Heart of the tin man

The Artis­tic Odyssey of Hig­inio V. Gon­za­les at the Al­bu­querque Mu­seum

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

in the history of New Mex­ico met­al­work, one man stands out for his pro­lific out­put and ex­trav­a­gant de­signs: Hig­inio V. Gon­za­les. How­ever, un­til re­cently he was barely re­mem­bered. One of the unique as­pects of Mau­rice Dixon’s new book, The Artis­tic Odyssey of Hig­inio V. Gon­za­les: A Tin­smith and Poet in Ter­ri­to­rial New Mex­ico (Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa Press), is that it up­ends some of the con­clu­sions in what many con­sider to be the bible on the sub­ject, which was pub­lished by Dixon and Lane Coul­ter in 1990. The ma­jor­ity of the or­nate pieces in New Mex­i­can Tin­work,

1840-1940 were as­sumed to have been pro­duced by work­shops whose crafts­men are not re­mem­bered. But even be­fore that book hit the shelves, Dixon was dig­ging up ev­i­dence that led to a dra­matic con­clu­sion: Many of the fea­tured pieces in New Mex­i­can Tin­work were in fact made by Gon­za­les.

An­other rev­e­la­tion in the new vol­ume, also the fruit of Dixon’s decades of metic­u­lous re­search, is the work of Gon­za­les the poet and mu­si­cian. “The beauty of his poetry is that it really re­flected the in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism of the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion,” said Carmella Padilla, who wrote the book’s fore­word. “He wasn’t for­mally ed­u­cated, that we know of, but he was cer­tainly ed­u­cated. The breadth of his poetry really shows that.” The ex­hi­bi­tion The Artis­tic Odyssey of Hig­inio V. Gon­za­les: A Tin­smith and Poet in Ter­ri­to­rial New Mex­ico opens at the Al­bu­querque Mu­seum on Satur­day, Dec. 19.

Dixon’s project be­gan in 1984, when he ac­quired the work­shop of Santa Fe mas­ter tin­smith Robert Wood­man and mounted an ex­hi­bi­tion of New Mex­i­can tin­work. He and met­al­smith Coul­ter, dis­tressed about the pop­u­lar prac­tice of re­mov­ing de­vo­tional prints from their his­toric mar­cos (tin frames) and re­plac­ing them with mir­rors, be­gan work on their 1990 book that il­lu­mi­nates the artistry of the ho­jalatero (tin­smith). Not long af­ter­wards, Dixon be­gan run­ning into men­tions of one of th­ese met­al­work­ers, who was known to friends and fam­ily as “Ginio” Gon­za­les.

“When did he take over my life?” Dixon re­sponded, when asked by Pasatiempo how long his in­ter­est in this man went back. “It was about 1989. We had fin­ished the man­u­script, and Marie Romero Cash and Jack Par­sons were on con­tract with the Arch­dio­cese of Santa Fe to doc­u­ment all the cul­tural prop­er­ties within the dio­cese. Marie called us and said she had een a large tin piece with a sig­na­ture on it. It was igned and dated Jan. 28, 1872. It was a piece com­mi­sioned by a prom­i­nent in­di­vid­ual, Faus­tus Vigil, and had a bulto of Our Lady of Guadalupe in it. Tech­ni­cally this piece is an hor­nacina be­cause it’s pri­mar­ily glass. It is tin and glass, backed with black, can­vas-like cloth, prob­a­bly oil­cloth. It has a pitched roof and the ded­i­ca­tion is painted there in re­verse.” The hor­nacina is quite tall at 27 inches, and was de­signed to be car­ried on a palan­quin in pro­ces­sion on the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is Dec. 12.

“We went to see the piece and Lane and I said, ‘We have to in­clude this in the book.’ The ed­i­tor al­lowed me to write five para­graphs in that first book, and I did in­clude a caveat that fu­ture re­search would prob­a­bly show that many of the pieces in the book were in fact made by Hig­inio Gon­za­les.”

Gon­za­les was born in Santa Fe in 1842 and grew up in a house that stood where the La Fonda park­ing garage is now. He was bap­tized by Juan Felipe Or­tiz, the vicar at La Par­ro­quia, the im­pos­ing, adobe parish church that pre­ceded the 1886 cathe­dral. A boys’ school es­tab­lished by Arch­bishop Jean Bap­tiste Lamy was a few steps away, and it is pos­si­ble that he stud­ied there. One of the ear­li­est known, signed ex­am­ples of Gon­za­les’ lit­er­ary abil­i­ties is an 1889 birth­day greet­ing on pa­per, a beau­ti­fully hand­writ­ten poem sur­mounted by an eye-in-di­a­mond sym­bol and a col­ored draw­ing of a dove, and flanked by rose branches, with finely pin-pricked dec­o­ra­tive de­signs around the border.

The next sig­nif­i­cant step in Dixon’s re­search led him to Robin Far­well Gavin, who at that time was se­nior cu­ra­tor of Span­ish Colo­nial col­lec­tions at the Mu­seum of In­ter­na­tional Folk Art. In her cat­a­log for the ex­hi­bi­tion Fa­milia y Fe, she re­ferred to Gon­za­les and men­tioned that he was a mu­si­cian. Dixon talked to her about that ref­er­ence, and then vis­ited the Cen­ter for South­west Re­search at the Univer­sity of New Mex­ico’s Zim­mer­man Li­brary. There he en­coun­tered the work of com­poser and mu­si­col­o­gist John Don­ald Robb (1892-1989), who trav­eled through­out New Mex­ico record­ing the dis­ap­pear­ing folk songs of the re­gion’s músi­cos. The name Hig­inio Gon­za­les kept pop­ping up. Robb ar­ti­cles such as “H.V. Gon­za­les: Folk Poet of New Mex­ico” in a 1974 is­sue of The New Mex­ico Folk­lore Record proved a boon to Dixon. “Some of Robb’s in­for­mants men­tioned that Ginio wrote poetry, and it was pub­lished in some of the Span­ish­language news­pa­pers,” Dixon said. “That’s when I started go­ing through the mi­cro­film of La Voz del Pue­blo in Las Vegas, El In­de­pen­di­ente in Las Vegas, El Es­tado Nueva in Tierra Amar­illa, and El Nuevo Mex­i­cano here in Santa Fe.” The great ma­jor­ity of the po­ems are writ­ten in the décima form, which is 10 lines with a spe­cific rhyming se­quence. Dixon opens the first chap­ter of The Artis­tic Odyssey with an ac­count of Gon­za­les’ poetry pub­lished in 1897 in La Voz del Pue­blo, in­clud­ing odes to the beauty of women and pledges to over­come his pas­sions, as demon­strated in the 164-line poem ti­tled “Re­nun­ci­a­tion of Worldly Things.” Some 80 po­ems have been col­lected. Of those, 59 are un­signed, but all “are at­trib­ut­able by Gon­za­les’ in­tel­lec­tu­ally di­verse and sin­gu­larly dra­matic lit­er­ary voice,” Padilla writes in the fore­word.

“He wrote about ev­ery­thing, but in par­tic­u­lar the ladies and his re­la­tion­ships with the ladies,” Dixon said. “As one of Gon­za­les’ for­mer pupils told Robb, ‘He got around.’ He was also very de­voted. He wrote many al­aba­dos, hymns of praise.” He also waxed elo­quent about his beloved New Mex­i­can land­scape. One of the book’s ap­pen­dices of­fers sev­eral po­ems, with English trans­la­tions by Ale­jan­dro López. Among their ti­tles are “The Beauty of Mex­i­can Women,” “Adios: To the Most Holy Vir­gin of Guadalupe, At Her Shrine in Po­joaque, N.M.” and “The Drought of 1899.”

Robb met with a man who had known Gon­za­les and he had a cuaderno (note­book) that con­tained nearly

two dozen al­aba­dos and a re­li­gious folk play ti­tled El Niño Per­dido. “This was writ­ten about by many schol­ars, but they never could at­tribute it to a Mex­i­can source, be­cause how can any­one from New Mex­ico be in­tel­li­gent enough to have writ­ten this fab­u­lous folk play?” Dixon said. “The source was never of­fi­cially de­ter­mined, but it was in Gon­za­les’ note­book, com­plete with songs and stage di­rec­tion. That note­book is the most im­por­tant source of Gon­za­les’ work.”

Dixon be­lieves this man was not only a tin­smith and poet, but also a trav­el­ing mu­si­cian and a school­teacher work­ing in var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ties in North­ern New Mex­ico. Later in his life, he lived in Can­jilón. It was there, in 1909, that Gon­za­les’ stu­dents pre­sented a spe­cial Christ­mas Eve pro­gram. “He doc­u­mented it in his beau­ti­ful hand­writ­ing and he sent that doc­u­ment to the su­per­in­ten­dent of schools for Río Arriba

County and it is now in the State Ar­chives. So that pro­vides a com­par­i­son tool for his writ­ing.”

The man’s tin­work, as wide rang­ing and flam­boy­ant as his writ­ings, was de­vel­oped from an early age. The 1860 cen­sus lists his vo­ca­tion at age eigh­teen as “tin­ner,” which in that time was a val­ued liveli­hood in­volv­ing the man­u­fac­ture and re­pair of buck­ets, pitch­ers, scoops, roofs, gut­ters, and other es­sen­tial items. In 1861, he vol­un­teered for ser­vice in the Civil War (Gon­za­les was a wit­ness to, or par­tic­i­pant in, the Bat­tle of Valverde south of So­corro) and in the muster rolls he is listed as a tin­smith. Then in the 1870 cen­sus he is again sim­ply “tin­ner.”

One ex­am­ple of his very elab­o­rate tin­work in the new book is a nicho, dat­ing to 1860-1875, made to house a Gon­za­les-drawn im­age of El Santo Niño de Atocha. Its glass-en­cased hous­ing is flanked by Solomonic col­umns and has bor­ders of rows of sin­gle-dot-dib­bled punch­marks, re­verse-scored par­al­lel bands, and eye­brow arcs, along with large stars at the cor­ners. On top is a medal­lion, stamped with a fan pat­tern and cen­tered on the apex of a ped­i­ment.

Dixon’s con­clu­sions about Gon­za­les’ author­ship of so many works in tin are based on the re­sults of years of schol­arly re­search and also on his own skill as a mas­ter tin­smith and col­lec­tor of his­toric tin. He con­fided that Gon­za­les had “a wide va­ri­ety of de­sign styles, and he had so many dies that it’s al­most con­found­ing.” But he was able to iden­tify par­tic­u­lar die-tool marks as un­doubt­edly made by this one ho­jalatero.

An­other of the glo­ri­ous pieces in The Artis­tic Odyssey was a sur­pris­ing dis­cov­ery. Now held by the Mil­li­cent Rogers Mu­seum in Taos, the work is a color and ink-wash draw­ing of San Cayetano in­side a marco. It ex­hibits punch­marks made by three dies — an ir­reg­u­lar star, a notched “deer track,” and a tiny ser­rate arc — that Dixon re­al­ized char­ac­ter­ize all of Gon­za­les’ artis­tic tin­work.

A glimpse at the back of the piece demon­strates the fact that th­ese art­works re­lied on re­cy­cled tin cans, of­ten large cans of oil or lard. On the rear of the San Cayetano work, the can brand and patent date of July 12, 1859, are em­bossed. The piece’s prove­nance is a story in it­self. “It was once owned by the fa­mous pot­ter María Martínez. It was given to the Mil­li­cent Rogers Mu­seum by Anita Da, María’s daugh­ter-in-law. It was given to María by Don Elfego Gon­za­les, whose fa­ther, Hig­inio, painted the piece and made the tin frame. So that be­came the eureka mo­ment,” Dixon said. “From there, I was able to start con­nect­ing dots.”

The new book is full of won­der­ful sto­ries and de­tails of this life, wo­ven into the history of North­ern New Mex­ico in the sec­ond half of the 19th cen­tury and into the 20th. Ginio was four years old when the Army of the West’s Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny marched into the Plaza and re­placed the Mex­i­can flag on the Palace of the Gov­er­nors with the U.S. flag. And in 1912, the last year in which a poem known to have been penned by Gon­za­les was pub­lished in El Nuevo Mex­i­cano, he was just shy of his sev­en­ti­eth birth­day when New Mex­ico fi­nally won state­hood.

Gon­za­les died in Can­jilón in 1921.


Hig­inio V. Gon­za­les: clock­wise, from left, tin­plate and glass marco with litho­graph, En­fance de Jé­sus, circa 1870-1890; marco with litho­graph of St. John the Evan­ge­list, greet­ing cards, and flo­ral im­agery, circa 1875-1900; cross with sup­port­ing brack­ets, circa 1860-1885; tin­plate and glass hor­nacina with tableau de­pict­ing the Mirac­u­lous Mass of St. Gre­gory the Great, circa 1860-1885; op­po­site page, from top to bot­tom, por­trait of Gon­za­les, circa 1895; il­lus­trated poem dated Jan. 25, 1889; nicho, circa 1860-1885; im­ages cour­tesy Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa Press

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