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Painted Faith

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By Birdie Jaworski

Margarito Mondragn pressed gravel into upturned ground, spread asphalt, worked the bulldozers, scrapers, tampers that molded New Mexico’s roads until he shifted gears 13 years ago, retiring from the State Highway Department to become an artist like his grandfather and great-grandfather, both well-known santeros.

“I decided to try painting retablos,” says Mondragn, a life-long resident of Las Vegas, referring to the New Mexican art tradition of delicate oil paintings of the blessed and revered on wooden panels. “I didn’t have much of an interest in art when I worked the roads, but I had time on my hands. Maybe God could guide my hands.”

Mondragn’s careful work quickly gathered a following area art fairs, and was eventually juried into the coveted Santa Fe Spanish Market, a 54-year tradition that draws serious collectors from around the world. Through March 11, several of Mondragn’s art works can be seen at NMHU’s Ray Drew Gallery as part of a multi-artist exhibition on Northern New Mexican Devotional Art.

For centuries, devotional art has been a cornerstone of the Catholic faith. Retablos and other art forms such as ex-votos, altares — carved architectural frameworks inset with hand-painted panels depicting the lives of the saints, and bultos — wood—carved statues, are important to New Mexican Catholic religious tradition because they are a physical representation of Christ, of the Virgin Mother, of the saints who love, protect and guide.

“San Jos,” a traditional piece in which Mondragn celebrates the earthly father of Jesus, consists of the saint and his heavenly charge carved in soft wood, their features and simple clothes painted in the reds and greens of New Mexico. A board behind them captures an outdoor angelic choir floating above a blinding-white cloud mysteriously shaped in what could be the Hand of God.

“This is an invitational show,” explains Ray Drew Gallery curator Bob Reed. “Many of these artists are well-known and show their works at the Spanish markets in Santa Fe. Every year the show increases due to word of mouth. It’s a wonderful presentation of different New Mexican devotional art styles.”

Exhibition visitors will see both traditional and contemporary devotional pieces. “Arch Angel,” by Patrice Jaureguiberry, stands on a pedestal, the curved wing doused in shimmering paint a hint of an angel, as if the otherworldly visitor hesitates to show His true form. “Santa Rosa de Viterbo,” by Adrin Montoya, peers in relief from a thin wooden frame. Her toes — molded from plaster — escape the bottom of the piece, giving Santa Rosa the ability to walk beyond the walls.

Several pieces in the exhibition consist of Colcha embroidery, a traditional New Mexican Spanish colonial art first used to decorate altar cloths, bedspreads, and wall hangings. The artists used wool spun from their own sheep, weaving a background, then embellishing the surface with threads of the sheeps’ natural colors mixed with naturally dyed wools. Artist Julia Gomz is showing several pieces, including “Nuestra Senora de las Flores,” a Colcha of the Blessed Mother encased in a hand-worked tin frame. Mary’s dress is an earthy purple, stitched using a long diagonal crossover which gives the textile the look and feel of rich velvet.

Richard Rivera, a Las Vegas santero, combines traditional and modern styles to develop his own unique saints and angels. Using found materials, Rivera’s work is three-dimensional, alive, unexpected. “Angel,” consists of twisted belts of metal hammered and painted in a flowing dress. In “The Man of Sorrows,” Rivera has carved a visceral statement on Jesus’ suffering; vivid red thorns adorn his head, his face twisted in pain.

The show includes an Artists’ Reception Friday, Feb. 15. Many of the artists represented will attend, and can answer questions about their inspiration, art process, and works in progress.

“This is a fun show,” explains Reed. “It’s the one show each year that has the most community interaction. A lot of people want to see the santos, and want to bring their mothers and grandmothers.”

Northern New Mexico Devotional Art Exhibition, Ray Drew Gallery, New Mexico Highlands University, through March 11. Artists’ Reception, 5:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m. Friday Feb. 15.