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‘I let the wood speak to me,’ Winter Spanish Market artist says

There’s a reason Margarito Mondragón entered the world of Spanish colonial art.

And this is where he found his calling.

He was working as a heavy equipment operator with the New Mexico Department of Transportation – a job he enjoyed and one that helped him provide for his family.

One snowy winter day, he was hauling in a load of firewood to his home.

“I saw the face of Christ in this piece of wood,” he says. “I knew I had to do something with this piece.”

Mondragón began to carve the piece with a knife and a screwdriver. The result was his first bulto.

“It was done in 1990, and it’s red cedar,” he says proudly. “I still have it in my collection.”

Flash forward 28 years, and Mondragón is one of the 72 artists participating in the Winter Spanish Market. It will be held at the National Hispanic Cultural Center on Saturday, Dec. 1, and Sunday, Dec. 2.

Founded in Santa Fe in 1988, the event enhances the Traditional Spanish Market held in Santa Fe during the summer and is put on by the Spanish Colonial Arts Society.

Eventgoers will be able to see the New Mexico tradition, learn how it was made, and be immersed in art, culture, and folklore.

The juried artists use traditional images and techniques to create bultos, weavings, ironwork, jewelry, copper engravings, hide paintings, retablos, furniture, tinwork, straw appliqué, woodcarving, and colcha embroidery. Each piece represents a 400-year history. In addition, innovations within these traditions allow artists to interpret their time-honored crafts with new and exciting approaches.

For weeks, Mondragón has been patiently finishing pieces for Winter Market in his Las Vegas, N.M., studio.

He’s carved about 22 pieces that he will take to the market.

“With each piece, I let the wood speak to me,” he says. “I work slow because of that. It’s important for the piece to reveal itself to me.”

Mondragón was born in Ocate and grew up in Las Vegas.

Although he is a descendant of earlier generations of Spanish colonial artists, Mondragón is self-taught.

After he retired from his state job, his cousin introduced him to retablos and New Mexico artist Charlie Carrillo.

“I started doing little shows and would gather old weathered wood,” he says. “Charlie taught me how to make my own gesso for my work.”

Mondragón juried into Spanish Market in 1996 and has picked up seven awards since then.

In fact, in 2006, a piece of his art was the summer market poster.

“Those are a few of the highlights in my career,” he says. “I think everyone wants to be the poster artist at some point.”

Mondragón makes his varnish and pigments using traditional methods from the 16th and 17th centuries.

He prepares his dyes, pigments and varnishes from natural vegetable and mineral materials.

After carving an image, he mixes and applies four coats of gesso. He then paints the image and completes it by applying natural beeswax.

“It’s about what you’re creating, and it has to come from the heart,” he says. “I work almost every day for at least four hours a day. I can dive deep into my work, but I have to find a balance in what I do.”

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