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Early Spanish Art
Early Spanish Art

During the early years of Spanish colonization there was little time for leisure or “art for art’s sake.” The first settlers worked hard building homes, growing crops and making just about everything they needed. Over the centuries some of these early necessities developed into art forms.

In New Mexico most of what we now consider an artistic tradition was solely utilitarian in function. Blacksmithing, metalworking, woodworking and furniture making were the major art forms that the Spanish brought with them to New Mexico. Another major tradition, which would later become one of New Mexico’s most profitable industries, was the weaving and textiles.

The first churro sheep were introduced into New Mexico as early as 1540, brought on the Coronado expedition as a food source. By necessity families carded and spun wool and wove textiles on hand-made looms. Family patterns brought from Spain were used, such as the jerga, a checkerboard plaid. Over time, they developed a stripe weave like the one used in the Rio Grande blanket.

In the 1600s the first New Mexican textiles were being exported to Mexico. The sheep and their wool became so prized that during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 the sheep were herded away by the Pueblo Indians, one of the few Spanish belongings not destroyed. Subsequently, Spanish descendents and Native Americans alike developed their own unique profitable textile traditions.

Blacksmithing and metalworking were extremely important to settlers, as everyone needed tools, implements, cooking utensils, bits, bridles and weapons. They also fashioned religious items for Mass and crafted jewelry.

Most of the items made in this time were non-decorative and utilitarian because iron and metals were scarce. Objects were often melted down and reworked into other necessary items. In the collections of the state museum is a sword literally beaten from a plough share.

Pueblo Indian people learned these skills. They, in turn, taught Spanish settlers how to use animal brains in the process of tanning hides. They also taught them to paint on hides, and these paints represent some of the earliest Spanish paintings done in New Mexico. Of 70 hide paintings found, all but two have religious subjects. Another unique hide painting of this early period is a canopy at Laguna Pueblo, which contains Native American religious images and a Spanish Colonial border.

Most non-utilitarian art, particularly painting, was created for churches, missions and home altars. The earliest churches, based on Franciscan missions in Mexico, were initially decorated with wall paintings and hide paintings.

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