by Tim Santor
When Spanish colonists began settling here in the 17th century, they brought their European folk art traditions with them. But without access to European materials, they had to adapt their art to work with the natural materials available to them. As a result, New Mexico is home to two original art forms: colcha embroidery and encrusted straw appliqué.
The Spanish word “colcha” means coverlet or blanket, but in New Mexico, it has come to mean something more. Colcha is an embroidery stitch that was developed here following the arrival of Spanish colonists in the 1600’s.
Colcha embroidery is now considered an art form, but its origin was more practical. Early colonists had limited access to imported materials, so they had to make their belongings last. As a result, colonial women began using wool yarn to embroider designs over worn patches and holes in their blankets; thus, colcha embroidery was born.
Although much of their early colcha design was inspired by Oriental and European textiles, colonial women began incorporating native New Mexican plants and animals into their work. As the practice evolved, the colonists began decorating shawls, tablecloths, and alter cloths, creating religious figures and icons in addition to the nature images.
Because of its immense versatility, some artists have compared colcha embroidery to painting. Colcha artists can vary the length of their stitches, filling in small or large areas and using their yarns to “paint” intricately detailed designs onto fabric.
Colcha embroidery has enjoyed a revival in the last century, and despite the abundance of commercially available fine fabrics and colorful yarns, many local artists take pride in creating colcha using traditional materials and techniques, preserving an art form that is part of their heritage.
Colcha embroidery is displayed in museums across the southwest and featured at cultural events like the annual Spanish Market in Santa Fe. In fact, it’s beginning to gain a national following—it was mentioned in the September 2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine!
Julia Gomez has been doing colcha embroidery for 20 years. A recently retired school teacher, Julia loves the historical aspect of her art. She uses only traditional methods and materials, creating original designs based on traditional themes and religious figures.
“When I began doing embroidery I did research at the New Mexico archives on birds and butterflies. I did research on the history of colcha and used many old designs,” she says. In keeping with the history of her art, Julia participates in every step of preparation, from sheering the sheep, to weaving the sabanilla cloth and embroidery yarn, to dying the yarn with natural dyes.
Julia’s work has won numerous awards at Spanish Market and can be seen at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, where she is a docent and teaches embroidery. In keeping with her love of history and folk art traditions, Julia is also a docent at El Rancho de las Golondrinas, and Vice President of La Sociedad Folklórica.
Kathleen Sais Lerner
Kathleen Sais Lerner began learning colcha embroidery in 1994, and has since created more than 250 pieces and won several awards.
Kathleen favors a particular style of colcha, Carson colcha, which involves covering the entire surface of the base cloth with embroidery. The style was named after Carson, New Mexico, where it first became popular.
Kathleen’s most recent piece, “Bedspread,” demonstrates the amount of work involved in Carson colcha. She worked nights and weekends for over six months, spending more than 1,000 hours on the piece. Kathleen used native New Mexico wool purchased at the fall wool markets in Taos, and created the spiritual design herself.
“My intention was for it to comfort the whole person; body, mind, and soul,” Kathleen says of her award-winning piece. After creating “Bedspread,” Kathleen took a year-long sabbatical, but she retired in June and is happy to have more free time to spend on her next project.
Encrusted Straw Appliqué
When the Spanish colonists arrived in New Mexico, they brought with them beautiful crosses, chests, and other religious objects embellished with gold to honor their Catholic faith. But with no access to fine materials and precious metals, artisans had to find another way to create new pieces.
Looking to nature to solve their dilemma, artisans found a substitute for gold. They began gluing cut pieces of wheat straw onto dark backgrounds to create devotional designs and religious icons. The straw was coated with piñon resin to make it shine like gold. This new art form became known as encrusted straw appliqué, or “poor man’s gilding.”
The first step in traditional straw appliqué is to hand-carve a piece of piñon or aspen to create a recessed wood base. Next, the artist mixes lampblack or soot with piñon resin and paints it on the base to create a dark background. The dark background contrasts with the straw, making it look brighter.
After the resin is applied, the artist arranges cut straw pieces into a design, pressing them into the resin. Once the straw is laid out, the piece is set aside to dry. It can take two to three weeks for the resin to dry completely. Once it has dried, the whole piece is coated with one final layer of resin to seal it and make it shine.
New Mexicans continued to create encrusted straw appliqué into the 19th century, and after a brief disappearance, it was revived again during the WPA era. Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Eliseo and Paula Rodriguez resurrected the art form and began teaching it to others. They are still involved in the art today.
This art form has recently become very popular, and many artists still use the traditional methods and materials. But just as the colonists adapted their art to work with what they had, some artists have begun to incorporate contemporary materials, using commercial varnish for the base and white glue for the resin. This newer art form is called straw appliqué to distinguish it from the traditional “encrusted” style.
A few years ago, while recuperating from an accident, Ray Baca was walking around his neighborhood when he came upon a neighbor working on a retablo. He was fascinated, so he tried to reverse engineer a piece to figure out how it was made. As his interest in Spanish Colonial art grew, Ray visited Spanish Market, discovered encrusted straw appliqué, and signed up to take a workshop with renowned straw artist Jimmy Trujillo.
That was six years ago. Since then, Ray has become a regular contributor to Spanish Market, where he was accepted and won a design award the first year he applied. He prides himself on using traditional techniques and materials, harvesting straw from nearby farms, and gathering piñon sap and lampblack to make his own varnish and resin.
Every piece Ray makes is one of a kind. He doesn’t use templates or draw his designs out first. Since straw has a grain to it and fractures easily when cut, he has to work with what he has and prefers to design as he goes. A simple piece can be done in a few hours, but more complicated mosaics can take 200 to 300 hours.
“It gives me time to meditate and reflect on myself and my art,” Ray says. He sees the art as an expression of his Catholic faith. “It’s for a purpose—I’m not just trying to make money at it.”
Ray shares his talent with his daughter, Anjelica Mariah Baca, whom he started mentoring five years ago. She has participated in Spanish Market for the last four years, and has won numerous awards.
Jean Anaya Moya
When Jean Anaya Moya first became interested in Spanish Colonial artwork, she was drawn to retablos, but wanted to work in a medium that wasn’t already crowded with artists. She took a class at the Museum of International Folk Art, where she discovered straw appliqué.
“I researched that side of the art field and fell in love with it,” Jean says. Her love for her art is evident. In the last 12 years, Jean has won numerous awards for her work, including the E. Boyd Award for originality and design at this year’s Spanish Market. Several of her creations are featured in museums around the southwest.
Jean is known for her three-dimensional designs. She uses natural pigments to add colored straw accents and borders to her designs, which gives her pieces a more contemporary look. However, most of her methods and materials are still traditional enough to be considered for Spanish Market.
Blending contemporary elements with the traditional, Jean combines her original landscapes and figure designs with historic iconography. She also hand-carves pine or aspen to create the backgrounds for her pieces, and uses natural straws and ornamental cornhusks to create her designs.
Now an expert in her field, Jean is passing on her love for her art. In addition to mentoring children at Spanish Market, she teaches youth classes in straw appliqué.