On the Frontier
Spanish Market artists working in obsure fields include Camilla Trujillo, Nicholas Madrid and Jerry Montoya.
A visit to Spanish Market will always turn up a convention of carved and painted saints, retablos and bultos, plus large numbers of artists working in straw appliqué and other familiar mediums. But careful observers will spy, tucked between these booths, an occasional artist working in some obscure medium or process, from forged iron and “combed tin” to forgotten pottery styles. Join us for a look at the work and lives of artists toiling away on the frontiers of Spanish colonial arts.
“My family and I are known for our Mesilla tinwork, a technique that was used in southern New Mexico in the 1900s,” notes 34-year-old Nicholas Madrid, who lives in Española. “There was never really a name for it; it was called Mesilla tinwork because the artists who did it mostly lived in Mesilla. It’s also called combed glass.
“In the ’90s, we found a family in Mexico, in the city Imuris, Sonora, who practiced a similar technique, and we spent some time at their house learning from them,” he explains. “When I got back, I messed with the techniques. I use asphaltum tar over glass, and then I comb it off to make a design, and it reveals the colors behind the glass. The Mesilla tin maker would use newspaper clippings and seed packets behind his glass. There was another artist called Jose Maria Apodaca [mid-1800s] who practiced the technique. He did cool rosette designs and experimented with layers. I love the colors used by the old retablo artists. They’re real natural, and I like to let my pieces oxidize a lot.”
His parents, Mary Jo and Jimmy Madrid, first juried into Spanish Market in 1994 and Nicholas into the youth market. Today he is carrying on the family tradition with his own daughter. “Tradition and Spanish Market are important to me because of my daughter — I want her to be able to see and understand the traditional arts. I really like the fact there are firm guidelines for Spanish Market — there’s a time and place for innovation, but this place is to uphold what the ancestors did.”
Madrid’s work is sold at El Potrero Trading Post in Chimayó, but he also does special orders. He recently completed a major commission for the new Blake Hotel at Taos Ski Valley, including a 40-pound chandelier, and earlier he did tinwork for Hotel Chimayó in Santa Fe.
Madrid’s workshop is in his garage, which also houses his weight-
lifting equipment and all his handmade tools. He cuts the glass himself. “When I’m designing, I just play. The design just kind of comes out. If it’s a commissioned piece, like for the Blake Hotel, I try to keep what the designer wants in mind, but I figure if they don’t like it, I’ll make it anyway and I can sell it elsewhere. But I’ve never had a commissioned piece declined.”
For details on Nicolas Madrid, visit potrerotradingpost.com/NicolasMadrid.html.
“I do a lot of tinwork, particularly crosses, and am juried into tin in the innovations category for Spanish Market,” explains Jerry Montoya, who grew up and lives in Grants. “But my tinwork is different; I use a process called repujado, which is a style of embossing [as opposed to engraved tinwork]. I didn’t invent the repujado process but made it my own. My work is free-form hand-embossed using homemade tools. Then I apply an oxidized patina that gives it a rustic look.”
Montoya is also juried into retablos for Spanish Market, but he says, “I don’t do the traditional sconces or that kind of thing. I’ve been described as a ‘missing link.’ My style was kind of contemporary; now I’m leaning more toward traditional style. I consider myself a contemporary santero, but I do use all the traditional materials.”
Art has been calling to him since childhood. “I’ve been an artist since about the third grade I think. I’ve always been doing art, especially when I reached high school. I’ve been doing this type of [devotional, Spanish colonial] art for about 25 years. I used to do contemporary work and was juried into the contemporary Hispanic Market for about 12 years. But all my friends were in traditional [market], and I wanted to be traditional, but I just wasn’t ready yet. Then friends like Charlie Carrillo, Jimmy Trujillo and Arlene Cisneros Sena taught me how to work with traditional materials, and Michael Griego helped me learn tin.
“When Michael showed me how to do tin, I thought, ‘Don’t want to do this.’ But later I remembered what he’d shown me, and I started doing retablos and large crosses, and painting retablo style with homemade gesso, homemade pigments and piñon sap varnish. I wanted to frame the retablos with tin, using the techniques that Michael had showed me, and I tried doing some repoussé-type work, mainly embossing. I tried that and it worked kind of well, and I went crazy from there. Then I started experimenting, especially with the patinas, to make the traditional feel different. Today my tin is art itself, not just used as framing.”
In addition to Spanish Market, Montoya sells at many other festivals and various shops, including venues in El Paso, Arizona and Santa Fe. He used to work for Federal Express and spent 10 years teaching art in three elementary schools in Grants.
Jerry Montoya can be reached at jerrymontoya.com.
“I’m one of those artists who always knew I was an artist, but didn’t know how or when it would happen,” says Camilla Trujillo, who has built a modest but unique career working in an obscure field of Spanish colonial pottery. Her sturdy, shallow soup bowls — often called soup plates or soperos — and other utilitarian pieces, finished with handsome creamy slips and simple designs, harken back to New Mexico’s earliest European roots.
The Española High School graduate spent a year at University of New Mexico, but she missed the country life and settled down in the Arroyo Seco area. There she became friends with Santa Clara Pueblo native Jody Fowell and decided to take a pottery class from her mother, the renowned potter Rose Naranjo.
“It was a one-semester class, but I developed a friendship with the family and had an association with them as a student for 10 years. They took me in their pickup truck to gather clay and taught me to use cottonwood bark to fire with. I eventually had enough knowledge to make pottery on my own terms and came home to being a potter. That was 30 years ago. The term ‘Spanish colonial pottery’ wasn’t even accepted then, other than micaceous clay to cook in, and at Spanish Market, my kind of pottery was tolerated, but they didn’t really believe it was a tradition.
“But my friend BobWilson and I started taking these hiking trips to the ruins of Spanish colonial villages near Abiquiú, El Rito and in Valencia County. We found lots of potsherds, which turned out to be soup plate lips. They were often tan and red. Some had designs; others were plain. You could see the smoke marks on them. Then I discovered the work of the archaeologist HerbertW. Dick. He determined that Native American potters had made soup plates for Spanish colonial settlers in the period before the Pueblo Revolt, and afterwards that the colonists had continued to make these soup plates for themselves and surrounding villages. I looked at pottery archives at UNM. I figured out a lot by looking at boxes of sherds. The plates of the Río Abajo area had narrow flanges and rims. In the north, wide rims are more typical — that’s the Río Arriba soup plate.”
More recently, Trujillo has begun making storage jars. “They’re so thick [she holds her fingers 3 inches apart] that they’re like a refrigerator, and were used to store milk, meat or fruit. They were buried in cold sand and covered with a heavy rock, a process adapted from Native Americans.”
A trip to Mexico City not long ago set her off on yet another tack, the creation of chocolate safes, or fortified clay storage jars. In Mexico the jars were glazed with tin; in New Mexico they had hand-polished finishes. “Wealthy Mexican and New Mexican families had servants, and they locked up their cacao beans because they could be used as legal tender. When I saw these historic jars, I realized that every era has its status symbols.” She teamed up with Rene Zamora, a local blacksmith, to make a chocolate safe based upon an example they found in the Museum of International Folk Art. The piece has a steel locking lid with a handmade spring that pops open with a key.
“Most of the other potters at Spanish Market stick to micaceous ware,” she concludes. “But this is part of our past as well. The old wares call out to us, saying, ‘Don’t forget us. We exist in your DNA and your memory.’ My ancestors were creative people making a new life in a new land. I am proud to carry on those traditions.”
Camilla Trujillo can be reached at email@example.com.