Straw Art in New Mexico

A unique artform with a bright future

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Spinning straw into gold. Like Rumpelstiltskin of fairy tale fame, many New Mexican Spanish Colonial artists are quite literally turning pieces of straw into highly collectable and valuable art. The Spanish Colonial Arts Society lists 22 adult straw artists who were juried into their popular annual Summer Spanish Market this past year. Of all the Spanish Colonial art forms in New Mexico, straw is fast becoming the most popular. But it wasn’t always this way. This art form very nearly died out in the early twentieth century.

No one knows exactly how and when straw art arrived in New Mexico. Noted folk arts scholar E. Boyd claimed in her 1959 booklet, Popular Arts of Colonial New Mexico, that the Moors taught straw art to the Spanish who then brought it to their northern colony. That claim is entirely possible, but Spain and the Moors were not the only Europeans working in the medium. Belarus and neighboring Poland both have a long history making intricate art with pieces of straw. Straw art also exists in the Netherlands and I have been told that the Peterborough Museum in England has a collection of straw inlay done by French prisoners during the French Revolution.

 

Moore: Hilili katsina

Image: © Jimmy Trujillo
"Encrusted Straw Cross"

Straw artist Jimmy Trujillo, who has done extensive research on the subject, believes that the practice of this art in New Mexico predates the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. However, no pieces from this period have remained for modern art historians to examine and authenticate. The earliest piece that has been found to date was crafted in the early 1800s. Trujillo believes that many of the designs and motifs on some of the early straw work display Native American influences. Indeed, the area around Santa Ana Pueblo and the area around San Juan Pueblo were historically the principle manufacturing sites for this art.

Although straw appliqué (or encrusted straw) crosses are attributed to the Spanish colonists, it was the Pueblo of Santa Ana, where artists continued to make straw boxes and crosses and still practice this art form today, that likely kept it from completely dying out in the early twentieth century. However, credit for the revival is typically given to the WPA (Works Progress Administration) and Eliseo and Paula Rodriguez for rescuing the art form from oblivion in the 1930s. At the same time that the Rodriguezes began to reproduce straw art, using modern glues instead of the more traditional method of pine resin varnish, Spanish Market, which had begun as an annual event in 1926, ceased operation. Even without the benefit of an annual market to sell their work, Eliseo and Paula continued perfecting their art with straw and sold to whoever learned of them by word of mouth.

 

In 1965, Spanish Market was revived and the Rodriguezes and their straw appliqué crosses soon gained popularity among a large number of art collectors. During this time, Eliseo and Paula taught many other young aspiring artists the craft. Eventually, the Rodriguez’s work became so well known that they were awarded the highly prestigious National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship Award in 2004. Both now in their 90s and losing their eyesight, the Rodriguezes no longer create the art they popularized; but their work is still highly prized and sought by serious collectors.

In the 1980s, Jimmy Trujillo became interested in the art form. His research led him to believe that the method of gluing the pieces that the Rodriguezes had perfected and popularized was not the traditional way the old artists constructed their pieces. Trujillo theorized that the old masters used a sticky resin varnish to attach the straw to the wood. This theory was verified when he discovered that Europeans, such as the Belarus, were still employing this technique in their modern pieces. However, the Belarus referred to their art as encrusted straw, not straw appliqué. Trujillo decided that this was a more apt term for the technique than appliqué and now refers to his work as such.

Analyzing several old pieces and assisted by noted Spanish Colonial Arts expert Dr. Charles Carrillo, Trujillo recreated a piñon resin varnish that he believed was the proper adhesive. The recipe was simple: everclear alcohol, or highly distilled corn liquor, was added to dissolve the piñon sap resin and painted on the wood. As the alcohol evaporated, it left a hard and durable varnish. To create the background colors of the old masters, Trujillo successfully experimented with materials that the early Spanish colonists would have had access to: lamp black, red vermillion, and blue indigo, which were trade products of Mexico to the south. After many years of experimentation, Trujillo has now mastered the style of workmanship of the old pieces and is now passing down these techniques to the next generation of straw artists.

Like any lasting traditional art, and especially one so popular as straw appliqué, the art form is dynamic and evolving in modern ways while still remaining largely within “tradition.” Today’s New Mexican straw artists are discovering, meeting and sharing styles and techniques with other straw artists in different parts of the United States, Mexico, and Europe. One technique currently gaining popularity is the use of straw that has been dyed into many colors. Traditionally, New Mexican straw work universally utilized only the natural colors of the straw itself. Colored straw is now being imported from France and other European countries where it has long been in use. The use of colored straw adds a new dimension to an old form that is strikingly effective, especially in works depicting pastoral scenes or straw portraits of the many Catholic saints.

Moore: Hototo katsina

Image: © Martha Varoz Ewing
"Tin and Mica Cross"
Straw appliqué

What the future holds for straw art in New Mexico is not known, but the future looks quite bright indeed. For an art form that was all but pronounced dead in the early part of the twentieth century, it has recovered and flourished nicely. Today, it is some of the most highly collectible art available at Spanish Market and many straw artists sell out on the opening day. The Spanish colonists who came to New Mexico looking for gold 450 years ago may not have found what they were looking for, but their alchemist descendents still living here today have now found a way to manufacture their own.


Thanks to Claude Stephenson, Ph.D, who is the State Folklorist for the State of New Mexico.

Originally appeared in The Wingspread Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque – Vol 21


Related Pages

A Tradition of Making Straw into Gold article
Glossary of Hispanic Folk Art Terms article

The Pomegranate in New Spain article
Traditional New Mexican Hispanic Crafts article


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Museum of International Folk Art | 505-476-1145
The Owings Gallery | 505-982-6244
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