

Serpent Design

Julian painted the avanyu design on many of the couple’s pieces.

Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.

The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.