Passing It On:
The Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program In New Mexico

Story and photos by Barbe Awalt & Paul Rhetts

Since 1989, over one hundred and fifty apprentice artists have studied under master artists from New Mexico’s Hispanic, Native American, ranch, Norwegian, Polish, Swedish, Irish, Jewish, and Eastern Orthodox communities. It is a rich mixture of art, storytelling, crafts, dance, and music that has been passed down from master to student. The program, sponsored by the Folk Arts Program of New Mexico Arts, which is a division of the State Office of Cultural Affairs, is supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Each year, the Director of the Program, Claude Stevenson, accepts between ten and twelve applications from master artists and hopeful apprentices. The master artist must exhibit “a high level of expertise” in their art or craft area and the apprentice must already have a familiarity with the art form. At a minimum, both artists need to already know each other. It is also preferred that the two artists have already worked together before. Master artists and apprentices must provide examples of their work for consideration as a part of the screening process.

A honorarium for the master artist is funded along with supplies. The program does not fund capital expenditures like looms, power tools, musical instruments. Nor does it fund restoration projects or training to teach others. Priority is given to master artists and apprentices who are part of a group affiliated with the art form such as cowboy poet societies or The Spanish Colonial Arts Society. The funding period is for one year culminating in an exhibit at the Governor’s Gallery at the State Capitol Building in Santa Fe. A short term grant is for up to four months and provides $1,000 for supplies and $1,000 for the master artist. A long term grant is for up to eight months and awards $2,000 for supplies and $2,000 for the master artist.

The cultural fabric of New Mexico provides for a wide range of art forms that have been part of the program. Many santeros take on an apprentice to study the making of santos or images of saints. Ramón José López of Santa Fe has taught both son Leon and daughter Lilly the fine points of painting and carving. Other master artists who participated in the program include: Nicholas Herrera, José Benjamin López, Charlie Carrillo, Jimmy Trujillo, and Tomasita Rodríguez.

Additional Hispanic arts and crafts in the program include: tinwork, encrusted and straw inlay, micaceous pottery, colcha, weaving, violin making, ironwork, rawhide braiding, music, and furniture making. The native American culture is represented by: Zuni lullabies, Tewa dance costumes, Jicarilla and Mescalero Apache baskets, Tewa moccasin making, and Apache singing.

Many generations of the same family have taken advantage of the program. Most notably, award winning straw appliqué artist Paula Rodríguez of Santa Fe taught her daughter Vicki in 1990-91. Eight years later Paula’s granddaughter Jessica was taught by Vicki, who is now considered a master artist herself. Yolanda Griego, another of Paula’s daughters, apprenticed with Paula during 1994 and 1995 and was the Best of Show/Grand Prize winner at the 2001 Spanish Market held in Santa Fe.

Tomasita Rodríguez, a wood carver from Las Cruces, New Mexico who makes santos or saints, is a niece of Paula Rodríguez. During 2000 and 2001, her son Nicholas apprenticed with her in the saint-making discipline. Tomasita indicated that, “the biggest difficulty of mentoring my son was setting up a schedule and sticking with it.” Her son would bring his brother or friends to the class so it would be more fun. She thoroughly enjoyed the experience, noting that the program had the added benefit of giving her quality time with her sons.

Master Santero Charlie Carrillo mentored Rudy Miera during the 1990-1991 period. Rudy learned to make retablos (an image of a saint painted on a wood board) with the traditional, 400-year-old methods. Rudy says the experience was great and has enabled him to pass on the tradition to hundreds of his students. In a recent interview, Rudy said, “the Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program is a bridge to generations. Without it, a lot of kids would have lost an opportunity to re-discover an artform their grandparents probably did.” In the ten years since Rudy participated in the program he has given dozens of workshops for students as well as his own nieces and nephews.

For the 2002 program, a number of traditional artists submitted applications for the first-time to work with children with talent and promise. They all admit the compensation is a motivation needed to get off dead center and work with their designated students.

Considering that there was a time in the 1950s and 1960s when many traditional art forms were in danger of dying out, the Folk Art Apprenticeship Program is an investment in New Mexico’s artistic future. The money is well spent on insuring that these traditional crafts will continue to flourish for many years.

The Governor’s Gallery at the New Mexico State Capitol Building will host a Ten Year Retrospective Exhibition of the New Mexico Arts’ Folk Art Apprenticeship Program from April 25 through May 9. The opening reception will be on April 25 from 4-6pm. The public is cordially invited.

Additional information about the program can be obtained from The New Mexico Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program, Claude Stephenson, Director, New Mexico Arts, 228 East Palace Avenue, Santa Fe, NM, 87501. The telephone number for the program is 800/879-4278.

Barbe Awalt & Paul Rhetts are publishers of Tradición Revista magazine and have authored several books on New Mexican Hispanic art and culture. Parts of this article first appeared in E&A Environment & Art Magazine in 2002.

First published in Tradicion Revista, Volume 8, No. 1, Spring 2003.
Copyright 2003. May not be reproduced in any form without written permission.