Las Cruces, NM
LAS CRUCES – The art of Tomasita J. Rodriguez of Las Cruces is focused on spirituality, artistry and traditions that date back centuries.
She does everything that traditional santeros and santeras do, creating faithful images of saintly subjects, using materials and techniques that have been reverently observed by artists here since the 1500s. And she does it all in miniature.
Rodriguez, who creates painted bultos (carved wooded images of saints) and retablos (niches, and altar pieces), is among artists with southern New Mexico ties who are part of the prestigious Santa Fe-based Spanish Colonial Arts Society, which has been reaching out to other parts of the state to create traditional markets. The Las Cruces Spanish Market celebrated its second annual event at Hotel Encanto in February. In some of her works, Biblical scenes are dramatized and the lives of Jesus, Mary and saints are illustrated in tiny tableaus.
The SCAS, founded in 1925 with a mission of “preserving, promoting and educating the public regarding the historic and contemporary Spanish Colonial Art traditions of New Mexico,” held its first market near the Santa Fe Plaza in 1926. The new Las Cruces market joins the annual Traditional Spanish Market in Santa Fe and Winter Market in Albuquerque. SCAS artists must qualify through a rigorous jury process that verifies that artists are using authentic methods and skills with artistic traditions that can be traced directly back over 400 years, since the region was colonized by Spain in 1598.
“I made my first sculpture around 1985,” said Rodriguez, a native of Santa Fe who said she has many artists and craftspersons in her family. “I’ve been part of the Spanish Colonial Society for 33 years,” said Rodriguez, who describes herself as a “self-taught” artisan.
Tomasita Rodriquez. Our Lady of Guadalupe in Tin Frame, 1992. Cottonwood or basswood, gesso, oil paint, tin. entire piece: 5 × 6 × 1 in. (12.7 × 15.2 × 2.5 cm).
Courtesy of the Artist
She learned many things, including some techniques for finishes, antiquing and distressing furniture, from her father Jacob Rodriguez, who was an artisan with the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program of the Franklin Roosevelt administration.
“My mother, Loretta S. Rodriguez, did traditional straw applique that was beautiful, very intricate and refined. My aunt Paula Rodriguez is credited with reviving straw applique traditions after World War II,” she said. “My uncle, Eliseo Rodriguez, was a painter associated with the Cinco Pintores,” a famed group of artists considered to be crucial founders of the modern arts communities in Santa Fe and Taos.
“It seems like all my relatives paint and draw or do some kind of art,” she said.
She has shared her skills with generations of students.
“Her work is beautiful. I’ve learned so much from her,” said Teresa Lundmark of Las Cruces, who helped out at Rodriguez’s booth at the Las Cruces Spanish Market.
“I came to Las Cruces to get an art history degree from New Mexico State University and I never left,” Rodriguez said.
She taught at Court Youth Center and Alma d’arte Charter High School, teaching a variety of arts and crafts and working with students on a “recycled chair project” that transformed old chairs into works of art for a benefit auction.
“I also worked with the city of Las Cruces on a project that worked with juveniles to create murals around the city. I like working with kids. I believe we’re here to help people make connections,” she said.
She has worked in a variety of media and occasionally ventures outside her SCAS traditional works to create contemporary pieces and nods to borderland folk art, including Día de los Muertos tableaus, featuring cavorting skeletons. A recent whimsical work depicted famous departed artists and their masterpieces.
Miniature art by Tomasita Rodriguez includes, from left, a bulto of Santa Librada that may be worn as a pendant or displayed on its own little retablo, an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and a tiny Día de los Muertos scene. (Photo: POLO ORTA)
“It’s all part of our culture. I’ve also created patrons saints of the Americas,” she said, as well as multiple versions of some of the most popular saints, including one of her favorites, St. Francis of Assisi.
“If you know his story, he started out as a playboy,” said Rodriguez, who enjoys researching the lives of saints and learning about their human qualities; the everyday, ordinary characteristics of souls who went on to do extraordinary things.
“I love all the things St. Francis did. If persons who are like us, with all our foibles, can rise to be a better person, then all of us can. The saints were regular human beings who made a choice and went beyond what was expected of them,” she said.
“I’ve also done tin work and stained glass. My Stations of the Cross in stamped tin and stained glass windows are in Holy Family National Catholic Church, at 702 Parker Road in Las Cruces,” Rodriguez said.