The Tools of our Trades

I make it to the New Mexico State Fair just about every year, including this one. Some events, like the Fine Art show, and the Hispanic, Native American and African American art and cultural shows are housed in permanent buildings not too far from the entrance to the fairground. To get to them – and to all the other “housed” activities – one must walk past a midway full of rides and also past clusters of food booths selling barbecued turkey legs, ribbon potatoes, lemonade and – this year at least – such exotica as frog’s legs and fried ravioli on a stick.

Next one must negotiate the plethora of booths filling both sides of the main “streets” of the grounds. These are all commercial. They offer multiple opportunities to acquire surprisingly similar items, from painted faces to sports memorabilia and cell phone accessories, purses, dresses, make up, the latest fads in hair adornment, and cheaply made but not cheaply priced glitz jewelry.

Farther into the grounds are a Spanish village and a Native American village where culturally traditional items and foods are sold, and groups perform appropriate music and dances. Also near the middle of the grounds is a large building housing the many types of items we older folk associate with the shop and home economics classes that used to be mandatory in all junior high and high schools, but which now seem only to be found in the context of career programs at community colleges. Wood workers, quilters and seamstresses, experts in home canning and baking submit their finest products in hopes of winning a coveted blue ribbon.

Nearby there is also a space for flower arrangements. Other hobbies are represented as well. I acquired a book mark with my name in exquisite calligraphy, and watched two ladies carefully making lace, twisting bobbins around the pins which mark out a pattern. I remember seeing the famous lace makers of Bruge, in Belgium, sitting in the sun and chatting as their bobbins flew in complex designs they knew by heart from a lifetime apprenticeship in an ancient craft.

One has to complete a long walk across the full length of the fair’s main street in order to get to the true core of a state fair – the animals.

4-Hers and adults spend years breeding to obtain a perfect specimen to enter into their county competition before advancing to the state fair. Horses are trained to perform complicated maneuvers, mule and draft horse teams pull wagons or increasingly heavy loads on sledges, demonstrating their ability to perform the classic work of a ranch. Judging the quality of livestock is a learned skill, often passed down within families. As I walk along stalls with handsome palomino heads protruding to be admired, I overhear a discussion of which judge will be in charge – competitors clearly have their own favorites.

There is much less foot traffic at the livestock end of the fair grounds. Kids tug their parents to the petting zoo and pre-teen girls congregate in the open space between the rows of stalls where their horses wait with them to be called into the ring for their classes (the level of competition each has achieved, showing off the gait and conformation of their rides). Older teen boys lead cattle of various breeds and sizes to and from their show ring, talking about weight and sale price. Many of the animals, like much of the handwork in the crafts building, will be sold or auctioned before the fair ends.

Sitting on a bench near the horse stalls, enjoying a treat of ribbon fries, I try to imagine what the fair would be like without all the commercial booths – or at least only with ones related to farming and ranching. There are no representatives of John Deere on the main street. Instead, lines of old cars are displayed, most from the 1920s, including an early fire engine whose siren sounds whenever an ambitious child cranks its handle. What was marketed at the fair when the attendees arrived in those early Fords? Back where I relax in the livestock area, it is not hard to imagine myself in that earlier time.

I suspect there would have been many more teams competing in the draft horse heavy sledge pulls. And many of the contestants would have arrived by horse power, not automobile. Canned goods, instead of being one row of the crafts building, might well have taken up a tent all on their own. The same with sewing and quilting.

I can’t help but feel dismay that our modern preoccupations, if assessed by the balance of items offered up to view at this year’s Fair, have become so faddish. And so mass produced. And so poorly made.

OK, we’re living in a wired age and we are hooked on our technology. So, where are the hand-beaded cell phone covers? Why don’t I see tooled leather cases for laptops? What has become of pride in beautiful, well made, durable crafts to embellish the tools of our modern everyday trades? Why are hand painted Easter eggs, braided rugs and crocheted blankets considered only to be examples of “saving the skills of the past?” How did these arts become locked into traditional forms, instead of adapted to the items most commonly in use today?

In the Vicinity of Acoma

In the Vicinity of Acoma

English: Original lithograph for report of J.W...

English: Original lithograph for report of J.W. Abert of “His Examination of New Mexico in the Years 1846-47” to the Secretary of War (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The day following my visit to the State Fair, I was escorted by a friend to one of the last places in New Mexico that I wanted – but had not yet made it – to see, Acoma Pueblo. The majority of current tribal members live in two communities in the valley, near Interstate 40 in the western half of my state. According to our guide, only about 30 people (of about 6000 tribe members) still live atop the mesa that is historical (from the 1100s) Acoma. Most of those who do live on the mesa appear to be the potters and practitioners of other traditional arts who market their wares to the groups of visitors escorted on tours coordinated by the tribe.

Our tour guide provided a lively account of the history of Acoma, in an interesting language style which notably did not use standard past tense. “The people were living atop the mesa and were welcoming the first Spaniards to come to their area. Because the straw in the mud coating of their sandstone homes reflected golden in the sun, the Spanish were thinking they had found the mythical Seven Cities of Cibola, so they were demanding that Acoma turn over its gold and, not believing there was none, they began subjugating the people with torture and killings.”

The effect of our guide’s narration was to make his listeners aware of how differently the Acoma people (and most other Pueblo tribal groups I’ve interacted with) perceive time – how intimately their distant history informs their present day lives. The mixture of tradition and history with modern innovation and adaptation is also evident in the Acoma art – mostly finely painted and incised pottery – which was on offer. Some of the artists appeared dedicated to repeating ancient family patterns; others clearly added personal perspectives and made use of new colors and forms, while still reflecting traditional cultural styles. I was delighted with the demonstrated Acoma talent for maintaining art forms yet adapting them to modern needs!

WLA brooklynmuseum Pueblo Acoma Water Jar

WLA brooklynmuseum Pueblo Acoma Water Jar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I hope some of my online friends whose work lies in the decorative arts will take up the challenge implicit in my two days of contrasting experience. Can someone run a contest to see how many different “traditional arts” can be adapted to making modern day accessories for our ubiquitous cell phones, laptops and pads? How about a quilted dash cover? A pretty lace wrist strap for the new wearable smart phones? It would be such fun to visit the State Fair again in a few years and, instead of what I overheard one visitor describe as “so much schlock”, see rows of booths offering well-made, hand crafted items of practical use to the modern, hip visitor!

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2 Responses to “The Tools of our Trades”

  1. Ron Maltais Says:

    Your descriptive writing created vivid images in my mind. When I encounter wonderful hand made pieces which reveal something of the heritage of the artists it seems such a stark contrast to what I call “souvenir art” which dominates so many of the local shops. The quality pieces I have acquired over the years in a relatively small collection bring life and the spirit of the artists into my home. Thanks for reminding me of their intrinsic value and for allowing me to see them in a new light.

    Ronald Maltais

    • chelawriter Says:

      Appreciation of fine craftsmanship, whether of art, music, furniture, or decorating seems – sadly – to be taught in fewer ways and less frequently. I know it is ‘elitist’ to say not everyone has the natural talent to create or to appreciate quality. I don’t think it is elitist to wish everyone had more opportunity to learn to appreciate and value artful creations in the way that you do.

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