SANTA FE, N.M. — When her youngest grandchildren come to visit, Diana Moya Lujan’s kitchen table is more than a typical grandma’s – a center for family meals or telling stories. It’s also an art studio.
The four girls, who live in Stanley and Albuquerque, typically spend about one week during the summer with their Santa Fe grandmother, an award-winning straw appliqué artist. The group bonds at the table working on a shared craft.
“We would start at 9 in the morning, have lunch, and then go until 8 in the evening,” says Moya Lujan, reflecting on years past.
The family matriarch has taught some of her children, as well some of their children, her traditional artistic pursuit – straw appliqué is the practice of using regular or dyed straw pieces to create designs or pictures, usually of saints or traditional Catholic scenes.
Lenise Martinez, the oldest of Moya Lujan’s three daughters, who also lives in Santa Fe, said she also prefers working at her mother’s kitchen table. It keeps her focused when all of the family artists are working together and bouncing ideas off one another.
Altogether, three generations of the Moya Lujan clan will be showing off their work at this weekend’s Traditional Spanish Market on the Plaza. Alongside market veterans Moya Lujan and Martinez are the four grandchildren who will show and sell at the Youth Market: Hannah Lujan y Davis, 11, Emma Lujan y Davis, 13, and Madison Lujan y Davis, 16, of Stanley, and Andrea Torres, 15, of Albuquerque.
All the children began learning from their grandmother as early as eight or nine years old, as a way to preserve their Hispanic culture. The youngest, Hannah – who her family jokes “retired” from straw appliqué last year and has now returned to the craft – will be showing for her third market. The other three girls have done at least five years of Spanish Market already and say they typically sell out during the weekend.
Emma Lujan y Davis’s art was chosen for the 2013 Winter Spanish Market’s poster when she was nine.
At a home studio tour Tuesday, all six ladies displayed dozens of works that they will be previewing and selling this weekend. Moya Lujan showed off her preview piece, “The Flight to Egypt,” that’s up for judging. The straw portrait of a traveling Jesus, Mary and Joseph and Jesus took her about two months to create.
Just sections of the appliqué art, all done freehand, can take hours or days to complete. Hannah Lujan y Davis says she spends an average of three days on one piece.
Of Moya Lujan’s eight grandchildren, five have learned the traditional craft from her. Though they’re not the only grandchildren to have shown in the market – her eldest granddaughter, now 25, showed for several years as a child – the youngest four are the ones who have kept going.
“I love our tradition, our culture and our religion,” said Madison Lujan y Davis. “And just getting to do it with our grandma. It’s always a blast.”
The tradition wasn’t a lifelong one for the family. Though she was always painting and drawing throughout her life, Moya Lujan discovered her talent for straw appliqué a couple of years after her retirement as a state employee, at an International Folk Art Museum class in 1996.
She continued to learn on her own and was juried into Spanish Market the same year. Martinez took up the craft by watching her mother and joined her at the market in 2000.
Moya Lujan’s pieces evolved from just geometric designs to saints and religious figures. She had a desire to add “depth and perspective” to her work with human figures.
She says she continues to do that by placing the straw in ways that makes the figures she depicts look less two-dimensional, such as by adding straw to the designs of the figures’ clothes – the clothes look as though they’re flowing off of the characters’ bodies. Moya Lujan also makes background items smaller to make them look further away and helping the main figure appear to be coming off the wood. Trying to create characters that are less “flat” is something she tries to instill in her grandchildren.
“Make it look like it’s real,” she said. “Put windows in the back, take the straw at a certain angle because the shape will give it more depth. That’s what I try and teach the girls. Use your imagination.”
Though they all learned from their grandmother, the granddaughters found their own interests and styles within the craft. Torres’ speciality is designing saints or people, Madison Lujan y Davis enjoys creating floral and geometric designs, Emma Lujan y Davis also makes retablos in addition to straw appliqué, and Hannah Lujan y Davis likes the intricate “details” of designing crosses. “You can do so much with it,” the 11-year-old said.
Most of the girls’ work is done on crosses or flat wooden surfaces, though Martinez is also selling candle sconces and jewelry with her specialty floral designs. In addition to cross work and square wooden surfaces, Moya Lujan has sold designed eggs and scenes on glass surfaces.
Martinez, who the girls call “Ni Ni,” says working as a family is common for market vendors and it keeps these six trying new things while still incorporating their own flair. “No two hands make the same,” she said. The girls will try to replicate her straw roses in their pieces, while Martinez said she also looks at what new techniques the younger artists are trying.
For the leader who brought the craft to the family, it’s the younger generation and their budding ideas that keeps her inspired.
“I find that I learn more from them than I will ever teach them,” said Moya Lujan of the girls. “Children aren’t inhibited by anything. They’re willing to get out and try. I learn from them all the time. They’re pretty amazing.”