There is so much I didn’t know about New Mexico before coming here. I didn’t understand how the trio of cultures, Indian, Hispanic and Anglo had blended together over the centuries to create its own indigenous culture. I didn’t comprehend why the land grant villages were colonized, nor did I have any idea of the isolation the colonists lived under. I knew nothing about the religious beliefs that permeate everything here, nor had I ever experienced the traditional Hispanic arts. When I first arrived I confess I wasn’t much interested in them, but after living here, little by little, these traditions are showing themselves to me in ways that have captured my attention. I am not yet at all knowledgeable, but perhaps in reporting to you what I’m learning, we’ll all make discoveries we can appreciate.
In Dexter Cirillo’s book, Across Frontiers—Hispanic Crafts of New Mexico, she mentions isolation as one of the reasons these crafts developed. The “… isolation from the centers of culture and commerce spurred the Spanish Colonial pioneers to look to their own faith and resources to carve out a meaningful and creative existence in a rugged and harsh environment. Separated from Mexico by great distances and from the rest of the United States until the opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821, it became imperative that local villages produce their own goods, which in turn evolved into the unique art forms indigenous to New Mexico… They built adobe homes from mud and straw bricks, raised sheep for food and wool, and made their own furniture and household utensils from trees they cut down themselves. From the same native woods, they fashioned agricultural tools for plowing.”
The arts that were born of such necessity were weaving, woodworking, tin craft and religious art. Most traditional artists today learned their art from family members, and it has been handed down from generation to generation.
The weaving of wool provided blankets, floor coverings, clothing and, after the opening of the Santa Fe Trail, income from the tourist trade. I have friends who are weavers. Irvin is seventh generation. Pieces on both Irvin and his wife, Lisa, will post this Thursday and Friday. They’re remarkable people so be sure to check back with the blog (you can learn about them now at chimayoweavers.com).
“Furniture making can be traced back to the 1598 colonization of New Mexico… one carpintero accompanied Onate’s expedition, while six other settlers brought with them woodworking tools, including adzes, augers, axes, chisels, nails, a crowbar, and a wagon-maker’s hammer.” So says Ms. Cirillo.
The colonists set about building their homes and churches. I didn’t know this but it was the Spanish who introduced forming mud and straw into adobe bricks. Prior to their arrival Indians constructed their dwellings by packing and molding the adobe into living spaces, similar to making hand-formed pottery. Wood was used to create ceilings (using large trees to form vigas—supporting beams—and smaller poles called latillas which were placed over the vigas, creating a platform on which to pack mud) as well as window and doorframes and doors. Home interiors were spare, since nearly everything had to be provided by their own hands and the land, and furniture simple, made predominantly out of ponderosa pine. But even in the earliest days, furniture makers added carved designs to the pieces.
Self reliant and resourceful, the colonists used whatever materials were at hand to fill their needs. According to Dexter Cirillo, “… the evolution of tinwork as a decorative art in New Mexico coincided with the American occupation in 1846… Supplies for the troops were transported over the Santa Fe Trail… [including] large tin containers of lard and lamp oil… [and] tin cans to preserve food”. From these cast-offs, picture frames, candleholders, lanterns, sconces, chandeliers and boxes, among other items, were crafted. Tinwork has been called the poor man’s silver.
Religious art developed out of necessity too. As towns were established churches were built and artisans filled the various needs of the church. Cirillo says, “A santero is an image maker, who paints santos (saints) on retablos (paintings on flat tablets of pine), or carves bultos (sculptures) of santos, generally out of cottonwood or aspen. A reredos is an alter screen composed of panels of individual santos… By the middle of the nineteenth century, the New Mexican santero had developed his own unique sensibility because of the vacuum in which he worked… With few models to emulate, the New Mexican santero developed his own interpretation of the santos and their lives.”
I have friends and associates who work in these traditional arts, which is one of the reasons I am developing an interest and an abiding respect for them. I hope to delve more deeply into each by introducing you to some of the individuals who are carrying these art forms forward. Until then, let me make you aware of the High Road Marketplace. It is an artist’s co-op here in Truchas, representing 80 artists from northern New Mexico, that offers some of these traditional arts. They are open seven days a week, year round. Find more information about them at highroadnewmexico.com. All photos in today’s post were shot in the Marketplace.
Love to you all,