From Generation to Generation

Lesson Plan


Students will learn the significance of the pottery created by Maria and Julian Martinez and discover how pottery-making skills were passed down through their family and members of the San Ildefonso Pueblo community. Students will interview a family or community member about a skill that they have taught to others and write or illustrate a letter explaining how to perform this skill.

Intended Age Group

Elementary (grades K-5)

Length of Lesson

Two 45 minute lessons

Standards Area

Language Arts


Students will be able to:

  • conduct a brief formal analysis of Maria and Julian Martinez’s Plate;
  • explain how this particular way of making pottery was passed down through the generations in the Martinez family and also to their San Ildefonso Pueblo community;
  • interview a family or community member about an important skill that they have taught to others; and
  • write or illustrate a letter to a future family or community member explaining how to perform this skill.


Day 1

  1. Warm-up: Show students an optical illusion, such as “The Animal,” found part way down this web page: Explain to students that looking at an image or situation from multiple perspectives often reveals more than we might see at first glance.
  2. Display the image of the Maria and Julian Martinez Plate. Have students conduct a brief formal analysis of the plate itself and the painting on it. Bring in information from the About the Art section.
    1. What do the students see?
    2. What design is on the Plate?
    3. How do they think this Plate was made? What was it made from?
    4. Why might some of the areas be shiny? How might the artists have created the shiny spots?
  3. Explain that this style of pottery is called “black-on-black.” Ask students what they think this means. Explain how Maria and Julian experimented with various methods of firing their pottery before discovering their technique. Refer to the About the Art section for more information.
  4. Discuss how Maria learned how to make pottery from her Aunt Nicolasa and in turn taught the skill to her children, extended family members, and her larger San Ildefonso community. Ask the students to think about a skill (e.g., cooking, playing sports or games, tying their shoes) that they have learned from someone in their family that they would like to teach their own future children or a younger person in their lives.
  5. For older students, provide a mini-lesson on conducting interviews and taking notes. For homework, have the students interview the person who taught them the aforementioned skill and ask questions such as: How did you learn to perform this skill? How old were you when you learned this skill? Why do you think this skill is important? What do you like about performing this skill? What is the most challenging part of performing this skill? What advice would you give someone who wants to learn this skill?
  6. For younger students, have the family or community member fill in a sheet that asks similar questions.

Day 2

  1. Display Maria and Julian Martinez’s Plate again. Ask the students to recall everything about the Plate they can remember from the previous lesson. Looking at the Plate, ask the students: What do you think were the most important things Maria learned from her aunt about making pottery? Do you think Maria enjoyed learning about pottery from her aunt?
  2. Have the students gather their interview materials and write a letter to their own future children or a younger person explaining how to perform the skill talked about in their interviews.
  3. For younger students, talk about the sheets their parents or community members filled out as a class. Have the students illustrate how to perform the skill talked about in their interviews.


  • Lined paper and pen/pencil for each student
  • An example of an optical illusion, such as the “The Animal” found on this web page (scroll down to find it):
  • About the Art section on Maria and Julian Martinez’s Plate (included with the lesson plan)
  • One color copy of the plate for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards

  • Visual Arts
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Research and Reasoning
    • Writing and Composition
    • Reading for All Purposes

21st Century Skills

  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

About the Art



About 1925

Maria and Julian Martinez, San Ildefonso Pueblo

Who Made It?

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
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
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
Serpent Design

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

Funding for lesson plans 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.