Spanish Market

2017 Master’s Award for Lifetime Achievemen­t

Mel Rivera of Nambe is honored with the market’s top award for his extraordin­ary work in straw appliqué.

- By Daniel Gibson

“I got interested in straw when I was about 18,” explains Mel Rivera of Nambe. “I began to do some research and looked around to see what examples I could find. There were just a few old pieces in museums and, at the time, just one older couple in Spanish Market doing straw, Eliseo and Paul Rodriguez. It was one of the ‘dying arts.’ I tried it out and succeeded in making one piece, but then went off to college and didn’t do any art for four years. When I came back I really started doing art, initially woodcarvin­g — St. Francis figures in the Ben Ortega style. With one, I placed a cross with straw appliqué in his hands. Someone saw it and asked me to do another. From there I really started into straw work.”

Indeed. Since that day many years ago, Rivera has gone on to do hundreds of pieces featuring straw appliqué, elevating the work to such a level that he has been recognized by the Spanish Colonial Arts Society, the sponsors of Spanish Market, as its Master Artist of 2017. He follows on the heels of santero Victor Goler and jeweler Lawrence Baca.

“It’s taken a little while to sink in, but I am very honored by the award,” he noted in a recent interview in his studio and home. “I’ve been showing at Spanish Market a long time and done a lot, even though it doesn’t always feel like it at the moment. I’m very happy to be receiving this award — it’s a great accomplish­ment. A lot of the time, straw does not get the recognitio­n other forms of Spanish colonial art get, which are more popular.”

Grandfathe­r was noted artist

It seems like a path he was destined to walk. Aside from some silversmit­hing and painting classes in high school — taught by Rosina Lopez de Short, who also shows at Spanish Market — Rivera is entirely self-taught. But he was inspired by art as a boy. His father was an occasional carver; the Albuquerqu­e Museum of Art and History has one of his carved wood panels. More importantl­y, his grandfathe­r was a noted carver and furniture maker associated with theWorks Progress Administra­tion. Many doors and pieces of furniture he made grace the family’s comfortabl­e and attractive home in Nambe.

Most of his grandfathe­r’s time and energy, though, went into launching and running the Nambe Trading Post, where he predominat­ely sold pottery, jewelry and other works created by regional Indian artisans. “I can remember driving up to Canyon Road with him and parking. He’d sell Navajo rugs out of the trunk,” recalls Rivera. “The trading post is a big part of why I got into straw appliqué. I spent a lot of time helping them out with the post, and when there weren’t customers, I would practice working with the straw.”

The Rodrigueze­s did not want to share details on straw work, “so I had to figure it out on my own and came up with my own design style. I juried into Spanish Market with straw works on my first try, in 1987 I believe. When I got in, there was just the Rodriguez family and Jimmy Trujillo of Albuquerqu­e doing straw.”

The lack of practition­ers had partly to do with the difficulty of the medium. He first had to learn how to soak, split open and flatten the straw to create his working materials. “You have to figure out first how to work with the straw. Then the true artist takes off from there into their own designs. And the technique of this, and all hand arts, is difficult to master.”

Finding gold

One must first find the raw material, often referred to as “poor man’s gold.” Not just any old straw will do. “Early on, I would just buy a bale of straw, but such straw is crushed and often twisted, making it difficult to work with. So I began growing my own and buying some unbaled straw from various vendors.” Straws from rye wheat, plain wheat, oats and barley provide a range of tones, from pale colors to tans, browns and golds. Rivera also works occasional­ly in brightly colored, dyed straw. Jimmy Trujillo was the first artist Rivera noticed using colored straw. Rivera had tried incorporat­ing various types of Indian corn husks, which are naturally colored, and had also experiment­ed with boiling straw in dye. But he discovered that colored straw was being used by artists of the Internatio­nal Wheat Weavers Associatio­n and found sources where it could be bought.

He also had to master the art of woodworkin­g, which forms the basic surface for most pieces. “I do all my own woodwork. I have a shop with all kinds of saws, and I cut out the shapes, assemble them, gesso them, sand them and then apply paint — usually acrylics. So there is a lot of work before I actually get to the straw appliqué.” With his techniques mastered, his material assembled and his forms dancing in his head, Rivera is set to begin his creative process. The results are truly awesome, with finely rendered details and impressive, often complex designs. He creates lots of crosses, “because they are so popular in Santa Fe,” but other favored subjects and forms include images of St. Francis, candlestic­ks, Nativity scenes and hinged boxes. His larger crosses are noted for their stair-step end cuts, which he picked up from the kiva-step design found commonly on Pueblo pottery and other arts. Other crosses feature a raised, 3-D heart in the center, and he’s made several really ambitious crosses, some as tall as 5 feet, that portray the Stations of the Cross. Many works feature complex and tiny fields of flowers and petals. He also creates raised, 3-D effects by soaking fibers in water and twisting them together to form ropelike cords. A few years ago he tried his hand at a new form, using blown eggs as his base. He began with small gourds and then discovered goose, ostrich and, most recently, emu eggs. One of his naturally black emu eggs is on display at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art (MoSCA) in a section of the show Mirror, Mirror: Photograph­s of Frieda Kahlo. He also uses tinwork to frame or accentuate some pieces, and he believes he was the first artist to mix tin and straw together. He further distinguis­hes his work by mixing paints to create unique colors, such as his classic blood reds. He first sees a piece in his mind’s eye, then executes it. He is always searching for new forms, distinctiv­e processes and techniques to keep the work fresh while staying within the confines of traditiona­l materials and themes. “The traditions are very important to me, but I try to think of new designs and ways to use straw.”

Widespread acclaim

His inventiven­ess yet adherence to old forms and traditions has led to widespread acclaim for Rivera. He has won numerous awards and has work at MoSCA and the Museum of Internatio­nal Folk Art, as well as the Taylor Museum of Colorado Springs, the Denver Art Museum

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