In advance of the annual Spanish Market that takes place on the Santa Fe Plaza on the last weekend of July, the surviving recipients of the Spanish Colonial Arts Society’s Masters Award for Lifetime Achievement get together and choose a new awardee. It’s an exclusive club. Spanish Market director David Rasch told Pasatiempo that there are only 20 living artists who hold the title of master. One of them is bulto carver Charles Carrillo, who won the award in 2006 and participates in the market this year in booth 142. Another is his brother-in-law, encrusted-straw artist Jimmy Trujillo, who received the recognition in 2013 and will be in booth 26.
The 2019 market runs Saturday, July 27, through Sunday, July 28.
Although the two longtime Spanish Market exhibitors usually work independently, they have also collaborated over the years: Carrillo makes the bulto — typically a wood carving in the round, depicting a saint, a Marian figure, or another canonical figure from Roman Catholicism — and Trujillo encrusts the figures in intricate straw designs.
One of their earliest collaborations was Nuestra Señora de Soledad (Our Lady of Solitude), a bulto they made in 1999, which won the People’s Choice Award that year at Spanish Market. It’s a figure of devotion that commemorates the solitude of the Virgin Mary on Holy Saturday, the day of observance of Christ’s entombment.
The 33rd annual Contemporary Hispanic Market takes place Saturday and Sunday, July 27-28, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Lincoln Avenue, right around the corner from the traditional Spanish Market. It's where you’ll find photography, printmaking, sculpture, retablos (paintings of saints), and more.
The bulto tradition originally came from Spain early in the Spanish Colonial period (1598-1821) and then spread through the Americas. “They took on regional stylistic changes and adaptations,” said Nicolasa Chavez, the Museum of International Folk Art’s curator of Latino, Hispano, and Spanish Colonial Collections. “You have different types of bultos. In New Mexico, the more common is solid wood. However, the hollow-framed bultos you do see here, and you see them a lot in Mexico.”
Nuestra Señora de Soledad is a fine example of the hollow-framed style, she said. At three feet tall, it is an eye-catching piece that’s now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, where it’s currently on exhibit. The figure of Mary is dressed in black robes decorated with elaborate golden straw designs; she clasps her hands in front of her, her face bearing a doleful expression. Carrillo and Trujillo got their inspiration from a 16th-century statue that was dressed in mourning, which they saw in a church in Madrid, Spain.
1 - The hollow frame
“Historically, pieces that big were never carved out of solid wood,” Chavez said. “First of all, if they were going to use it in processions, they would weigh too much. A piece that size would weigh 250, 300 pounds. They were made to be lightweight.”
“In English,” Carillo said, “we say hollow frame, but in Spanish, and in New Mexico colloquial Spanish, they refer to them as bultos de vestir: saints to be dressed.”
The face, hands, and arms are carved out of pine and attached to the wooden frame, which forms the body. “It’s like a dressmaker’s frame,” he said. “It has a wooden base and then it has pine stays that are attached to the torso. The whole frame is stretched over with cotton canvas.” The canvas is slathered in multiple layers of gesso he makes with ground gypsum and limestone mixed with animal-hide glue.
2 - Straw work
Historic bultos of New Mexico aren’t known to be decorated with straw appliqué, the artists said. The process involves using cut pieces of straw that are applied to the surface of an object using some kind of adhesive, such as pine-sap resin. “During the Colonial period, straw appliqué would be a decorative form in its own right,” Chavez said. “Usually, it was done on a cross that somebody would hang on the wall. But in the 20th century, straw appliqué became something that people could adapt to other art forms. Hence, Charlie and Jimmy’s piece.”
The straw designs were actually dying out by the late 1800s, Trujillo said, and santeros — creators of religious art — began to use white carpenter’s glue to affix the straw to the surface of the wood. “That’s the way it was until 1984, when I started doing the work, and we developed the technique of encrusting, which is straw embedded in a resin.”
Trujillo came up with the term “encrusted straw” after two Russian women attended one of his demonstrations at the New Mexico State Fair. “It was about 1988 or ’89,” he recalled. “One of them told me that her family did a straw work very similar to mine. I asked her what they called it in Russia, and she said ‘encrusted.’ ” A couple of weeks later he was in the library and looked up the term in a dictionary. “One of the definitions was ‘embedded in a resin,’ and there it was,” he said. “I’m still having a hard time getting a lot of people to recognize it as encrusted as opposed to appliqué.”
He gathers the piñon pine sap from the mountains. He processes it himself, which takes about three months for a single batch. In the Colonial period, people would have used a double- or triple-distilled grain alcohol as a solvent, said Trujillo, who uses Everclear, a nearly pure alcohol, instead. He clarifies the mixture to remove impurities and uses it as a varnish and glue. “You have to get it to the consistency of, I would say, Karo syrup for a varnish, and molasses for a glue,” he said. “It doesn’t dry completely.” While doing the straw work, he dabs the surface of the varnished wood with grain alcohol to re-soften it if it forms a skin. Once a piece is finished, he lets it sit for several weeks without handling it to avoid getting any fingerprints on it. It takes several months to cure completely.
3 - Replicating gold embroidery
“Older pieces that were marched in processions very often had velvet capes,” curator Chavez said. “There’s a centuries-old tradition of embroidery work — it’s usually gold thread — on the cape. ... In New Mexico, straw appliqué is actually referred to as ‘poor man’s gold,’ one of the reasons being that when the sunlight is hitting upon it, from far away it would look like gold inlay. I love that Jimmy did this whole figure in straw because it reflects the gold of the embroidery done on those original capes.”
The artist uses straw from French rye for the designs. “In the old days, I used a knife or a razor blade — something super sharp to be able to cut the straw. But today I use X-Acto knives, which are a lot easier to mess around with,” Trujillo said. “I ended up working on that piece seven days a week for two and a half months. My shortest day was like 10 to 12 hours.”
4 - Traditional pigments
The black paint on the figure’s dress is made from carbon soot. The soot doesn’t mix well with water, so Carrillo used gum arabic mixed with honey as a binder. For the halo, he employed a combination of ground turquoise and indigo plant dye. The base was painted with a color called vermilion, made from ground cinnabar. “The flesh tone is a natural clay,” he said. “The white is a mineral pigment made from zinc. In Spanish, it’s called blanco de zinc. I varnished it with a pine-sap varnish and Jimmy added a real thick layer on top of that. Once it dried, he coated it again with a thinner varnish. It has at least three coats.”
5 - The hidden ‘Ave Maria’
Inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s penchant for writing his notes backward, Carrillo painted “Ave Maria” under the base — in Spanish and backward. “When it was originally displayed, we propped up a mirror at about a 35- or 40-degree angle. The mirror reflected it in the correct way. It was fun doing something that a great master did on many of his drawings, but it was a pain in the butt. ... I had to write it out the right way and put a mirror up to reflect it backwards and then rewrite it based upon what I saw in the mirror.”
6 - The missing dagger
Carrillo and Trujillo originally designed Our Lady of Solitude to be Our Lady of Sorrows, and the work included a silver filigreed dagger made by precious metals artist Juan Lopez. (The museum rarely displays the statue with the dagger.) The text accompanying the piece explains that “like many traditional statues, it can be converted to a Virgin of Sorrows with the addition of a dagger inserted into her breast to represent the sorrow she experiences during the crucifixion.” In the Colonial tradition of New Mexico and elsewhere, images of Our Lady of Sorrows typically included a dagger, or multiple daggers, to symbolize the Seven Sorrows, the tragic events in the life of Mary as foretold by the prophet Simeon. ◀
Nuestra Señora de Soledad; Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, 750 Camino Lejo, 505-982-2226, spanishcolonial.org; admission $10, under 16 free
▼ 68th Annual Traditional Spanish Market on the Santa Fe Plaza
Friday, July 26
El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe, 555 Camino de la Familia
Collector’s hour: 4-5 p.m., $80
Public viewing: 5-7 p.m., $20
Tickets are available at the door, by calling 505-982-2226,
or online at spanishcolonial.org
▼ Spanish Market
The Santa Fe Plaza
8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, July 27
8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sunday, July 28