Steadfast traditions and dynamic trends vitalize 21st-century Spanish Colonial Art
In 1926, when Mary Austin and Frank Applegate sponsored the first Spanish Market in the Santa Fe Plaza, their enthusiasm for the preservation of the culture and heritage of traditional Spanish Colonial arts did not emerge from a vacuum. Those first few decades of the 20th century saw the establishment of the Antiquities Act, the creation of New Mexico as a state, the re-creation of Santa Fe as a city of adobe buildings and Pueblo Revival architecture, the founding of the School for American Archaeology (now the School for Advanced Research), and the creation of Indian Market. Nevertheless, Spanish Market did not exist on its own until 1972, when it split off from Indian Market, opting for a weekend and a month of its own, in late July.
Ironically, this independence, which can be credited to the activism of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, later led to the creation of a sort of spinoff of the Traditional Spanish Market: the Contemporary Hispanic Market, which is now in its 25th year. This July 28 and 29, both markets take place on Santa Fe’s historic Plaza side by side, as they have since 1988. Strict traditionalists of the purest strain will occupy booths only steps away from the most radical of modernists, and alongside middle-of-the-roaders with a foot in each camp, who epitomize the exhibit-and-let-exhibit attitude that prevails among many of the artists there.
Felix Lopez is one of today’s more renowned traditional artists, and as a santero primarily makes retablos, icons of saints painted on wood panels. Lopez has been going to Traditional Market since 1976. He was born in the Colorado mining town of Gilman in 1942, but raised with his six brothers and four sisters in Santa Cruz, New Mexico.
Becoming an artist was a second career for Lopez; after earning a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and German, and a master’s in Spanish literature, he spent 21 years as a teacher at Española Valley High School. His father died unexpectedly in 1975, when Lopez was 33. “That had a profound effect on my family’s life, and it’s what sparked my creative interest. I started hanging out with my youngest brother, who was a born artist,” says Lopez, who entered his first Spanish Market in 1976, while still a teacher, and was awarded the first-place prize in straw appliqué. In 1981, he won his first award for devotional carving.
“The only thing I really knew was church art, from the churches that I’d attended. And it’s done a lot of things for me, aside from dealing with that sadness of my father’s passing,” says Lopez. “It’s made me a better person.” His son, Joseph, and daughter, Chrissa, have also been going to Market for over 20 years. “You have to live what you believe, what you do. So I consider what I’m doing a blessing.”
Lopez still looks to early 19th-century artist José Rafael Aragón as an inspiration; to Chimayó master weaver Irvin Trujillo, for taking the traditional to a “whole new level,” and to the very traditional bultos (figures carved in the round) of Alcario Otero, whose “very spiritual pieces,” says Lopez, “actually do speak to me. And he pays a great deal of attention to the way these bultos were carved in the past.”
Still, as dedicated as Lopez is to preserving the ways of past santeros, he’s open to innovation. “I’m all for the diversity,” says Lopez, who was one of the first santeros to create a multi-figure bulto. He often depicts the attributes of the saints in dynamic, not static, poses, and he’ll sometimes bring in elements such as wheat, leather, canvas, and tin. “I just happen to do traditional work. But I incorporate a lot of new ideas into what I do.”
Cynthia Cook, an Albuquerque-based artist who’s now in her 25th consecutive year at Contemporary Market, incorporates a wide range of technique into her work. Renowned as a mixed-media art pioneer whose art has been collected by Madonna and Paul Simon, Cook’s tinwork retablos—if they can be qualified as such—are boxes both personal and mystical, reminiscent of the work of legendary assemblage artist Joseph Cornell. Her tinwork pieces include Native American silversmithing, medieval chasework, and the technique of repoussé (hammering a piece of malleable metal to create a design in low relief), plus seed pods, antique transistor parts, wasps’ nests, old photographs, and more recent photographs treated to look as if they are vintage. Cook, 48, was born and raised in Albuquerque, and now lives within sight of The Pit basketball arena.
Her mother, who came from Chihuahua, Mexico, was an oil painter, and her father, of Irish descent, had a propensity for design and presentation. When Cook was around 11, he set up a silversmithing studio for her in the front window of their Old Town souvenir and Indian fine arts shop, and asked her to please braid her hair Indian-style whenever she soldered—and the tourists would point at her and say to their kids, “Look, honey—a real Indian girl making her jewelry.” Cook bucked their touristy expectations by adding streaks of blue to her hair and creating unexpectedly bizarre objects.
After graduating from Highland High, she went to New York City’s Parsons School of Design for three years, intending to go into fashion design, but then returned to the University of New Mexico, and graduated with a fine-arts degree in metals and photography. A friend of the transgressive photographer Joel-Peter Witkin since she was 17 (a nude image of Cook taken by Witkin appeared in a 1993 Vanity Fair profile about the photographer), Cook embraces nature as her church, artistically and spiritually.
“The kids of the traditional artists started the Contemporary Market because they wanted a whole different scene. They approached me because I was having an epiphany with my art,” says Cook, whose demure demeanor belies her inner Goth girl who, she says, “used to hang out with Mötley Crüe and Ozzy Osbourne.”
That epiphany centered around Cook’s material of choice, tin, a decision entwined with facets of New Mexico’s history. “Here in New Mexico,” she says, “we were at a crossroads between the railroad that was moving East–West, and the Camino Real that went North–South, up from Mexico. As they built the railroad, the soldiers on the trains would throw out the tin cans they’d kept their lard in. Meanwhile, the people coming up from Mexico on the Camino, they brought with them all this beautiful tinwork sculpture that’d been made from the mines down there, sculpture that was mostly religious. So there was this confluence of these two paths. And because New Mexicans were so isolated, and because they were particularly thrifty, they’d take the cans that the soldiers had thrown out and imitate the sculptures of my people.” Although most cans are no longer made purely of tin (they’re tin, steel, and aluminum), “It’s better now,” says Cook; “the attributes, the way it weathers. So when I was making my transition from mined metals to canned metal, I thought these tins were just the bomb.”
Cook is a fan of almost all things old, aged, outré, and her home serves as one very tidy and minimalist studio. There are flattened tin cans on her kitchen counter, rusted, in various stages of aging, and in the process of being transubstantiated into objects of art. “I like to embrace entropy,” says Cook. “It’s part of life.”
What’s ironic is that some people have tended to mistake Cook, half Mexican, as an interloper: an Anglo in an Hispano world. “I really identify as a Hispanic,” says Cook. “It’s inherent in my personality.”
It’s doubly ironic because, in the 1970s, when santero Luis Tapia and painter Frederico Vigil cofounded La Cofradía de Artes y Artesanos Hispánicos (The Confraternity of Hispanic Art and Artisans), a group set up, according to Mary Caroline Montaño’s book, Tradiciones Nuevomexicanos: Hispano Arts and Culture of New Mexico, to “encourage the revival and growth of both traditional and contemporary arts and crafts of Spanish New Mexico,” the group “did not allow or accept Anglo criteria of what constituted traditional art.” These organizations were established to provide alternative venues to the Spanish Market, whose primarily Anglo jurors continued to determine what was officially “Spanish” and “colonial” and “acceptable.”
Equating cultural resistance with a means of maintaining a people’s traditional ways, arts, and culture, santeros like Tapia reached back into a past that predated the rules of santo-making as determined by Applegate and Austin. These two Arts Society founders had long discouraged the painted bulto, arguing that it was not part of the tradition, when in fact, the painted (or polychromatic) bultos were not uncommon in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Arthur Lopez lives in a South Capitol Santa Fe home that’s as maximalist as Cook’s is minimalist. His extensive collection of retablos, bultos, reredos (altarpieces), paintings, weavings, sculptures, and tinwork is a museum-quality mix of the historic and the modern, in which the reverent dovetails with the irreverent. There are carved animals by Ron Rodriguez (grandson of the famous folk artist Felipe Archuleta), painted bultos by traditional artist Victor Goler, paintings by contemporary artist El Moises, retablos by traditional artist Arlene Cisneros Sena, as well as works by regional painter Jim Vogel, Santa Fe sculptor Gena Fowler, Santa Fe painter Susan Contreras, renegade santero Luis Tapia, El Rito santero Nicholas Herrera, and multimedia artist Rose Simpson.
An artist who exemplifies and encapsulates the old and the new, and who blurs and transcends whatever differences or divisions separate the two worlds of Traditional and Contemporary Spanish Markets, Lopez carved his first piece barely a dozen years ago (the same piece and same year, 2000, he first showed at Market), and discovered his calling the way many of his fellow exhibitors had: circuitously, fatefully.
Born and raised in Santa Fe, Lopez studied fine arts for two years at Eastern New Mexico University, decided there was no future in it, and transferred to a graphic design school in Tempe, Arizona. After landing a couple of design jobs in publishing in Albuquerque, he moved to Los Angeles, then New York, for work. It was while passing through Santa Fe on his way East that his dad got sick. “I ended up moving here to help care for him,” recalls Lopez, “and he died four months later. My life and career paths totally changed.”
In Albuquerque, he met the woman who would become his wife, and discovered a newfound passion for painting. Then he went to Market, and the bultos and retablos struck him in a way they never had when he was an altar boy. “I went to Hyde Park,” says Lopez, “found a piece of aspen, and carved my first piece.”
Largely self-taught, Lopez honed his skills with wood, talked to the wool dyers at Los Golondrinas about pigments and colors, and within a few months was juried into Market with a crucifix he’d carved during the birth of his first son.
A consummate craftsman and indefatigable researcher, Lopez is known for infusing his works with twists that are playful or thought-provoking but never insulting. Doing this work has given Lopez an awareness of how faith and spirituality sometimes differ from religion. “I don’t want to be irreverent. The iconography is there, but it’s also in the modern world.” As playful as his works often are, they’re steeped in love and admiration for their subjects.
Tradition, after all, is paramount to Lopez, but only insofar as it maintains craftsmanship, creativity, and professionalism. His goal is to honor the past without being stuck in it.
“In New Mexico, because it was the remotest of all the Spanish colonies,” explains Donna Pedace, director of the Spanish Colonial Arts Society, “its colonial art forms did not evolve very much along the European theme. It was a matter of what materials and training were available.” Inventiveness, then, especially the resourcefulness of New Mexicans, is really what Colonial Arts and the Traditional Market are all about and seek to preserve.
This frontier status led to the creation of prayer books made of buffalo hides, altarpieces painted with yellow ochre taken from Sandía Mountain caves, and the invention of straw appliqué, smoothing out and flattening straw to a bright sheen and inlaying it on wood; and colcha, a handspun, hand-dyed weaving technique unique to New Mexico. “When the Spanish priests came in,” says Pedace, “the church was the only customer for art. So the vast majority of traditional art is religious.”
Although religion remains a strong factor among traditionalists, the Arts Society is being pushed—internally and externally—to explore more. Two years ago, the Society expanded its guidelines, adding an Innovations category. Lately, Pedace has been trying to broaden the Society’s image. “There’s a lot more to the Market than just retablos and bultos,” she says. “They’re a very important piece of it, but it’s not all that.”
“The traditional works are definitely more straightforward,” says Arthur Lopez. “But I like the beauty of the traditional. Then again, I also like the flexibility of the contemporary. I like humor, and I like to do political pieces, and the contemporary works don’t have to be so serious. They’re fun and light-hearted, they’re loose and expressive.”
Just as there was a converging of the Anglo and the Hispano in the evolution of colonial arts tinwork, so too has there been a merging of the old and the new.
Arthur Lopez’s goal is to someday unite contemporary and traditional in his own work, on a larger scale. He’s certainly done that in his home. In the meantime, it’s what the two markets provide for each other by coexisting, one weekend a year, as congenial neighbors with good boundaries, on the Plaza.
Devon Jackson is a freelance writer and editor. He’s written for Sports Illustrated, Outside, the New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and was editor of the Santa Fean.