Reflecting on the history of Traditional Spanish Market
The mirror was made for — and sold at — the very first SpanishMarket, held in the courtyard of today’s NewMexicoMuseum of Art (then known as the Art Gallery of the Museum of New Mexico) in the late summer of 1926. Nearly three-quarters of a century later, in 1999, it was a wedding gift to my husband, Luis Tapia, and me from Anita Gonzales Thomas, a beloved family friend and Santa Fe native who had purchased the mirror at the market when she was just a teenager. The inscription on the mirror’s back, written in a loopy pencil script, reads simply: “$7.50. Sandoval.” While the writing is not that of the mirror’s maker, it’s certain that the work was made by Francisco Sandoval (1860-1944)
An old, eight-sided, tin-framed mirror hangs in a corner of my guest bathroom, where I see it nearly every day. It is 18 inches tall and 15 inches wide, with large hand-stamped rosettes adorning each angled corner of its handsoldered frame. A delicate ripple of tin ribbon rises in relief above the flat mirror glass, creating a frame within a frame. The glass itself is thick, its surface freckled with age.
Artistically, the mirror is not especially remarkable or highly refined. Historically, however, it is extraordinary. The mirror was made for — and sold at — the very first Spanish Market, held in the courtyard of today’s New Mexico Museum of Art (then known as the Art Gallery of the Museum of New Mexico) in the late summer of 1926. Nearly three-quarters of a century later, in 1999, it was a wedding gift to my husband, Luis Tapia, and me from Anita Gonzales Thomas, a beloved family friend and Santa Fe native who had purchased the mirror at the market when she was just a teenager.
Anita was a longtime schoolteacher, widely noted as a pioneer in bilingual education and cultural preservation. She was also a longtime supporter of Spanish Market, and she won a blue ribbon for a colcha embroidery bedspread at the 1933 market. In the late 1960s, she began volunteering at the market, and she later served on the board of directors of the Spanish Colonial Arts Society, the market’s parent organization.
Anita was already in her 90s when Luis and I married, and she died not long after our wedding. In passing her treasured mirror down to us, she ensured that it would forever reflect her memory in our minds and eyes. But this was more than just a gift of marriage or friendship. Anita knew that the memory of the mirror extended far beyond her experience and our own.
With this magnanimous gesture, Anita entrusted us to remember and preserve a piece of history. She knew that this work of metal and glass, and hand and heat and heart, would embody the building blocks of a cultural movement that changed the Hispano arts landscape in New Mexico forever.
The inscription on the mirror’s back, written in a loopy pencil script, reads simply: “$7.50. Sandoval.” While the writing is not that of the mirror’s maker, it’s certain that the work was made by Francisco
The 1928 market featured work by two prolific early-20thcentury artists: Celso Gallegos (1863-1943) and José Dolores López (1868-1937). Their careers reflect this unique transition from community-based to marketplace production of “traditional Spanish colonial art.” Sandoval (1860-1944), a Santa Fe tinsmith who, along with artists working in other genres, quite literally had a hand in the revival of New Mexican Spanish colonial art in the early 20th century.
Sandoval owned a tin shop on Water Street in Santa Fe, which also specialized in plumbing, roofing and general repairs. Sandoval’s tinwork was distinguished by his use of terneplate, a manufactured sheet iron coated with a tinlead alloy, a material surely related to his work in roofing. The material also reflected an overall shift from the use of salvaged tin cans to terneplate among early-20th-century tinsmiths, who took advantage of newly available imports to New Mexico.
Terneplate’s darker lead-tin coating provided a ready patina that made brand new works appear aged, appealing to collectors of the period drawn to New Mexican antiquities crafted during the state’s Spanish colonial and Mexican eras. It was two of these collectors, writer Mary Austin and artist Frank Applegate, whose interest in handmade works by native Hispano artists inspired the movement that launched Spanish Market.
Austin first visited Taos in 1918 to survey the effects of Americanization on New Mexico’s Native American and Hispano communities. She moved permanently to Santa Fe in 1924, renting a home on Camino del Monte Sol from Frank and Alta Applegate. Frank Applegate, an artist and writer, had started a collection of New Mexican santos (saints) after arriving in Santa Fe in 1921. By 1925 the collection comprised some 200 bultos (religious sculptures) and retablos (religious paintings). Austin and Applegate’s mutual interest in these and other locally made Hispano art forms made them fast friends. By then, the buying and selling of historic New Mexican santos, largely among new Anglo-American residents of the area, had created a brisk market for an artistic tradition believed to be dead by many collectors. It was true that the increased availability of mass-produced religious and household goods had reduced their local production. However, as Austin later wrote in New Mexico Quarterly, she and Applegate “came to realize that the capacity for handicraft, of a fine and satisfying quality . . . had not completely disintegrated. We began to discuss the possibility of reviving it.”
In 1925 the two cofounded the Spanish Colonial Arts Society, then more commonly known as the Society for the Revival of the Spanish Colonial Arts. While its general mission was to promote and preserve what Austin called “Spanish colonial art,” the term was historically inaccurate. Many of the art forms they sought to revive, including santos, textiles and tinwork, were made well after the Spanish colonial period, into the Mexican era (1821-1846) and late 19th century. More important than terminology, however, was their initial focus to support the skills of living Hispano artists directly connected to these historic art forms.
In the summer of 1926, the society’s efforts “to broadcast a list of examples of such crafts as might be profitable to revive and to offer prizes for new work that conformed most exactly to the old models” came together at the Spanish Fair, held in conjunction with Santa Fe Fiesta. Fifteen artists displayed, sold and competed for cash prizes for their creations, mostly religious images. Among the works on view was a simple, solid, beautiful tin mirror by Francisco Sandoval.
On August 4, 1926, The Santa Fe NewMexican said of the inaugural Spanish Market: “Spanish Colonial Arts Exhibition Is Unique,” an experience of “curious and beautiful things seen.” A week later, the newspaper further noted that the exhibition featured “rare old specimens” loaned by local collectors along with newly created works — a juxtaposition of “new ideas, with the old ideals as patterns.”
Although the market was small, the moment was big, the start of a monumental shift in the cultural identity and economy of the New Mexico Hispano community. As objects of daily life were moved out of local churches and homes for use as art and decor, and as local artisans were elevated to the pedestal of a downtown art museum, the formula for an arts revival was set. It combined the cultural legacy of the makers with the economic enterprise of the patrons. It also placed a new value — aesthetic and monetary — on the concept of “tradition” that would resonate and be debated to the present day.
Hispano artisans in the colonial and Mexican periods had always adapted their creations to reflect technological changes, new materials and tools, and broader aesthetic trends. They had also traded and sold santos and other traditional objects within the context of their communities. But with the new market movement, patrons exercised a strong influence on Hispano artists, encouraging stylistic variations to meet personal tastes and to make items marketable to mostly non-New Mexican, non- Catholic buyers. For example, santos became decorative objects, tin candle sconces were wired for electricity and wood-carvers made everything from magazine racks to miniature animal-inspired tourist trinkets.
In an incredible feat of successful branding, everything in the new market — from the artworks to their makers — was promoted as “traditional” and “Spanish colonial.” Within a few years, the market brand had been embraced by the public and the artists alike. Indeed, by the 1928 market, The Santa Fe NewMexican was extolling the art and artists with this headline :“Beautiful Workmanship by the Spanish Colonials .”
The 1928 market featured work by two prolific early-20th-century artists: Celso Gallegos (1863-1943) and José Dolores López (1868-1937). Their careers reflect this unique transition from community-based to marketplace production of “traditional Spanish colonial art.”
Both Gallegos and López were actively working as wood-carvers before being recruited to exhibit their work at Spanish Market. Both created innovative religious and secular images, from wooden animals to furniture to santos. Each also developed a distinctive style of unpainted santos, a notable departure from the painted santos made by local colonial- and Mexican-era santeros (saint makers).
Gallegos, of Agua Fria, whose works were voted most popular at the 1926 Spanish Market, created bultos that exaggerated the natural knots and twists in local woods, as well as relief-carved and cutout retablos. López, of Cordova, who originally entered the market to sell furniture, soon developed a dramatic and complex style of chip-carved santos. Both were extremely devout men steeped in Catholicism — Gallegos as the sacristan and prayer leader of his village church of San Isidro, and López as a member of his village’s Penitente brotherhood. Yet each went beyond mere replication of centuries-old prototypes.
In every sense, both artists were fully original. If their works were defined as “traditional,” it was only in the context of the time. Still, each understood the financial opportunity the market offered. Each participated wholeheartedly in the creation of the cottage industry of Spanish colonial art as a way to economically benefit themselves and their communities.
Throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, Spanish Market assumed a critical role in the village economy of Northern New Mexico as increased public interest inspired a resurgence in production of handmade works and brought vital dollars to local families. But as the Depression got under way, the renewed interest in Hispano arts waned. With Applegate’s unexpected death in 1931, followed by Austin’s death in 1934, the society lost steam.
Other efforts to teach and promote traditional arts continued throughout the 1930s through the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, state vocational schools and private retail spaces. Hispano arts advocate Leonora Frances Curtin organized a brief society revival in 1938. But by the end of the decade, all was eclipsed by World War II.
In 1952 another revival of the Spanish Colonial Arts Society was organized, this time by E. Boyd, a former Federal Art Project worker who would become the Museum of New Mexico’s first curator of Spanish colonial art. Boyd would also become curator of the Spanish Colonial Arts Society collection, a selection of historic New Mexican Hispano art forms and non-New Mexican comparable objects that had been amassed by market organizers since 1928.
Boyd’s curatorial work refined an emerging field of scholarship around NewMexican Spanish colonial art. Her interpretation and documentation of traditional Hispano religious and domestic arts ultimately led to her pioneering 1974 book Popular Arts of Spanish NewMexico, now considered among the most influential scholarship in the field.
During her research, Boyd found that many contemporary New Mexicans had continued practicing the traditional art forms inspired by the prewar revival, and she encouraged new artists to pursue the work. By 1965 there was enough renewed interest in Spanish colonial art among artists, collectors and preservationists to set the stage for Spanish Market’s reprise.
Eighteen exhibitors attended the 1965 market, held on the Plaza portal of the First National Bank of Santa Fe in conjunction with the newly revived Indian Market. The new Spanish Market highlighted a unique mix of artists whose presence bridged the decades between the prewar and postwar revivals. They included colcha embroiderer Tillie Gaboldon Stark, who had begun selling her art in the early 1930s, and George López, José Dolores López’s son, who continued his father’s chip-carved style of santos and secular objects. At the same time, new names, such as wood-carver Ben Ortega and silversmith Andy Rivera, represented new generations and expressions in Spanish colonial art.
In 1971 the market of approximately 30 artists relocated to the portal of the Palace of the Governors. In 1972 the market earned its own permanent spot on the Plaza during the last full weekend of July. In 1981 a children’s category was introduced.
The market’s postwar evolution reflected a new energy around the once-intimate event. Among other influences, the civil rights activism of the 1960s had created new awareness of Hispano heritage, inspiring young Hispanos to take pride in their age- old traditions. This in turn inspired a new wave of activity and scholarship around traditional arts, often undertaken by young local artists and scholars. Whatever the inspiration, the period between the ’60s and the ’90s drew countless new makers, new art forms and new collectors into the “Spanish colonial” circle.
The resurgence continues today. This year’s 67th annual Traditional SpanishMarket features some 250 artists from NewMexico and southern Colorado, working in nearly 20 categories now defined by the society as traditional Spanish colonial art. Beyond such traditional standbys as santos, tinwork, weaving and straw appliqué, the market now encourages “innovations within tradition,” inviting artists to reinterpret traditional subjects, iconography and techniques from a modern- day sensibility.
While the names of artists who have joined the market ranks since 1965 are impossible to list here, their participation has propelled the market to become the world’s largest exhibition of traditional New Mexican Hispano arts. Their works — whether fully replicative or wholly innovative — continue to fold history into the present.
Ninety-two years after the first Spanish Market, the old terneplate and glass mirror that hangs in my house still fulfills its original function.
Materially, it continues to hold up, extolling the craftsmanship of its maker.
Aesthetically, it still reflects the “new ideas” and “old ideals” observed by a NewMexican reporter at the inaugural market.
Culturally, it maintains the DNA of the diverse communities that converged to inspire its making.
Personally, the mirror still reflects the generous spirit of Anita Gonzales Thomas.
It’s hard to know what Anita would think of the market now, how she would define “tradition” in our day and age. I think of her paying $7.50 for this priceless work of art and either bemoaning or celebrating what a tin mirror costs at the market today. Either way, I think she would be pleased to know that her people’s art is still being valued by artists and buyers.
More than anything, I know that Anita would take satisfaction in the fact that some concept of tradition — however one chooses to define or express it — is still fueling the market and energizing its artists. She would be happy that her mirror, its reflection on creativity and her traditions live on.