Born in Córdova, New Mexico, on the feast day of Saint Dominic, wood carver José Mondragón (1931-1989) often went by the name José Domingo to honor his patron saint. He worked as a farmer until he was forced to give it up after an accident in the 1950s. From that time, he devoted himself to making art.
His Nativity, Tree of Life puts a uniquely Northern New Mexico spin on a traditional folk art form. In Mexican folk art, ceramic trees of life often feature animals, as well as religious iconography, such as nativities. But unlike those elaborately painted works from south of the border, Mondragón’s nativity is unpainted and carved from wood. It has a rustic feel, and Mondragón made no attempt at naturalism. Instead, he worked in a style made popular by artists from the region of Córdova, New Mexico.
Unpainted bultos (or sculptures in the round) were an early- to mid-century innovation among the region’s santeros (saint makers), such as José Dolores López (1868-1937). Artists today, including Gloria López Córdova, who’s also from that area, still include such trees of life and nativity scenes among their works.
Mondragón’s piece is currently on display in the permanent exhibition Multiple Visions: A Common Bond at the Museum of International Folk Art (706 Camino Lejo, 505-476-1200, internationalfolkart.org). The exhibit features numerous nativity scenes from around the world among the approximately 10,000 objects on view, all of which were collected by museum patron and famed designer Alexander Girard and his wife, Susan.
“This Tree of Life illustrates the redemption of man through the birth of Christ,” reads the text in the exhibit’s guidebook.
Girard designed and installed Multiple Visions, which opened in 1982, and it has remained virtually unchanged since that time. View the work by admission ($12, with discounts available). Masks are required and social distancing is encouraged. Take a virtual tour of Girard’s nativities at 1 p.m. every Monday through Jan. 3. Free. Register at internationalfolkart.org/events.