From the Collection

Larry and Alyce Frank Collection NMHM/DCA 2007.032.228

San Ignacio de Loyola retablo by José Aragón, ca. 1820-1835.
San Ignacio de Loyola / St. Ignatius of Loyola (Oct 23, 1491-July 31,1556) was part of a noble Basque family who underwent a spiritual conversion following a military campaign where he was severely injured. This experience led him to write the Spiritual Exercises as a path for seeking the will of God. San Ignacio co-founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1540, and spent the rest of his life promoting missionization and education.

José Aragón, a well-known santero (maker of Nuevomexicano Catholic objects) active in the Mexican period of New Mexico’s history, produced retablos (paintings on panel) and bultos (carved wooden sculptures) in and around the Santa Fe area. His depiction of San Ignacio shows the saint in a typical pose, holding what is presumably the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus with the order’s Christogram on the front.

This retablo is part of the Larry and Alyce Frank Collection of over two hundred retablos, bultos, and cristos (crucifixes) that the couple collected for nearly forty years throughout northern New Mexico. Regular visitors to the museum will remember seeing the Frank Collection in Tesoros de Devoción, a beloved exhibition in the Palace of the Governors that celebrated the work of Nuevomexicano santeros and their santos.

An NM PBS video highlighting the Tesoros de Devocion exhibtion

Our Lady Takes a Trip to the Doctor

We told you recently about the Conservation Lab’s investigation into the probable painting-behind-a-painting of Nuestra Señora de San Juan de los Lagos (Our Lady of Saint John of the Lakes). Today, the painting took a trip to Albuquerque, where a friendly radiologist and his staff put her under their high-tech equipment for a look more intense than Museums of New Mexico equipment allows.

Dr. Jim Lowry (at left, with radiographer Cassie Barth) at El Camino Imaging Center invited Museum Resoures Division Conservator Mina Thompson and History Museum curator Josef Diaz to bring the painting in after another physician relayed our suspicions and limitations to him. He volunteered the use of his center’s equipment and staff, intrigued as we were at this unusual juncture of art, history and science.

Here’s the painting’s story, in a nutshell: Contract conservator Steven Prins had uncovered some evidence of an earlier painting beneath the ca. 1820 image painted by José Aragón while cleaning the waxy, sooty, flaked and cracked canvas. Thompson, the lead conservator in the investigation, aimed the Conservation Lab’s best equipment at it and found some evidence that indicated there were indeed two layers of paint containing different minerals — one sign that the paintings were done in different eras.

The painting comes from the New Mexico History Museum’s Larry Frank Collection, which includes numerous examples of Aragón’s bultos and retablos. Paintings on canvas were rare in his 1820-1850 creative arc, because the medium was difficult to obtain in northern New Mexico’s frontier conditions.

One theory holds that the initial painting came up El Camino Real and hung in a church or home where it suffered some kind of damage. At that point, Aragón may have been hired to re-create the image or develop a new one — an option he likely would have jumped at just for the chance to try something new.

At the imaging center, Lowry, Barth and lab manager Beth Rocco put the painting through a series of X-ray workouts of various intensities, each time crowding around computer screens to see what might be revealed. Early on, a ghostly image raised a flutter of intrigue: What appeared to be three lines of a signature or inscription glowed on the screen, tantalizingly. A different intensity of image, though, showed the lines to be part of the crown that Our Lady wears in the visible part of the painting, with the X-ray machine picking up on the lead or mercury contained in the red paint.

As further images failed to produce anything more conclusive than some curious dots, the technician who runs the center’s CT scan offered to put the painting into its tube during a rare 10-minute break in his patient schedule. With that test, we could photograph thin-as-skin layers of the painting, which we hoped would give us a better idea of what lies beneath.

Alas, there was no clear-cut answer, at least immediately. Thompson is taking a series of images back to the Conservation Lab, where she’ll piece them together and see whether she can make some better conclusions about the hands that have worked this canvas. “It’s going to take some interpreting,” she said. (Just so you know, and we’re not kidding here: Should any scientists at the Los Alamos or Sandia labs be willing to offer up even more high-tech equipment, we’ll be there.)

The effort became something of a group exercise at El Camino Imaging, with various physicians and technicians weighing in with their suggestions. Lowry admitted that he had spent some time on Google looking for other examples of X-ray paintings.

“This is fun,” Rocco said. “We had a little bit of experience a few years back when we did a CT on a mummy for a museum. Radiology gets to do some interesting things–not that our patients aren’t interesting, but this is out of the usual realm. We don’t have to ask this `patient’ to hold their breath.”

We extend our deepest gratitude to Dr. Jim Lowry, Cassie Barth, Beth Rocco, and all the other staff members who helped make today possible. In addition, we’d like to thank Dr. Margaret Chaffey and Dr. Malcolm Purdy. She doesn’t speak very often, so we can’t ssay for certain, but we’re pretty sure Our Lady had a good time, too.

From Mexico City to Santa Fe: How the Camino Real Changed the Santeros’ Craft

Earlier this year, History Museum Director Frances Levine and Josef Diaz, curator of Southwest and Mexican Colonial Art and History Collections, were in Mexico City, talking to officials at the Museo Franz Mayer about their museum possibly exhibiting some of the retablos and bultos from our Treasures of Devotion/Tesoros de Devoción exhibition. At one point, Director Héctor Rivero Borrell brought out a few retablos he had recently purchased for the Franz Mayer.

“He asked what we thought of them,” Diaz recalls. “They were very similar to New Mexican pieces but were not New Mexican. I could tell they were not made in New Mexico.”

At that moment, the seed of a future exhibition took root.

In a grand partnership resembling the mash-up of three U.S. museums and a Spanish museum behind last year’s exhibition, The Threads of Memory: Spain and the United States, the History Museum is now partnering with the Franz Mayer, the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe, and the San Antonio (Texas) Museum of Art for yet another bi-national exhibition. We recently received a $23,000 convening grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art in Chicago to lay the groundwork for a collaborative exhibition on the art of santos, one of the most definining art forms of this region.

(Santos are carved and painted images of saints. Santeros are the people who create them. Santos include bultos, three-dimensional figures, like the one above, and retablos, two-dimensional pieces painted on wood, like the one below. Both of these santos are from Treasures of Devotion.)

Images of saints that are manufactured like this are often treated like stepchildren in Mexico because they’re not done in the academic tradition,” Diaz said. “They’re a little naive in how they’re painted.”

When he and Levine saw the Franz Mayer pieces, Diaz recalls, “We thought maybe they were produced along the Camino Real corridor, outside of the academic center, where they didn’t have the formal schools but were aware of the academic training. Maybe they were a prelude to what was being made in New Mexico along the corridor.”

With the grant, the museums are looking at the larger picture of the art of santos and may revise historical interpretations of the  tradition from the mid-18th century to the first quarter of the 20th century in New Mexico, using works from the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors, Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, other museums and private collections.

The plan is to mount an exhibit that will illustrate how the art form developed as it moved beyond the academic center of Mexico City into the colonial “wilds” of northern New Spain. Were different native materials used? Did the long distance and relative isolation affect santeros’ artistic interpretations? By  juxtaposing Mexican and New Mexican devotional pieces, organizers hope to emphasize their connections in terms of style and religious conviction.

“Maybe these Mexican pieces can fill in the scholarly gap between Mexico City’s and northern New Mexico’s styles,” Diaz said. “We know that there was a strong artistic connection along the Camino Real, and this makes me think that these pieces are predecessors to what was eventually made in New Mexico.”

Anyone who’s visited Santa Fe during Spanish Market knows that this artistic tradition is still a vibrant part of the lives of Hispanic communities in New Mexico. To emphasize that, the exhibition will include a sampling of modern works.

The exhibit is anticipated to run from 2015 through 2016. It will first travel to Mexico City, then San Antonio, and finally to the Palace of the Governors.

In July, museum directors and scholars from Mexico, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico gathered at the History Museum to begin their planning. Attendees brought their expertise on santos and Mexican religious craftsmanship. The group visited the Palace of the Governors, Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, and Museum of International Folk Art to begin assembling a collection for the exhibit. They also discussed conceptual material and a research plan to move the project forward.

Next step? The group reconvenes in Mexico City in October.


Beyond the Marlboro Man

When we think of the American West, our minds tend to conjure images of gunfighters, Indian wars and cattle barons. If we think of women at all, it’s most likely a saloon girl or Calamity Jane.

Historians know that’s hardly the distaff story of the West. From Native women who oversaw corn production and the building of adobe homes to Hispanic weavers, artists and property owners, to Anglo businesswomen, physicians and environmental stewards, the female side of the story of the West too often seems to fade into the Victorian wallpaper.

Up to now, that is.

Spanish American Woman plastering, Chamisal, New Mexico, photograph by Russel Lee, 1940. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USF33-012823-M5

Spanish American Woman plastering, Chamisal, New Mexico, photograph by Russel Lee, 1940. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USF33-012823-M5

This summer, the New Mexico History Museum begins filling in the historical gaps with four exhibitions focused on women past and present. Let’s round ’em up:

1. Home Lands: How Women Made the West, June 19-Sept. 11, a traveling exhibition from the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, features additional materials from the History Museum’s collections. The largest of the summer’s four exhibits, it sweeps across the centuries in three regions: the Rio Arriba of northern New Mexico; Colorado’s Front Rage; and the Puget Sound.

Evelyn Fite Tune, a longtime rancher outside Socorro, NM. Photo by Ann Bromberg, courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives.

Evelyn Fite Tune, a longtime rancher outside Socorro, NM. Photo by Ann Bromberg, courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives.

2. Ranch Women of New Mexico, April 15-Oct. 30 in the Mezzanine Gallery, highlights 11 women in this excerpt from an exhibit originally prepared by photographer Ann Bromberg and writer Sharon Niederman.

3. New Mexico’s African American Legacy: Visible, Vital, Valuable, May 15-Oct. 9 in the second-floor Gathering Space, tells the stories of the families who planted their roots and created a home in the Land of Enchantment following the Civil War.

4. Heart of the Home, May 27-Nov. 20 in La Ventana Gallery, spotlights historic kitchen items from the History Museum’s collections.

(Yes, they open at different times; that’s a reality of what it takes to mount an exhibition.)

“Since its opening in 2009, the New Mexico History Museum’s exhibits have included the stories of men, women and children – a conscious effort on our part to broaden the telling of history,” said museum director Frances Levine. “This summer’s exhibits highlight that commitment by focusing squarely on the contributions made by women that don’t begin and end with popular Western stereotypes.”

So you won’t find Miss Kitty or Calamity Jane or even Santa Fe’s own legendary madame, Dona Tules, in any of the exhibits. Instead, their shared focus is the universal desire to set down roots and create that place called “home.” That seemingly simple act is “a potent way of changing the world,” say Home Lands curators Virginia Scharff and Carolyn Brucken. Home Lands puts women at the center of that focus for a simple reason, the women write in their companion book: “Seeing women in history makes history look different.”

Among the women you will see in the exhibits:

Fabiola Cabeza de Baca in front of New Mexican schoolhouse, photographer and date unknown. Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert Photograph Collectioon, Center for the Southwest Research, University of New Mexico

Fabiola Cabeza de Baca in front of New Mexican schoolhouse, photographer and date unknown. Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert Photograph Collectioon, Center for the Southwest Research, University of New Mexico

Fabiola Cabeza de Baca. A Las Vegas, NM, native, this teacher and writer elevated both the art and science of homemaking from the Depression forward, blending traditional practices with modern-day conveniences. Beginning in the 1950s, her expertise went global when she started home-economics programs in Central and South America for the United Nations and became a trainer for the Peace Corps. Her story is included in Home Lands.

Legendary cowgirl Fern Sawyer. Photo by Ann Bromberg, courtesy of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives.

Legendary cowgirl Fern Sawyer. Photo by Ann Bromberg, courtesy of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives.

Fern Sawyer. New Mexico’s best-known cowgirl spent 77 years living up to her motto: “Do all you can as fast as you can.” An inductee into the Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame, Cowgirl Hall of Fame and National Cutting Horse Hall of Fame, Sawyer passed away in 1993, still with her boots on, still in the saddle. Ranch Women of New Mexico includes her story.

Clara Belle Drisdale. Photo courtesy New Mexico State University Archives.

Clara Belle Drisdale. Photo courtesy New Mexico State University Archives.

Clara Belle Drisdale Williams. In 1937, she became the first African American to graduate from New Mexico State University. After a career of teaching others, she received an honorary law degree from NMSU in 1980, along with an apology for how she was treated as a student. You’ll find her story in New Mexico’s African American Legacy.

Other New Mexico women in Home Lands: Pueblo potter Maria Martinez; painter Pablita Velarde; photographer Laura Gilpin; archaeologist Bertha Dutton; santera Gloria Lopez Cordova; Santa Clara Pueblo artist Nora Naranjo Morse; and poet and playwright Joy Harjo.

The Autry drew on its extensive collections to organize the exhibit, but also purchased must-have items, including Pablita Velarde’s monumental mural, Green Corn Dance. It’s impressive even in a computer-screen’s small scale:


Artifacts range from a 1,200-year-old Mogollon metate to a 20th-century station wagon, textiles, clothing, pottery, paintings, photographs, sculpture, books, and an art piece made of computer components by contemporary artist Marion Martinez.

To kick things off, the Museum of New Mexico Foundation is holding a $200-a-person party called Celebrate on Saturday, June 18. Put on your fancy Western wear and enjoy fine wines and creative cuisine in the Palace Courtyard. Learn more, including how to buy tickets by clicking here.

Throughout the summer, we’ll have special lectures, workshops and symposiums to further deepen your knowledge of women in the West. All these events are free and in the History Museum auditorium unless otherwise noted:

Sunday, June 12, 2 pm: Symposium on “The Journey of the African American North,” including stories from Santa Fe and Española.

Sunday, June 26, 2 pm: “Captive Women in the Slave System of the Southwest Borderland.” Lecture by James F. Brooks, president of the School for Advanced Research and prize-winning author of Captives & Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands.

Sunday, July 10, 2 pm: “Fabiola Cabeza de Baca and The Good Life.” Lecture by Tey Diana Rebolledo, regents professor at the University of New Mexico.

Sunday, July 17, 2 pm: “Moving Around to Settle In: Women of the Plains and Range.” Lecture by Virginia Scharff, co-curator of Home Lands and director of UNM’s Center for the Southwest.

Monday, 9 am to 4:30 pm, and Tuesday, 9 am to 12 pm: “Planting Seeds:  Home, Healing and Horticulture.” Conference in collaboration with the New Mexico Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. $25.  (Details pending.)

Sunday, Aug. 7, 2-5 pm: “Homespun: Northern New Mexico Spinning and Weaving Techniques.” Members of the Española Valley Fiber Arts Center demonstrate Pueblo, Navajo and Spanish techniques in the Palace Courtyard.

Friday, Aug. 12, 6 pm: “Through Her Eyes: An American Indian Woman’s Perspective.” Lecture by Eunice Petramala, park ranger at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.

Sunday, Sept. 25, 2 pm: Symposium on “Entrepreneurship in the African American Community,” from barbers to caterers, mechanics to artists.

Home Lands is generously supported by Cam and Peter Starret, Ernst & Young, Eastman Kodak Company, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Unified Grocers, Wells Fargo, KCET and the Friends of the Autry. Local support is provided by Stanley S. and Karen Hubbard, Dr. Ezekiel and Edna Wattis Dumke Foundation, the Museum of New Mexico Foundation, the Palace Guard and the Montezuma Ball.

NEH Teachers Take Up NM Crafts

NEH teachers - retablos 2The Palace Courtyard was cool, with a reasonable amount of shade this morning — a far cry from the lightning storm predicted for later today. A perfect time, in short, to try out a little plein air painting, New Mexico-style. The teachers participating in this week’s NEH-UNM program, “Contested Homelands: Knowledge, History and Culture of Historic Santa Fe,” ditched the lecture tables in favor of some hands-on activities: creating retablos and punched-tin frames, under the guidance of two notable New Mexico artists.

Santero Gabriel J. Vigil is a Raton native who gave up dreams of professional boxing to build an artist’s career in Santa Fe. Winner of multiple awards for his retablos and bultos at Spanish Market, he hasn’t forgotten his roots and regularly works with children, passing along his art skills to them. Thanks to that experience, he likely had a few tricks up his sleeve when he set out to teach our teachers. He gave them a few hints, provided some drawings for them to work off of, then set them loose.

The results? Soulful and stirring.

A group of teachers in the NEH-UNM workshop enjoy painting retablos on a cool Santa Fe morning.

A group of teachers in the NEH-UNM workshop enjoy painting retablos on a cool Santa Fe morning.

A sacred heart design takes wing.

A sacred heart design takes wing.

Inside the Palace, another group of teachers created a din usually reserved for construction sites. Cleo Romero, a Nambe-based artist, showed them a selection of her punched-tin work — which, in 2006, won top honors in Santa Fe’s Spanish Market. With the assistance of some patterns, nails and hammers, she let the participants work off any potential aggressions by pounding out their own creations.

NEH teachers - tinwork 2

Using a paper pattern, one of the teachers lines up her punched-tin design.

With Romero's works for inspiration (hanging, at right), teachers get to pounding.

With Romero's works for inspiration (hanging, at right), teachers get to pounding.

If any of that got you inspired,take note: Cleo will teach a free tinwork class next Wednesday from 10 am to 2 pm at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Arts. (Call 982-2226 for details.) For further inspiration, check out the online version of Treasures of Devotion; Tesoros de Devocion, the exquisite exhibit in the Palace of the Governors celebrating the work of New Mexico’s legendary santeros.