I spent last week in New Mexico with my husband, Eric, and my in-laws, visiting relatives in the south, then driving up north to spend some time in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. It was my first time to the Southwest, to the state where Eric was born; his grandparents came over from Mexico as teenagers and settled in Hobbs, a small oil town, and his mom grew up there, learning English in school. I enjoyed all the tastes: spicy green chiles in or on just about everything (eggs, tacos, burgers, soup, corn, French fries); piñons (pine nuts) galore sprinkled alongside dusty footpaths, ready to crack open and eat; and sopapillas (pillow-shaped fried dough drizzled with honey) after every meal.
On the five-hour upstate drive, the blue sky spread wide open across the desert and clouds hung low, casting shadows that, from the car, looked like bodies of water. The way was flat, flat, flat—until we reached Santa Fe, where mountains rose up and aspens flickered their glorious gold.
In Albuquerque we went to the International Balloon Fiesta, where hundreds of hot-air balloonists come out once a year to fly. Unfortunately, high winds prevented the “mass ascension” from happening the day we were there, but we saw static displays—inflated balloons in all shapes and colors. (My father-in-law was partial to the Darth Vader balloon; I liked the lovebirds.) And I got to visit to the artisan tent, where I bought my first nativity set! It’s seven pieces in clay by New Mexico native Barbara Boyd. I set it up in our living room when I got home, but Eric says I need to put it away until Advent . . .
We spent an afternoon in Old Town Albuquerque, strolling past historic adobe buildings and into galleries, while street musicians—Native American flautists and mariachi bands, mostly—provided a culturally immersive soundtrack. Our first stop happened to be one of my favorites: John Isaac Antiques and Folk Art. Isaac has a beautiful collection of santos (Hispano Catholic religious images)—a whole roomful—both contemporary and from the last few centuries. I was close to buying a Saint Francis bulto by Ben Ortega (Francis was his hallmark) but decided against it, and now I wish I hadn’t. Nonbuyer’s remorse—ugh.
Just before we left Old Town, my mother-in-law suggested one last gallery: Santisima, owned by Johnny Salas. I immediately recognized the work of Albuquerque native Brandon Maldonado, which is heavily influenced by the tradition of Día de los Muertos. I’m really attracted to Day of the Dead imagery, with all its macabre whimsy—the kind that makes most Protestants feel uncomfortable. I think the draw, for me, is that it embraces death instead of shrinking away from it; it says, “Death, we do not fear you.” As Maldonado says, Day of the Dead is not meant to be frightful but rather mocking, in a way:
The masses may prefer to think of the deceased as haloed angels floating on fluffy white clouds, but I like the idea of dancing skeletons in hats!
At Santisima I was introduced to the work of the young santero Vicente Telles, also a native of Albuquerque. I really liked his Adam and Eve and Saint Pelagia retablos but most especially his Crucifixion one, which I ended up buying.
It shows a curtain opening up, and two chandeliers dangling, to present Christ on the cross, given for us. As is traditional in New Mexican art, his shoulders and knees are bloodied; in Telles’s interpretation, the blood marks Christ in patterns, almost like tattoos. The animas solas (lonely souls) in the flames of purgatory is also a common motif in New Mexican art. I do not personally subscribe to the doctrine of purgatory, so I read the souls, rather, as Adam and Eve awaiting redemption. According to church tradition, Golgotha was the site not only of Christ’s execution but also of Adam’s burial, which is why, since the Middle Ages, a skull is often painted at the cross’s base, emphasizing Christ’s role as the Second Adam. Telles shows Eve reaching out to touch this death-symbol, lamenting her and Adam’s primordial rebellion and pleading in faith, with her eyes, for deliverance from its consequences. This is the precursor to the Anastasis (Resurrection) icon of Eastern Orthodoxy, which shows Jesus breaking down the doors of Sheol and pulling Adam and Eve up out of their graves to be with him in heaven. We are dead in our sins until Christ raises us. His spilled blood has “loosed the pains of death” once and for all.
To give the retablo a glistening appearance, Telles applied a micaceous clay slip to the pinewood before applying the paint.
If you’re not able to see Telles’s art in person at Santisima (he’s sold exclusively there), visit his Facebook page. Continue reading “Religious art highlights from New Mexico”