Leaving a Legacy

Lesson Plan


Students will examine the artistic characteristics of the Plate, learn about the legacy of Maria and Julian Martinez and the significance of their lives to American history, and write a short essay about another historical figure and the significance of his or her life.

Intended Age Group

Elementary (grades K-5)

Length of Lesson

One 50 minute lesson

Standards Area

Social Studies


Students will be able to:

  • examine the artistic characteristics of the Plate;
  • locate New Mexico on a map of the United States;
  • explain the legacy of Maria and Julian Martinez and the significance of their accomplishments; and
  • explain the legacy of another historical figure and the significance of his or her accomplishments.


  1. Warm-up: Display or pass out copies of Maria and Julian Martinez's Plate and invite students to look carefully and share what they observe. What do they notice? How would they describe the coloring on the plate? What material was used to make the plate? What symbols or figures appear on the plate? How do the students think the artist(s) made the plate? What adjectives would the students use to describe the plate?
  2. Share with students that the plate was created by Maria and Julian Martinez in the San Ildefonso Pueblo of New Mexico around 1925. Have students locate New Mexico on a map of the United States. What information can the students share about this region of the country?
  3. Ask the students: What does it mean to leave a legacy? Tell the students that they will be watching a short video (approximately 5 minutes long) about Maria and Julian Martinez and have them pay attention to the legacy Maria and Julian left for future generations.
  4. After the students finish watching the film, review some of the major points with them. The film suggests that the advent of the Santa Fe Railroad in the 1880s led to an increase in the availability of commercially made goods and a related decrease in traditional pottery making, particularly of large pots and bowls. However, the beauty of Maria and Julian’s pottery pieces, along with their willingness to travel and interact with people outside their pueblo, led to a renewed interest in traditional pottery, making an art market. The subsequent demand for traditional pottery enabled Native American artists to earn a living through making pottery. According to Dr. Shelby Tisdale, “Today we really have to credit Maria for keeping this tradition alive and turning it really into an art form.”
  5. Invite the students to think of another well-known historical person they have studied. What legacy has this person left for future generations? What has been the significance of his or her life?
  6. Encourage the students to write a short essay about the historical person they have chosen and the legacy that he or she has left for future generations. You may need to provide students with additional information or access to the Internet to complete this assignment.
  7. When students are finished, invite them to share their ideas and display their work in the classroom. You might want to collect all of the students’ essays in a binder entitled “Leaving a Legacy.”


  • Lined paper and a pen or pencil for each student
  • Map of the United States, visible to all students in the classroom
  • Copies of About the Art section on Maria and Julian Martinez's Plate (included with the lesson plan) or student access to this part of Creativity Resource online
  • One color copy of the plate for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
  • The ability to play a short video about Maria and Julian Martinez for students


CO Standards

  • Social Studies
    • History
      • Understand chronological order of events
      • Ask questions, share information and discuss ideas about the past and present
      • Analyze historical sources using tools of a historian
      • Become familiar with United States historical eras, groups, individuals, ideas and themes
      • Become familiar with United States family and cultural traditions in the past and present
    • Geography
      • Become familiar with United States geography
      • Recognize similarities and differences about regions and people using geographic tools
      • Understand people and their relationship with geography and their environment
      • Use geographic tools and sources to answer spatial questions
  • Visual Arts
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
    • Envision and Critique to Reflect
  • 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.