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‘It found me:’ Tinsmith moves the craft forward

SANTA FE, N.M. — While walking through his home studio in midtown Santa Fe, Justin Gallegos Mayrant pulled out a book he described as the “bible” of tinwork.

“A Tribute to the Rio Arriba Painted Tin Workshop” by Gallegos Mayrant. (Courtesy of Lynn Lown Photography)

He flipped to a page in “New Mexican Tinwork: 1840-1940,” which he first saw when he was 12, that featured a Rio Arriba County-made, late-19th-century sconce. The ornate sconce was accented with designs of several roses in the middle.

“I always said one day I’ll be able to do something like that,” he said.

Last year, the now 33-year-old artist paid homage to this centuries-old piece, creating a pair of sconces made of 1930s, lead-coated tin that took two months to create. His roses were all constructed from small, individual pieces of tin and he weighed down the sconces with sand from a local arroyo.

At last year’s Traditional Spanish Market, the pair was purchased by the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art.

This year’s market marks the 20th year since Gallegos Mayrant’s first time as an artist at the annual event. He has been at the market each year, with the exception of two years between his transition from youth to adult artist.

He’s now a full-time tinsmith and spends a majority of his time doing commissioned works such as light fixtures and mirrors for historic homes or restoration work for galleries or collectors with antique tin pieces. He considers Spanish Market a time to express himself creatively.

“It’s stuff I want to make … . It’s what I feel like making,” he said.

This box was a work in progress earlier this month. The finished product at Spanish Market will feature butterflies made of tin. (Courtesy of Justin Gallegos Mayrant)

This year, items he’ll be bringing along include a two-tier chandelier, a small box designed with butterflies, sconces and a 55-by-38-inch frame with hand-carved, walnut inserts.

Though many Spanish Colonial artists get into the traditional craft through family ties, the born-and-raised Santa Fean – whose Hispanic ancestors came to New Mexico as early as the mid-17th century – said he is the first artist in his family.

Though, as a child, Gallegos Mayrant enjoyed other kinds of art forms, like painting, he stumbled across tin when he was 12 as a student at the now-closed Alameda Middle School, which offered a class on New Mexico folk art.

“Each week, they taught a different segment,” he recalled. “One week was retablos, one week was straw applique, then there was tin work week.”

He made a sconce, which he simply saw as “another class assignment.” But his mother, working for a local bank at the time, put it up in her office. A Spanish Market artisan soon saw it and recommended she sign up her son for market. And the rest is history.

Today, Gallegos Mayrant has pieces in collections in Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art and the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. A violin covered in tin design that he made is on loan at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art.

“It found me, to be perfectly honest,” he says of his attraction to the craft. “I was very drawn to structural work with it, which a lot of tinsmiths don’t do. That’s where my work really varies from a lot of other stuff. The traditional style would be very flat.”

He spent his early years as a tinsmith trying to master the basics with the help of his mentor, Santa Fe tinsmith Michael Griego. But over the past decade or more, he’s tried to take the art form in a new direction.

Ways he sets his work apart, he said, include his use of negative space to create a “minimal,” clean look. He pointed to a cabinet insert commission he’s been working on in his studio. There’s a main design in the middle – hummingbirds hovering around several flowers – and a decorated border that includes a classic dotted line punch, but the space in between is left untouched.

“I believe the material (the tin) itself is gorgeous; fortunately, I have good material,” said Gallegos Mayrant. Gifted to him by a private donor, the artist has matte, old-style tin that he said isn’t available anymore.

This tin frame with a walnut insert by Justin Gallegos Mayrant will be shown at Traditional Spanish Market. (Courtesy of Lynn Lown Photography)

He also is known to infuse woodwork into some of his tin pieces, a skill he honed while working in a 17th-century-style frame shop for four years before making the transition to art full-time. He said he likes to incorporate carved walnut or mahogany to complement his main material, including in a mirror he’ll be bringing to market.

 

Going 3-D

Gallegos Mayrant uses three-dimensional design in his work. (Eddie moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Something he does in just about all of his work is make his designs three-dimensional. Taking inspiration from woodcarvers and painters, and veering away from the classic, flat tinwork style – which utilizes “a lot of stamping,” Gallegos Mayrant noted, something that he said can often distort the tin – he first draws his designs onto his material.

He then cuts out all of the pieces, sculpts them using a ball-peen hammer and puts them together with a seamless solder.

“I want it to jump out at you,” he said. “And I want people to engage with the work.”

Griego, a tinsmith for 30 years and Gallegos Mayrant’s former teacher, considers Gallegos Mayrant’s work to be a more contemporary style. But he said it is still rooted in the classic traditions thanks to Gallegos Mayrant’s use of such things as traditional punches.

Griego met him as a boy while teaching a class for Spanish Market’s youth artists, and gave him his first set of tools and materials.

“I think he’s got it,” Griego said.

Maurice Dixon, a local artist and co-author of the “New Mexican Tinwork” book that Gallegos Mayrant keeps in his studio, said the same. He has followed Gallegos Mayrant’s work for about 15 years and described him as a tinwork “trailblazer,” commending his 3-D designs and ability to think conceptually as bringing the art form into the 21st century.

“He synthesizes the best of 19th-century classic tinwork and takes it another step,” said Dixon.

Griego pointed out that as a 30-something artist, Gallegos Mayrant is in somewhat of a “dead space” for market tinsmiths. From what Griego has seen while attending market annually, not as many youth artists today continue with the craft or Spanish Market long term the way Gallegos Mayrant has.

Gallegos Mayrant echoed that thought. He said there are not many tin artists in his age range, like there were when he started 20 years ago. He attributed the situation to former peers leaving Santa Fe or putting art aside to focus on other careers.

What keeps him at it, he said, is simply that the “ideas keep coming.” “That’s really my biggest drive,” he added. “Pushing the boundaries.”

Raising perceptions

Going forward, Gallegos Mayrant said it’s always been a long-term goal of his to continue elevating the perception of tinwork.

“It was my experience talking with a lot of people when I was younger, any time you told them you did tinwork, it was ‘Oh, you punch tin cans, right?’ It was thought of as folk art in maybe not the most positive light.”

Dixon, the art historian, said many tinsmiths face the same issue. That’s one of the reasons he wrote his book about the craft decades ago, he said. He didn’t want tinwork to be seen as a “poor man’s craft” or looked down upon because the artwork is made with tin and not silver. Like other folk art, he said it is a serious art form made by serious artists.

“I always saw it as something that could be refined and have more of an elevated status,” said Gallegos Mayrant. “It’s been my goal to refine it and make every detail as fine as it can be and thought out.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story described Gallegos Mayrant’s home studio on the south side of Santa Fe. It has been corrected to say midtown.

 

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