Fine Arts Museum, Museum of New Mexico
Left: Plaza, Looking North, Santa Fe, February, 1997; Right: Detail of Front Facade, Fine Arts Museum, Santa Fe, 1997, photos by John Hazeltine
Santa Fe, NM
Eliseo Rodriguez: El Sexto Pintor
The art and lives of los Cinco Pintores -- Jòzef Bakos, Fremont Ellis, Walter Mruk, Willard Nash and Will Shuster -- are practically synonymous with the early-twentieth-century art history of Santa Fe. But few people know how the five legendary painters inspired native Santa Fean Eliseo Rodriguez to launch his own painting career at 15.
Rodriguez, now 85, is considered one of the state's foremost Hispano artists, largely due to his single-handed revival of the art of straw appliqué during the Works Progress Administration. Now, with his first one-man show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Rodriguez will receive long-overdue recognition as one of the important painters of his place and time. (left: Guadalupena, n.d., oil on canvas, 35 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches)
Eliseo Rodriguez: El Sexto Pintor, which opens August 24, 2001, and runs through February 17, 2002, at the Museum of Fine Arts, highlights some 30 mostly unseen paintings by Rodriguez dating from the early 1930s to the late 1980s. Ranging from still lifes to New Mexican landscapes to traditional religious themes, the work reflects the influence of the pintores on Rodriguez's subject matter and style while evoking his own sensibilities as a Hispano artist. (right: Still Life: New Mexican Crucifix, 1953, oil on canvas, 33 1/2 x 28 inches)
As a cooperative venture between various individuals and institutions, the exhibit captures the same spirit of community that Rodriguez's life and art represents. The show is co-curated by Aline Brandauer, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, and Carmella Padilla, a Santa Fe writer. Tey Marianna Nunn, Ph.D., Curator of Contemporary Latino and Hispano Collections at the Museum of International Folk Art, is a contributor to the exhibition catalogue. And Albuquerque's KNME-TV, a PBS affiliate, has produced a new Colores! television documentary featuring Rodriguez's life and art.
"Our job in tracking the development and building the history of art in New Mexico is made particularly delightful by the chance to work with a man who embodies the best of New Mexico," Brandauer said. "Rodriguez has proven to be an inspiration for so many, and EI Sexto Pintor will bring his work to a wider public."
Following is an article written by Carmella Padilla which also appeared in the Museum of New Mexico Magazine El Palacio, Summer/Fall 2001, Vol. 196 No. 1:
Eliseo Rodriguez: El Sexto Pintor
by Carmella Padilla
The sun was slowly rising over Atalaya Hill, splashing streaks of red and gold across the dewy landscape. Eight-year-old Eliseo Rodriguez tucked the colorful picture away in his mind and followed his father up the steep incline. The boy brought up the rear on a herd of goats and sheep that raced to graze on wild summer grasses in the eastside Santa Fe hills. Walking through the silent mountain vista was like walking through a painting. When the boy returned home that afternoon, he rushed to draw the dawn before its brilliance faded from his thoughts.
The year was 1923, and, like the sunrise, the isolated neighborhood where Rodriguez was growing up was fleeting. He was born and lived in his grandfather's Canyon Road home until he was two, when his father, Juan Manuel, and mother, Tomasita, moved their family further east to the San Acacio foothills. It was in the early 1920s that a group of influential Eastern American artists began building homes nearby, transforming the area into a legendary artists' enclave. For a budding young artist like Rodriguez, it was no less than ideal: The prestigious Santa Fe Art Colony practically lived in his back yard.
Among the artists who were drawn to the rural character and multicultural romance of early 20th-century Santa Fe were Jòzef Bakos, Fremont Ellis, Walter Mruk, Willard Nash and Will Shuster. The five painters, who called themselves "Los Cinco Pintores," put their vision in print [El Palacio, 1926] and on canvas. They often exhibited their artworks en masse and together opened new artistic avenues as their classic renderings of local landscapes and cultural traditions became synonymous with the an of the era. The men built side-by-side adobe houses on Camino de Monte Sol, just around the corner from Rodriguez's home. By the time he was 12, the boy was well known to them, working as their gardener in the summer and tending to their fires in wintertime. Between chores he also made it known that he too was going to be a painter.
"When I saw them painting, I got a feeling that it was something that I just had to do. It was like seeing a piece of cake and knowing that you had to taste it," the now 85-year-old Rodriguez recalled from his current San Acacio home. "I figured I might be able to do something like that as a job, but they were honest and told me that painting was not always rewarding in that sense. They said that painting had to be for my own satisfaction, my own excitement."
By then the exhilaration art can elicit had firmly taken root in Rodriguez. When he showed his drawings to the pintores, they encouraged him with gifts of candy, paper and painting supplies. At 15 Rodriguez was given a scholarship to the former Santa Fe Art School by another generous employer, the renowned western writer T. T. Flynn. He enrolled as the school's only Hispanic student and attended painting classes there for the next three years.
As Rodriguez grew older, his friendship with the pintores extended to other members of the thriving Santa Fe Art Colony. At 20 Rodriguez married Paula Gutierrez, and the couple became regular guests at frequent artist gatherings. Socializing with William and Alice Corbin Henderson, John Sloan, Sheldon Parsons, Harold West and others, the two became inside observers to the occasionally infamous bohemian lifestyles of the local artists' community.
"We'd go to parties and everyone would be there," he says. "Alfred and Dorothy Morang would be playing the violin and piano. Witter Bynner read poetry. Will Shuster might be playing the accordion. Everyone was talking about art and enjoying lots of food and wine. Things got pretty wild sometimes."
Meanwhile, Rodriguez's painting skills continued to improve and expand. He emulated the works of the pintores as he experimented with ink, charcoal and pastels on paper, oils and watercolors on canvas, even reverse glass paintings. "I liked all of their work, and it was a challenge for me to see if I could come pretty close to their different styles," he says. From Modernism, Realism and Impressionism to Expressionism, Cubism and Abstractionism, Rodriguez displayed an artistic versatility that would become the hallmark of his own work. But as the economic pressures of the Depression bore down on his small hometown and his growing family, Rodriguez was forced to take his talents beyond experimentation to more financially promising artistic endeavors.
Rodriguez began a $78-a-week job in 1936 with the Federal Art Project, a work-relief program of the Works Progress Administration. Although he was hired as a painter for the project to portray New Mexican landscapes, culture and history in paintings, murals and mosaics, his focus soon shifted to the Hispanic art of straw appliqué. This little-known local version of Spanish, Mexican and European marquetry work had flourished in 18th- and 19th-century New Mexico, and then waned into obscurity. Charged with its revival, Rodriguez not only resurrected the art form, he reinvented it by integrating narrative figurative imagery with traditional floral and geometric motifs. Though working in a different medium, Rodriguez used his foundation as a painter to create intricately shaded, detailed and often monumental "paintings in straw."
Rodriguez's WPA job ended in 1939, and during the next 40 years he held concurrent jobs in a variety of other media. As the master craftsman at Santa Fe's Southwest Spanish Craftsman, Rodriguez carved and painted furniture and reverse glass paintings. As an employee of the Santa Fe Studios of Church Art, he made altars, stained glass and religious paintings for churches in California, Colorado and elsewhere in the U.S. He taught furniture making with the State Department of Vocational Education. When World War II took him to the South Pacific for three years, he kept his skills fresh -- and company morale high -- by painting portraits of his fellow soldiers' loved ones. In the midst of it all, he and his wife, Paula, also an accomplished straw appliqué artist, built a 13-room adobe house, raised seven children, and nurtured straw art from infancy to the mature art form it is today.
Rodriguez's busy life left little time for his first creative love: Painting. Still he used the little time he did have -- the middle of the night -- to paint. Like the works of the early 20th-century artists who influenced him, Rodriguez's still lifes, landscapes, portraits and other paintings captured classic New Mexican themes. He also expressed his cultural heritage and personal beliefs in retablos (religious images painted on wood) and other works that explored the lives of the saints and other Biblical topics. Whatever the theme, Rodriguez illustrated a firm command of style and subject matter and an abundant creative energy.
Rodriguez earned widespread recognition through the years as a straw appliqué artist, and his straw works have been collected and exhibited by institutions and individuals throughout the country. His prolific, decades-long work as a painter, however, has been largely unrecognized. Indeed, due to his success and exposure at Spanish Market and other "traditional" arts venues, art historians and others who considered him a self-taught folk artist, not an academically trained fine artist, have generally ignored his work as a painter. Though his most ardent admirers have been drawn by the painterly qualities that distinguish his straw appliqué work, most have no idea that Rodriguez ever picked up an artist's paintbrush.
With the exception of seven of his paintings shown in seven group exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts from the 1930s to the 1950s, the majority of Rodriguez's literally hundreds of paintings have never been exhibited. True, Rodriguez broke new ground as the only Hispanic and the only native Santa Fean to participate in those museum shows; however, his name was virtually unknown among fine art aficionados, except for the area artists who befriended him. In a September 1952 El Palacio article about the "Thirty-Ninth Annual Exhibition of New Mexico Artists" -- in which Rodriguez exhibited alongside Emil Bisttram, Randall Davey, Fremont Ellis, Gene Kloss, Olive Rush and other important artists -- he is identified as a "lesser-known artist." His exhibited painting, "Crucifixion," is described as "characteristically New Mexican" and "strong in color and design."
For Rodriguez, showing with some of the state's most acclaimed artists was recognition enough. "It made me feel like I had made the team to be able to compete with those guys," he says. More than anything, he remained motivated by the advice he received from the pintores when he was just a boy and continued to paint more for himself than for public recognition or monetary reward. He stayed so true to the ideal of art for art's sake that he often didn't bother to date his paintings. Sometimes he didn't even sign them.
Quietly yet most definitely, Rodriguez was making more of an impact than he realized. As one of the few Hispanic painters of his era, and the shepherd of numerous important traditional art forms throughout the 20th century, he set the course for the booming Hispanic arts community of today. Rodriguez influenced generations of artists, including some of the state's foremost Hispanic artists such as Frederico Vigil, Luis Tapia and Pola López. His children Yolanda Griego and Vikki and Aguinaldo Rodriguez and grandchildren Philip Griego and Marcial, Gabriel, Monica and Jessica Rodriguez have also followed in his footsteps as accomplished straw appliqué artists.
"When I started, I didn't know any Hispanic painters getting into the field. I put myself under a lot of pressure because I felt that if I didn't make the grade, I would be letting people down," he says. "Now it's so rewarding to see so many young Hispanics getting into art. They're even going to college to study art. It makes me feel good to think I may have influenced my culture in that way."
In 1985, Rodriguez's contributions as a painter were acknowledged, as he became the only Hispanic New Mexican artist to be honored with a plaque embedded in the walkway in front of the Museum of Fine Arts -- once again alongside all of the painters who had influenced him. Now, some 70 years after the Cinco Pintores first captured his creative spirit, Rodriguez's paintings will be seen in his first-ever one-man show at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Eliseo Rodriguez: El Sexto Pintor, which opens August 24, 2001, and runs through Feb. 15, 2001, was developed with by Aline Brandauer, the museum's curator of contemporary art, and a representative of the Spanish Colonial Arts Society, which is co-sponsoring the show with the museum. Also participating in the cooperative effort is Tey Marianna Nunn, Ph.D., curator of Hispano and Latino Collections at the Museum of International Folk Art, who will contribute an essay on Rodriguez to the exhibition publication. And Albuquerque's PBS affiliate, KNME-TV, has contributed to the effort with the production of a television special exploring Rodriguez's life and art.
According to Brandauer, El Sexto Pintor will celebrate Rodriguez's 70-year painting career, giving long-overdue recognition as one of the foremost painters of his place and time. "The Museum of Fine Arts is thrilled to present the work of an extraordinary, multitalented artist who has been an integral part of the Santa Fe art scene -- indeed of multiple Santa Fe art scenes -- during the last three-quarters of a century," she says. "Our job in tracking the development and building the history of art in New Mexico is made particularly delightful by the chance to work with a man who embodies the best of New Mexico. Rodriguez has proven to be an inspiration for so many, and El Sexto Pintor will bring his work to a wider public."
On the eve of this important event in his career, Rodriguez is still quiet about his talents, still humble about his accomplishments. He wonders aloud how he ever had the energy to do it all. Then, as he sits down to work on a sketch for his latest work-in-progress, the answer becomes clear: Rodriguez is still excited about art.
"Painting has been a very rewarding career for me. Not as a matter of getting rich, but of doing something that I enjoy," he says. "It's like a beautiful song: You can listen to it your entire life, and it still makes you smile."
About the author
Carmella Padilla is a free-lance writer living in Santa Fe. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal and Dallas Morning News, and in El Palacio, Latina and New Mexico magazines. She recently wrote Low 'n slow: Lowriding in New Mexico, a 1999 book from the Museum of New Mexico Press.
Exhibition information and images courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of New Mexico. Article reprinted with permission of Carmella Padilla
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