Spanish Market



In his trading post in Nambe, Mel Rivera plucks a large, eye-grabbing cross off the wall. Multicolor­ed straw birds, butterflie­s and plants crowd both arms of the cross, cast into relief by the black background paint. Beautifull­y carved rosettes decorate each of the four ends. The cross measures 18 by 26 inches and has a price tag of $1,500. On another cross, a delicate nativity scene made entirely from straw fills the short arm.

Rivera, 53, was originally a wood carver. He made statues of St. Francis, traditiona­lly rendered with his arms full of birds. One day Rivera experiment­ed with giving St. Francis a straw appliqué cross, and he was hooked. He prowled the museums, looking for examples of the craft. His head filled with possible designs. He taught himself and never looked back.

Today he cuts his own wood, sands it, paints it with black acrylic, cuts and places the straw to create the design he wants and then glues it down and preserves it with a clear matte finish. He often works in tan tones and grows different types of straw — including wheat, oat and rye — for their different shades. When he wants straw in a color other than tan, he buys it.

His work is in demand all over the world, yet it’s hard to find locally. A few places in Santa Fe carry straw appliqué — the store at the Loretto Chapel has some. Rivera used to sell out of his car on Canyon Road before he made a name for himself. “We don’t have many outlets for our work,” he says. “You just don’t see it.’’

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