SANTA FE — Shrines have dotted New Mexico since pueblo members first stacked rocks to create sacred mountaintop boundaries.
Havens of spirit and space, they can be carefully grouped devotions to the saints or a “ghost bike” arranged in the memory of a fallen cyclist. People have always found ways to invest places in prayers and devotions, be it through an assemblage of teddy bears or the Virgin of Guadalupe. It’s a universal need for a private place of veneration and contemplation, be it religious or secular.
From the tragedy of Sept. 11 to the death of Princess Diana, people have erected shrines to mark their sense of loss and need for solace. People still deck Billy the Kid’s grave with flowers and plastic angels in an homage to the American West.
Taos Pueblo residents have made spiritual pilgrimages to their sacred Blue Lake for thousands of years. In the mid-’50s, they fought the U.S. government for title to its 48,000-acre watershed, which was finally granted in 1970.
Since 1814, when Don Bernardo Abeyta built the Catholic shrine of El Santuario de Chimayó, pilgrims have flocked to its doors seeking healing and hope. Today family members erect roadside descansos in memory of lost loved ones. Be they a group of polished beach rocks or a backyard Buddha, personal shrines meld seamlessly into their surroundings, each as singular as its devotee, whether secular or sacred.
“Altared Spaces: The Shrines of New Mexico” at the New Mexico History Museum reveals three New Mexico photographers’ interpretations of these secular sanctuaries. Featuring the work of Siegfried Halus, Jack Parsons and Donald Woodman, the exhibit is located in the museum’s second floor gathering space, just outside the “Contemplative Landscapes” and “Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible” exhibitions.
“They’re havens of spirit and space,” said author Carmella Padilla, who wrote the show’s text. “It’s like a designated spot. It could be religious but it doesn’t have to be.”
“It’s about anything that’s meant to stop and mark that moment of grace,” New Mexico History Museum Director Fran Levine added.
Siegfried Halus lived in Austria until he was 8. Devotees posted images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and other saints on crossroads and roadsides. Halus was raised Catholic, the son of a liturgical sculptor who moved the family to Philadelphia in the 1950s. When Halus moved to Santa Fe in 1989, he felt at home among New Mexico’s traditions of santos and shrines. He collaborated with author and santera Marie Romero Cash on the photography book “Living Shrines: Home Altars in New Mexico.”
Halus’ photographs honor those spaces, with their environmental settings “enshrining their shrines” to express reverence.
A photograph taken near Galisteo — improbably around midnight — shows a grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary overlooking the Galisteo Basin. The shrine glows with incandescent candlelight thanks to a long exposure and abundant moonlight. A gnarled piñon hovers behind it; a pot of lilies sits to the side.
“Even though it was a full moon, I made a number of exposures because I was working with available light,” Halus said.
Those exposures lasted from one to one-and-half minutes. Art turns darkness into light.
Another Halus image shows a Santa Fe woodworker’s bulto propped on an ancient icebox beneath Our Lady of Guadalupe. The shrine’s placement reveals its creator’s occupation as the saints share the space with poles and a horse harness, expressing both their familiarity and importance to daily life. The woodworker made the cabinet that crowns the refrigerator and filled it with carvings of saints.
“My father carved throughout Europe and the U.S.,” Halus said. “It was a tradition I was intimately engaged in. When I came to New Mexico (in 1964) and saw this, I was overwhelmed.”
Shrines have been central to Jack Parsons’ photographic journey through New Mexico for more than 35 years. The photographer has captured areas of abandonment, be they an old pink schoolhouse in Tres Piedras or a stone grotto, linking objects to acts of devotion.
He acknowledges the slight invasion of privacy inherent in his work, but celebrates the aesthetic value.
A weatherbeaten Española backyard boasts a figure of Christ framed by an old TV. A stone shrine hugs it, brimming with objects of religious devotion. Rusted lawn chairs await visitors.
Parsons found the sanctuary off a dirt road.
“It seemed to be an amazing devotional piece that was done by somebody without any money, but was so dedicated to their religion that they put this together with whatever they had,” he said. “It is almost naive art.”
“Look at the rock work,” Parsons continued. “It shows an enormous amount of work; it took a lot of time. It’s a pure expression of religious devotion.”
The heart and spirit invested in these altars places them beyond the critic’s judgmental eye.
Levine has spotted rock shrines flecked with dried flowers and feathers marking hiking trails in the Sangre de Cristos.
“It says, ‘Stop here. This is where I got peace,’ ” she said. “This is meaningful to people who don’t normally express themselves verbally.”
For some, shrines represent the spiritual. For others, they’re merely a marker or a practical message.
Belen’s Donald Woodman has photographed more secular spaces, such as Socorro’s Very Large Array and the Lightning Field land art installation.
The Array “is an astronomical observatory, but it’s also aesthetically appealing,” Padilla said. “The Lightning Field is a shrine in (artist Walter de Maria’s) mind. He says the landscape is a shrine unto itself.”
While traveling in Europe for a Holocaust project, Woodman visited concentration camps, memorials and other markers of human devastation in remembrance of those who endured the horror.
Woodman’s “God Is Just a Prayer Away” captures a Chimayó roadside grouping of a white cross, flowers, angels and a miniature wooden house with pictures along an endless landscape beneath wispy tendrils of clouds.
The composition grew out of the photographer’s disappointment after visiting the Santuario de Chimayó. Photography is now forbidden in the chapel.
“And it’s all cleaned up,” Woodman said. “People used to come up and leave things and it was wonderful — things were all helter-skelter — so I was disappointed.”
While he was driving home, he stumbled across what he calls a photographer’s gift.
“It was the perfect New Mexico day with the perfect New Mexico clouds,” he said. A diagonal wooden board hanging precariously from the fence read “God Is Just a Prayer Away.”
“I have a funny attitude,” Woodman continued. “Everybody photographs shrines in New Mexico. I don’t like to tread in areas other people have trod. (But) that sort of caught my attention on the winding road going out of Chimayó.”
Woodman’s panoramic photograph of pilgrims climbing Tomé Hill at Easter showcases both the devout and the indifferent.
“We climbed up to the top of the hill,” he said. “There were these ultra-religious people climbing up on their knees and kids on their cellphones, texting. It was the whole spectrum.”