SANTA FE, N.M. — In the shadow of a nuclear laboratory, a Santa Clara Pueblo woman builds an open fire of wood and dung around a bowl of clay harvested from the earth. She shapes, forms and embellishes the pot in much the same way as her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother before her. She will tend the fire, sculpting mud into a work of art embodying centuries of tradition. The flames reflect the faces of her ancestors.
Under that same shadow, a Chimayo weaver shoots a shuttle over carefully placed threads to create complex designs from wool spun from flocks of New Mexico churro sheep. The artist follows six generations of his Hispanic forebears.
Santa Fe’s Michael Pettit has researched New Mexico’s 15 National Heritage Fellow artists to create “Artists of New Mexico Traditions: The National Heritage Fellows” (Museum of New Mexico Press, $29.95, 2012). He traces its genesis to the 2009 exhibition “A Century of Masters” at the Museum of International Folk Art.
|If you go
WHAT: “Artists of New Mexico Traditions: The National Heritage Fellows” by Michael Pettit
WHEN: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 27
WHERE: Collected Works, 202 Galisteo St.
Whether rooted in one of the state’s pueblos or a Hispanic village or a metropolitan city, the work of each of these masters intertwines faith and form, creating objects of wonder that resonate with both spirituality and the past in a contemporary world.
“This isn’t art for art’s sake,” Pettit said. “The fact that these people have feet in both worlds is remarkable.”
New Mexico boasts more National Heritage Fellows per capita than any other state, he added.
Pettit draws from the lives of these New Mexico artists – potters, weavers, storytellers and musicians — through interviews with living artists, family members, curators and friends discussing their lives and art. He also filmed the interviews.
Chimayo weaver Irvin Trujillo became the most recent National Heritage recipient in 2007. His father worked in the Los Alamos National Laboratory. A master weaver, Jake Trujillo taught weaving during the Depression in a WPA program at a vocational school. When Irvin heard the hum of the loom from his bedroom, he started watching his father from a chair when he was 10. Jake Trujillo asked if he wanted to learn. When it came to design, he emphasized innovation. His son would go on to win a galaxy of Spanish Market awards, including Best of Show.
“Jake would always say to him, ‘Do something new with each piece,’ ” Pettit said.
The late Ohkay Owingeh storyteller Esther Martinez received the award in 2006. As a young wife and mother, Martinez juggled life in a traditional pueblo with that of cleaning houses in Los Alamos. Her daughter Josephine Binford said she began telling stories when she was growing up. At their heart, they were equal parts entertainment, socialization and education. Her own grandparents raised her on their stories. There was always a lesson rooted in culture and landscape.
Martinez became a linguist who promoted the preservation of the Tewa language at a time when it was dying out. When Martinez had attended the Santa Fe Indian School, teachers had forbidden students to speak their native languages. She told Josephine, “If you lose your language, you lose your culture.”
In 1992, Martinez published her story “The Naughty Little Rabbit and Old Man Coyote.” Like her forbears’ oral traditions, her stories often centered on animals.
To the shock of all who admired her, Martinez died four miles from the pueblo on the way home from the Washington, D.C., ceremony after being struck by a drunken driver.
Incredibly, Binford spoke to the driver and offered her forgiveness after telling him about her mother’s life and achievements. She knew Esther would have wanted it that way.
“She said, ‘You’re going to be burdened by this for the rest of your life, and it’s in my faith to forgive you.’ ” Pettit said. “He was just in shock.”
Pettit’s interview with Albuquerque musicians Roberto and Lorenzo Martinez would also prove heart-rending. Honored in 2003, Roberto was born in Chacon, about 17 miles northwest of Mora, at the beginning of the Depression. The family grew wheat, oats and corn to survive. He picked up music from his uncle, who played the saxophone and the guitar and sang. The girls loved him. Roberto started banging on an imaginary guitar at 6. Another uncle made him an instrument from an old gas can, a board and some wire.
Roberto would come to be known as the patriarch of New Mexico music. His son Lorenzo plays the violin and pens their arrangements. Echoing his father, his first instrument was a rebuilt violin plucked from the trash.
Roberto formed Los Reyes de Albuquerque with his musician friends and eventually his family.
“Roberto Martinez was fighting stage IV prostate cancer” when I interviewed him, Pettit said. “We went to their home in Albuquerque; Roberto was almost beatific. He said, ‘I want to talk about the cancer.’ He had lost two daughters to cancer, and now he had it. He’s a man of great faith. He said, ‘I’m not sad about this cancer. It’s brought our whole family closer together.”
Pettit interviewed famed potter Nancy Youngblood for his story about her grandmother, the legendary Margaret Tafoya, a 1984 recipient.
“When Nancy started making pots, they weren’t very good,” Pettit said. “She would say, ‘What happend here?’ and her grandmother could immediately tell her.”
Tafoya would say the manure was too damp or the slabs contained pine sap. She emphasized the importance of a traditional outdoor firing instead of a kiln. She eschewed store-bought clay.
Margaret taught her granddaughter that each ball of “Mother Clay” could be part of her ancestors. To this day, Youngblood prays before she starts digging.