MARIA POVEKA Martinez, approaching 100, is rather like her pottery - strong in design, fragile in body, ancient in knowledge, young in feeling.

Maria Poveka, as she signs her increasingly rare black pots, is a Tewa Indian from the pueblo of San Ildefonsa in New Mexico. She is, many say, the most famous American potter. Her name, scratched with a stone on the bottom of a black pot, will bring a price of $1,000 or more. More than half a century ago, she and her husband reached back in time to rediscover the ancient art of the black pot, lost for 700 years in the murky clay of the Rio Grande Valley.

Through their industry, innovation and imagination, they not only raised a craft to an art, but passed on their knowledge as in inheritance to their people.

"Maria Martinez: Five Generations of Potters," at the Renwick Gallery through Aug. 13, is an exhibit of Maria Poveka's pottery and the works of others in her family. It includes large urns by her and her late husband, Julian Martinez, and pots of all sizes, shapes and decorations by her and generations of the family: Nicolasa Pena Montoya, her late aunt; Popovi Da (who used only his Indian name) and Adam Martinez, her sons; Santana Roybal Martinez, Adam's wife; Tony Da, Maria Poveka's grandson; Barbara Pino Gonzales, her great-granddaughter, and Cavan Gonzales, Barbara Gonzales' son and Maria Poveka's great-great-grandchild.

Maria Poveka says she is 95. A granddaughter says she is 91. It doesn't matter. Whatever age, she is beautiful. She has high cheekbones that give her face shape and substance despite the high peaks and deep valleys left by the rains and winds of many seasons. Her hair, long and thick and gray (peppered with black), is cut into bangs in front and tied in back with purple yarn.

Her hands - etched with age and roughened by work - still show their knowledge in movement and in repose. Every gesture has a purpose. When she stood to speak at the Renwick recently, she raised those hands in a benediction so strong that a physical presence could be felt in the back row.

On the day the exhibit opened, Maria Poveka visited every pot on display. She rode in a wheelchair because the day would be long, but usually she walks with the help of a stick used as a cane. When she examines a pot she hasn't seen for a while, she runs her hand inside, matching the pot to the palm to be sure it is hers. At the RenwicK, where the pots were encased, Maria Poveka and Santana Martinez stood before each one for a long time, their bodies motionless, feeling the pot with their eyes.

Barbara Gonzales said the Family always greets pots this way. "The pots for us, you see, are people - our children perhaps. They have gender. Some are called women. Some are men. And they have personalities. The pots seem to be doing different things. We'll say, 'Look at those men pots over there with their wide mouths, they're all singing. Or look at there women pots with their slim long necks.' So when we haven't seen a pot for a long time, well, it's like an old friend who has to be greeted and examined to be sure she hasn't suffered in the meantime. We remember our pots, though they have gone far away."

A photographer snapped a picture of Maria Poveka. He was young, tall, blond, very handsome and obviously fascinated by her face. He took picture after picture. Something passed between the old woman and the young man. Admiration, of course, but something deeper and more basic. Watching her, her hands too arthritic to make any other than very small pots now, her modern glasses in conflict with those ancient eyes, it took little imagination to see her in her youth as the girl who led the dancing and the singing.

Other people asked questions, but Maria Poveka pretended to them she did not speak English. Her attention was for the young photographer. She told him softly, but in perfect English, all about the man who came from Germany to photograph her, and about Bernard Leach, the great English potter, and Shoji Hamada, the potter who ranked as a Japanese national treasure, who came together to the pueblo to pay her homage.

She wore a bright, patterned dress, a brilliant red cummerbund, a shawl of another pattern, silver and turquoise necklaces, earrings, bracelets and rings. The colors of her dress pointed up the rich sun color of her skin. She wore suede boots, very white, very soft - boots for dancing.

"I liked to dance and to sing," Maria Poveka said. And she tried a few notes to show she still can. "I had a good voice," she said. "My hair was very long, down to here," and she motioned to the end of her hem. "My hair is not white yet. I washed it with suds from the soap plant (the yucca plant, said Barbara Gonzales). I had a sister whose hair turned very white. She didn't use enough yucca."

She misses singing and dancing. Is singing and dancing part of being a good potter? No, said Gonzales, "It's being an Indian."

Because she is a woman, Maria Poveka is not allowed to vote on pueblo governmental matters or participate in the men's secret rituals. Still she has been an important force in the village for many, many years, heading the family's industry, according to her biography by Susan Peterson.

Peterson, a well-known ceramic educator, is the curator of the Renwick show. Her book, "The Living Tradition of Maria Martinez," is already in its third printing. Last summer, Peterson took Joan Mondale, another potter, to the pueblo to see Maria Poveka.

Maria Poveka has been awarded an honorary doctorate, been invited four times to the White House, received an American Ceramic Association award for her lifetime work, laid the cornerstone of Rockefeller Center, appeared at many world fairs, and is represented in many museums across the country and numerous private collections (including the Vice President's Residence).

In her book, Peterson relates the story of how Maria Poveka came to fame. In 1908 or 1910, Edgar Lee Hewett, director of the Museum of New Mexico at Santa Fe, excavating near the pueblo, found glossy black shards, a style of pottery made into the 12th century. At that time, the Tewas had not made black-colored pots for 700 or so years. The standard pottery for them was polychrome (multi-colored), with a cream-colored background and the designs painted in red, green, yellow and black. He asked Maria Poveka, who had worked on the digs, if she could duplicate the black pots. She had learned the art of pottery by helping her aunt, Nicolasa Pena Montoyo.

Maria Poveka had little trouble shaping and polishing the pots, but the color, the shiny black finish, was more difficult. At last, her husband, Julian, achieved the black by smothering the fires with dried horse manure and wood ash, thus impregnating the pot surfaces with carbon particles. The firing is done without oxidation. For 30 years they worked. Maria Poveka concentrated on making the pottery, her husband on painting it. They began to sign their pottery. First, she called herself "Marie," then "Maria." Now she adds her Indian name: "Maria Poveka."

Julian Martinez died in 1943, and Maria Poveka worked with Santana Martinez, who herself was from a family famous for their art. Santana Martinez painted designs for Maria Poveka and made, decorated and fired many pots on her own. Santana Martinez, it is said, is descended from a Navajo who as a baby was abandoned in a cave after a raiding party. She learned to do the intricate decoration from Julian Martinez. Maria Poveka's sister, Clara Montoya, has often done the painstaking polishing for all the family.

In the early 1950s, Popovi Da decorated and fired his mother's work. The two of them, working for 20 years together, revived the old San Ildefonso polychrome style as well. After Popovi Da's death in 1971, Tony Da and Barbara Gonzales continued the traditions. Adam Martinez, who has painted both wall murals and on paper, has also decorated his mother's pottery.

Barbara Gonzales, a well-known potter herself and a spokesman for the family, went away to college and lived in Sante Fe after growing up in her great-grandmother's house. She married a guidance counselor (a member of the pueblo, too, who is now vice governor). But with all this experience in the outside world, she feels the pull of the pueblo. "I feel I can only work on pottery in my grandmother's house."

The pottery is "the only way we have to make our living," Gonzales said. According to Peterson, life is very difficult in the pueblo because there are so many children and so few ways to earn a living. The pottery is sold in the grocery/gift shop run by Anita Pino, Maria Poveka's granddaughter, as well as through other dealers. Gonzales remembers, as a child, taking pots to the train station to sell along with picture postcards of her great-grandmother.

Prices vary considerably, depending on which family member makes the pot, the size, the intricacy of the work, and the dealer's mark-up (usually about 100 percent). Currently at the Renwick Gallery shop there are a few pieces, ranging in price from about $199 to almost $900.

Though some of the pottery is high in price, such pots are not made rapidly. Santana Martinez, for instance, can make only about 100 a year. The family's yearly production and sales are not high enough to afford much above the necessities of life for so large a family. They do, however, have their own land on the pueblo, with the adobe houses they have built themselves. Not too long ago, Adam Martinez built the family a new bread oven next door to their house. Maria Poveka's awards are hung in her son's adobe, but they have none of the early pottery now valued at well over $1,000.

Barbara Gonzales told Peterson that ther great-grandmother said it didn't matter that all her pots had to be sold, none left to be handed down, because she bequeathed to her great-granddaughter the most precious inheritance - the ability to make the pots.

Adam Martinez, who is a great comedian and cheers up all the family, said his contribution is "to cook for the women." Actually, of course, he is very important. He roams over the pueblo looking for the materials the family needs for their pottery. Peterson tells in her book about the time he finally agreed to take her in his truck to where he dug the clay. He drove the truck over one spot four times and told her that was a magic ritual. She thinks he was putting her on, but she's not sure.

Before the clay is dug, Santana Martinez, a woman with a quiet face and a manner so calm you think she could still the thunder, sprinkles the ground with cornmeal, a gift to the Earth Mother. She is very careful, very respectful of the clay, and gathers every speck in her shawl. Gonzales said that the clay is the property only of the pueblo. "When we do a demonstration, as we did here (at the Renwick), we gather up every speck and take it back with us."

Some other ingredients, including the volcanic ash, called blue sand, are bartered from another tribe. The polishing stones, said to be kidney stones of the dinosaur, are greatly prized and rarely found, handed down from generation to generation.

Gonzales said the Tewa potters say prayers - mantras or chants - from the time the pot comes to mind, through the ritual digging for the sacred clay, the formation of the bowl and the intricate decoration to the firing. Even when the pot has been sent to the store, sold and taken far away from the pueblo, still the potter pronounces words of power for the pot.