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Folk Art Runs Through It

As far as North American cities go, Santa Fe is downright ancient. Though it was founded in 1610, New Mexico’s capitol city is located in the heart of a state that was once home to prehistoric indigenous populations. Two pueblo villages—Acoma and Taos—are among the oldest continually inhabited communities in the United States. It seems fitting that Santa Fe boasts an institution focused on exhibiting traditional folk arts from around the world. When Chicago-born heiress and philanthropist Florence Dibell Bartlett founded the Museum of International Folk Art (MOIFA) in 1953, it was the first exhibition space of its kind in the world, and today it is the largest. Part of Bartlett’s original mission statement is scrolled across the museum’s main entrance: “The art of the craftsman is a bond between the peoples of the world.”

The museum is a ten minute drive from the city’s historic downtown and is joined by the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, the Spanish Colonial Museum, and, a bit farther along the road, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. Together, these institutions cluster on a part of the city known as Museum Hill.

MOIFA is split into four unique gallery wings, featuring both items from the permanent collection—a total of nearly 150,000 individual works—as well as works from various visiting exhibitions. A recent Sunday saw a flurry of people involved in hands-on exercises at an exhibit called Between Two Worlds: Folk Artist’s Reflect on the Immigrant Experience. It’s situated just off the museum’s front entrance in the modestly sized Gallery of Conscience, which opened in 2010 to not only display works of art but also to foster ideas and dialogue about global issues. Past exhibits have included artworks and insight from prisoners of Japanese Internment Camps during World War II, and, more recently, an exhibition of national and international folk art made in response to HIV.

The Gallery’s current exhibit explores the immigrant experience in America. Hanging on the walls of the small room were examples of refugee art and artifacts, ranging from diorama-style glimpses at the experience of coming to America to intricate carvings and beaded tapestries that narrate harrowing physical and emotional journeys. Each work underscores the tremendous struggle faced by people as they try to leave one place and adapt to another. Bright colors and lively characters fill the surface of a watercolor by Santa Fe resident Lama Gyurme, who studied Thangka painting in a Tibetan monastery before seeking asylum in North America. Museum literature explains that Thangka painting is a centuries-old art style that provides visual expression for Buddhist prayer, and it continued to flourish in Tibet despite the Chinese occupation.

Lama Gyurme, Gyurme: Unchanging, Watercolor on Canvas, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

Lama Gyurme, Gyurme: Unchanging, Watercolor on Canvas, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

A stack of small paper plates and a canister of colored pencils rest on a large work table in the center of the room. A nearby sign reads: “What is one food that you long for when you are away from home? Draw it. Describe it. Name it.” On the opposing wall is a floor-to-ceiling display of the tiny plates, depicting familiar meals (“white rice and red beans with cheese on top”) and not-so-identifiable entrees alike (“pea shoot dumplings”). Inviting the museum’s visitors to share their own personal information about food, that most universally intriguing subject, is a brilliant way to encourage public participation.

During Santa Fe’s Summer of Color, from Memorial Day through Labor Day, commercial and nonprofit arts organizations host events and exhibitions that focus on a single hue. MOIFA chose the crimson-colored dye extracted from crushed cochineal beetles for its ambitiously and meticulously curated exhibition The Red That Colored the World. According to MOIFA director Dr. Marsha Bol, the “most prolific and enduring source” of this color comes from the parasitic little bug, whose innards contain a deep red substance called carminic acid that’s still used today. Beginning in the 15th century, carmine dye was used in Central America for coloring fabrics and was later exported to all corners of the globe. Like the spice trade, the harvest and sale of cochineal constituted a powerful and continent-spanning industry for hundreds of years.

The Red That Colors the World includes manuscripts, textiles, paintings, sculpture, and furniture from pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial Mexico, Peru, and New Mexico. Artworks from Europe, Asia, India, and the Middle East round out the exhibition.

Located in the Hispanic Heritage Wing’s dim foyer, the exhibit greets viewers with extravagant examples of religious paintings, like a sprawling oil painting of the Archangel Michael, adorned in flowing, silky blue robes, with wings outspread and chin held high. An especially striking portrait of Santa Rosa de Lima pictures the famously beautiful 16th century Peruvian saint, who was the first female to be canonized in the New World. A lovely, subtle smile across her lips, she is surrounded by her token corona of tumbling, juicy roses—painted with pigment that certainly would have contained cochineal. These types of religious paintings might not seem to fit squarely into the category of folk art, but in fact the story behind most carefully conceived New World compositions depends on the work of not one painter but on multiple craftspeople. When the Spanish first conquered the huge swath of territory that stretches across parts of the United States, Mexico, Central America, and South America, they relied on local, indigenous artisans to help convey the majesty of Catholic saints and deities. In turn, these artists would ingeniously blend elements of their own stories and myths into what they understood about their new Christian subjects.

Julia R. Gomez, Los jardines de las Golandrinas, Sabanilla with Handspun Churro Wool and Natural Dyes, 2010. Collection of the Albuquerque Museum.

Julia R. Gomez, Los jardines de las Golandrinas, Sabanilla with Handspun Churro Wool and Natural Dyes, 2010. Collection of the Albuquerque Museum.

El Jardín de las Golondrinas (The Garden of the Swallows) is a gorgeously patterned, cheerily colored bedspread made several years ago by Santa Fe artist Julia Gómez. It is stitched on handwoven cloth using handspun wool that was dyed with natural pigments. Delicate winding vines, red, pink, and yellow flowers, and blue-winged, red-breasted swallows dance across the surface. Hanging nearby is a religious tableau populated with figures whose cloaks glow with glittering fragments of mother of pearl. Called enconchado, this technique originated in colonized Mexico, and involves placing pieces of iridescent shell into layers of oil paint. Textiles dyed with cochineal are on display in an adjacent room, spanning a broad range of time periods and geographic origins. A rich red and blue Native American courtship blanket, for example, hangs near a contemporary crimson ball gown by local designer Orlando Dugi.

The Bartlett Gallery, named after MOIFA’s founder, exhibits a range of crafts and artwork from all corners of the globe. Last year, traditional Japanese kites were dramatically hung floor-to-ceiling in the space. Currently, the gallery hosts a show of contemporary stoneware from the American South, a thoughtfully arranged collection of vessels made with locally sourced clay and then wood-fired. Beautifully imperfect glazed pottery from a dozen or so artists adorns the room, rendered in earthy, neutral beiges and browns. Most fascinating are the marvellously strange “face jugs”: anthropomorphic vessels whose cartoonish visages are in turn whimsical and diabolical. The earliest examples of this funky art form date back to the middle of the nineteenth century. A more recent master was Lanier Meaders (1917–1998). His 1975 Devil Face Jug is covered in an oily looking, deep brownish-black glaze. The squat vessel seems to watch visitors from behind a glass display case with a faintly menacing, lopsided smile, and close-set, squinting eyes. For teeth, the artist stuck bits of course granite pebbles between the figure’s opened lips, approximating a ghoulish grin.


Lanier Meaders (1917-1998), Devil Face Jug, Wood Fired, Alkaline Glazed Stoneware, White Clay Eyes, Quartz Pebble Teeth, 2015. Credit the Museum of International Folk Art, Gift of Jeff and Emily Camp. Courtesy of the Museum of International Folk Art.

With its wealth of objects designed and used for the most everyday tasks—like furniture, tools, and eating utensils—MOIFA suggests that by and large “folk art” isn’t art that’s made for art’s sake. More often, it’s the ephemera of everyday human life. Handmade and creatively rendered, perhaps, but also designed to accomplish routine tasks. Occupying a very different category are items made to aid in ceremonial gatherings and religious rituals. For centuries, Catholicism has been the dominant theme of Latin art, and works made in northern New Mexico are especially poignant examples of the faith of early Spanish settlers. The museum has large numbers of religious artworks from this region, making it one of the most in-depth collections of Hispanic American handicrafts in the world. Its holdings include bultos (wooden figurative statuettes of religious figures, particularly Catholic saints) and retablos (modestly sized wood panels painted with saints or miraculous occurrences). Both bultos and retablos could be made of abundant pinon and cottonwood, and adorned simply with popular saints of the region like Antonio and Ysidro. New Mexican santeros (or “saint carvers”) still occupy an important artistic role in the region, and in many cases their handiwork continues to feature prominently in Hispanic homes.

Herman Miller Fabrics, designed by Alexander Girard, Banner, Linen, Ink, 1964. Credit the Museum of International Folk Art, Gift of Laurie J. Hamilton. Photo by Polina Smutko.

Herman Miller Fabrics, designed by Alexander Girard, Banner, Linen, Ink, 1964. Credit the Museum of International Folk Art, Gift of Laurie J. Hamilton. Photo by Polina Smutko.

Folk art contrasts with fine art in that its creators are by and large untrained. These are regular people working with everyday materials, and so their handiwork feels especially honest and straightforward. “Toys are an invaluable record and expression of man’s ingenious unsophisticated imagination.” Those are the words of Alexander Girard, best known as the director of textiles for mid-century modern furniture designer Herman Miller from 1952 to 1973. MOIFA’s Girard Wing is named after this intensely creative man, whose passion for collecting models, figurines, and dolls resulted in a collection comprising tens of thousands of individual objects from multiple continents, arranged into jaw-dropping tiny dioramas that Girard himself designed. The show has been on display in one iteration or another since 1982, and offers visitors a truly unique look into the miniaturized lives of foreign peoples. One of the most striking assemblages in the Gerard Wing contains a Latin American funeral procession, populated by ornately dressed clay dolls that pour into a room with a figure on his death bed. Another elaborate tableau depicts a Spanish bullfight, complete with legions of little spectators and an authentic-looking dirt ground. There is a shiny silver-foiled castle from Poland, surrounded by brightly garbed villagers and tiny horse-drawn carriages; nearby is an elaborate Victorian neighborhood with prettily painted houses and strolling townspeople. Though there are certainly baby dolls and beautiful ladies, this exhibit is for adults as much as it is for children. Its painstakingly detailed little scenes are deceptively playful. In reality, Girard’s Lilliputian universe conveys powerful information about cultures and belief systems from around the world.

The Museum of International Folk Art’s broad programming and sensitivity to current global issues acts as testament to its founder’s interest in encouraging community among the world’s people.