A Tradition of Making Straw into Gold

Straw inlay and overlay are enjoying a resurgence in New Mexico

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During the 1700s in many of the northern New Mexico villages, gold was a precious commodity and its use on crosses for worship was impractical. The gold had to be transported up El Camino Real from Mexico and its use was strictly supervised. The necessity to have crosses and other decorated items that had the look of gold caused the early Hispanics to "invent" a process that adhered straw, corn and wheat to wood. One technique was straw inlay or appliqué and another was encrusted straw.

Many artists started with painted wood to achieve a dark or colored solid background. Lamp black and indigo were used to color most of the crosses. Thin, dried strips and pieces of golden straw and corn husks were applied to the painted surface with a natural glue. In the encrusted straw process, some artists used a heavy natural lacquer to coat the surface after the design was completed. The result was a thick and glossy surface on the crosses.

Because the ornamentation of crosses, frames and furniture with straw was relatively fragile, not many of these historic pieces remain today. Nonetheless, some examples do exist in the permanent collection of the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, the Taylor Museum of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and in some private collections. From the few pieces available for study, today's artists have revitalized the artform and have even taken it a step beyond its historic boundaries.

Contemporary masters of straw are Paula and Eliseo Rodríguez of Santa Fe. Now in their 80s, they have won major awards for their intricately-designed crosses and retablos that portray the stations of the cross, the passion of Christ, geometrics or scenes from nature.

Sanchez: Straw Applique Cross

Image: © Jimmy Trujillo
Encrusted Straw Cross

Trujillo: Encrusted Straw Cross

Image: © Charlie Sanchez
Straw Appliqué Cross

Paula and Eliseo rediscovered the art of straw in the late 1930s as part of the Federal Art Project. They continued to refine and experiment with techniques and entered Spanish Market in the early 1970s as the first straw artists in the Market. In 1989 they received the Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Spanish Colonial Arts Society remote site Paula and Eliseo have passed down the tradition to their daughters, Vickie and Yolanda, as well as to four of their eleven grandchildren, Jessica, Monica, Gabriel and Marcial, all of whom exhibit annually in Spanish Market in Santa Fe.

Jimmy Trujillo and his family are crusaders for the encrusted straw artform. Jimmy researched the technique for many years and though it is more difficult than straw inlay and requires more time to dry and cure, he believes it to be the true historic way to work. Jimmy, his wife Debbie and daughter Cordelia, age 12, have won awards at Spanish Market, State Fair and have pieces of their work in many permanent collections including the American Museum of Straw Art in Long Beach, California.

Charlie Sánchez, Jr of Tomé, NM taught his daughter Vanessa how to do his interpretation of straw inlay and her work generally sells out in the first few hours of Spanish Market. Charlie's style is different in that he uses natural pigments to color his crosses in interesting new shades of blue, brown, green and red.

The pigments are found in local minerals and plants that he grinds up and mixes into a paint that is applied before the straw. Charlie has won awards at Spanish Market and the New Mexico State Fair for his work.

Krissa López of Española is a gifted young artist who fits in her straw appliqué work with her love of pottery, painting and printmaking.

Sanchez: wood box

Image: © Charlie Sanchez
Straw and wood appliqué box

She has won awards at Spanish Market for her straw designs but finds enjoyment in trying contemporary art forms. Her father, Félix López, an award-winning santero, uses straw appliqué decoration on some of his santos.

In 1997 fourteen adults and six youth artists were juried into Spanish Market who are using straw as their art medium. This is probably the largest number of practicing straw artists in the history of New Mexico. Some of the new and collectible straw artists to watch are: Felipe Griego, Mel Rivera, Lorrie Aguilar-Sjoberg, Diane Moya Lújan. Many of the artists give classes during the year to share the techniques and traditions.

Collectors interested in learning more about the traditional art of straw in New Mexico can meet the artists at Spanish Market remote in Santa Fe, the last full weekend of July, or at Winter Market in Santa Fe, the first full weekend of December. The New Mexico State Fair in Albuquerque also has a straw category for judging.

Read another article about Straw Art in New Mexico article by Claude Stephenson.

Thanks to Barbe Awalt and Paul Rhetts, Authors of Charlie Carrillo: Tradition & Soul and Our Saints Among Us: 400 Years of Devotional Art. On the Web at www.nmsantos.com remote

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 12

Related Pages

The National Hispanic Cultural Center of NM article
Traditional New Mexico Hispanic Crafts article

The Pomegranate in New Spain article
Santos of New Mexico: A 400 Year Tradition article

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