Surviving the centuries

Discover New Mexico's Spanish colonial art in timeless High Road villages, historic churches, galleries, and a vibrant new museum

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Homegrown art

Despite personal and creative roots that reach deeply into the state's history, many of these artists have been largely overlooked.

"Back in the 1940s," says Cruz Flores, a santero from Las Vegas, New Mexico, "a lot of people, including some well-known artists who ventured to New Mexico, thought this art was cartoonish and childlike, and that it might be lacking in sophistication. That it wasn't refined."

Flores, who carves sacred images in wood, is very much a traditionalist and maintains that the art is an expression of the artist's faith and soul. Like many santeros, he learned from other artists, including the renowned Charles M. Carrillo. For Flores, there is almost a ritual aspect to his work that begins when he goes out each year to the forest to find piñon pitch for varnish and plants for natural pigments.

Other artists, including past Spanish Market winner Luis Eligio Tapia, break from the past by blending traditional iconography with contemporary imagery. Tapia's work includes an updated image of the Virgin Mary, as she mourns over the body of Christ. In Tapia's painted carving, a mother dressed in a colorful, flowing rebozo cradles her shirtless, jeans-wearing son beneath the glow of a streetlight as he lies dying from gang violence.

"If you suppress your freedom of speech, you suppress your art. You suppress your heart," says Tapia. "And there's a need to teach the young. If I show a gang member or a low rider, a kid may then see that piece and be able to understand it."

Look at the crowd assembled for Sunday mass at Chimayo, and it's clear that today's Spanish colonial art―whether traditional or contemporary―is anything but an anachronism. It directly connects the past and present. Some of the parishioners' faces are straight out of the reredos on the church walls, while motorcyclists bearing votive candles and teenagers in T-shirts and basketball shoes could have stepped out of one of Tapia's works.

"The art is something truly New Mexican that continues," says Cruz Flores. "Something that only New Mexico could produce."

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