Jar (Olla) with Feathers and Avanyu, 1930–1943
Maria Martinez, San Ildefonso Pueblo, 1887–1980
Earthenware with slip
14 1/4 × 18 5/8 in. (36.2 × 47.3 cm)
Gift of Miss Ima Hogg

Habits of Mind

  • OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect

Coiling a Pot

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

Students will…

•  Examine pottery in other cultures and in their own.

•  Create clay vessels using the coil method.

•  Investigate the properties of clay.






Observe Details

Connecting to the Work of Art

This large water jar is typical of the elegant black pottery produced by Maria and Julian Martinez.  Repeated around the shoulder of the vessel is an ancient feather motif.  Encircling the body at its widest diameter is the mythical Avanyu, a horned, plumed sky serpent associated with rain.

The dramatic impact of this pottery relies on the contrast of the highly polished and matte black areas of the vessel.  The decoration uses simplified, repeated forms of feathers and the undulating body of the serpent to create rhythm.  The shape of the jar has a long tradition in the American Southwest.

Traditional Native American pottery is built up using the coiling method.  From a flat base, coils are placed one on top of the other, then pinched together.  The vessel is then smoothed and rounded using tools and hands.  Julian Martinez developed a clay-based paint that when fired remains matte.  The shiny areas are created by burnishing the clay before firing.

Maria and Julian Martinez were major figures in the revival of Native American pottery in the early twentieth century.  Maria was a member of San lldefonso Pueblo, which is located in the northern Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico.  With her husband Julian, she excavated ancient pottery and worked with archaeologists studying ancient pottery.  Maria formed the jars, and Julian painted them.  Together they developed techniques and styles based on ancient models.  After Julian’s death in 1942, Maria worked with her daughter-in-law and her younger son.  Today the family tradition of pottery-making is continued by her grandson and great-granddaughter.

The development of the Martinez’s’ black pottery began during excavations near San lldefonso in 1908-9.  The director of the Museum of New Mexico asked Maria to reproduce samples of ancient pots based on samples of polished black shards.  The Martinezes spent ten years making examples for the museum, beginning with undecorated blackware.  In 1918 they completed their first firing of the black-on-black style of which this jar is an especially large example. The coming of the railroad in 1880 brought recognition to ceramic art at San Ildefonso, New Mexico. Tourists and collectors were able to visit this area of the United States previously viewed as remote, allowing local potters to sell their work to a broader audience.  


  • Discuss the properties of clay and explain the coil process, using a piece of hand-coiled pottery made by the teacher for students to touch.
  • Discuss balance and symmetry in the focus works of art.
  • Discuss how students use pottery in their lives today.
  • This is a photograph of a work of art. Describe the geometric form/shape of the work of art. Do you think it is two dimensional or three dimensional? Why? How does that help you determine whether it exhibits form or shape?

  • What visual clues help you to conclude this is a jar? How is it similar to other jars you’ve seen? Different?

  • Descriptions of jars often use words reminiscent of the human body, such as mouth, neck, shoulder, body. Describe and locate which parts of this jar could be described using those words. Explain.

  • Describe the lines and shapes around the shoulder and body of the jar. How do they remind you of birds and/or snakes?

  • How does the artist, Maria Martinez, create a sense of rhythm?

  • This jar was created by coiling clay pieces on top of each other, pinching them together, and then smoothing and rounding them with hands and tools. Use your hands to pantomime these initial stages of creation.

  • What parts of this jar appear polished? What parts look dull, or matte? How does the use of both shiny and ‘flat’ areas affect your view?

  • Why do you think this technique was called “black-on-black” pottery?


  • Maria Martinez’s husband, Julian, developed this technique involving highly polished and matte black areas. Julian developed a paint that remained dull after firing, while the shiny areas were made by rubbing and polishing the clay before firing. Sequence the stages involved in creating this work of art (include what you learned during observation).

  • Sketch a contour drawing of this jar, using its dimensions. How would you compare its size to jars in your house?

  • If you were a curator holding this jar, how you would use your arms and hands to envelop it carefully? Demonstrate.

  • Encircling the center of the jar an animal from a myth is shown: Avanyu. It is a feathery sky snake that Native Americans thought could bring rain. Describe how Martinez shows the power and energy of Avanyu.

  • Research myths about Avanyu. Highlight what you read that reminds you of Martinez’s depiction of Avanyu.

  • Why do you think Martinez chose a jar to depict a mythical animal associated with rain?

  • Hypothesize what might be on the other side of this jar. Visit the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to view it from all sides.

  • A myth is similar to a folktale or fable. What fable might you use as inspiration to create a jar? How would your jar reflect the fable?

  • Compare and contrast this jar to a Greek water jar, called a hydria.An example of a hydria at the MFAH can be found at:



  • Teach the steps for forming a coil pot by demonstrating the process.

  • Have students make pots using the coil method.  Have students observe and record changes in clay during the steps of the pottery-making process.

  • Looking at the shapes of the students’ pots, discuss how the vessels could be used in students’ lives.(See Art Lessons: Physical Changes in Clay and Coiling a Pot).

Subject Matter Connection

coming soon

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.