GREGORY SEGURA PEERS THROUGH his gray jeweler’s visor at the details of a silver sacred heart pendant. Wielding a hammer and torch in his Santa Fe workshop, the master silversmith fuses imagery and techniques from his Spanish and Native American heritage.
A single drop of red blood drips from a central heart, adorned with three flowers and pierced by a sword—a traditional motif in Spanish Colonial art. A bird, soaring toward the heavens, connects it to a trilevel floating cross stamped using Navajo techniques and designs. Segura’s three-dimensional piece also draws inspiration from New Mexico’s mountains and mesas, adding another layer of meaning to his work and linking it to our state’s rich tradition of creating things both utilitarian and beautiful.
Clay pottery and woven baskets, churro wool blankets and rugs, tanned leather garments and saddles, carved wooden furniture, stamped silver jewelry: Across the ages, New Mexico’s long tradition of making things is rooted in necessity, in a remote and starkly beautiful place where materials from the earth are readily accessible. And in an era when makers lead a back-to-basics movement across the country, our DIY spirit flourishes as new generations meld their own stories, concerns, and artistic visions with that lineage.
“New Mexico is amazing,” says State Historian Rob Martínez. “Whether it’s the high alpine mountains of New Mexico or the beautiful deserts or the plains—the llanos of the east—there’s something that grabs us. It’s been grabbing us for about 15,000 years.”
As our first makers, Indigenous people used materials from the earth to create functional, beautiful things they needed. These early Ancestral Pueblo people crafted baskets from yucca and other plant fiber and gathered clay to make pottery. They worked turquoise, shells, and other items into jewelry to adorn their bodies and carved animal-shaped fetishes out of stone.
For many contemporary makers, these ways remain vibrantly alive.
“Whether I’m making a sculpture or pot out of the dirt in the vicinity, or building a house or an oven out of the dirt in the vicinity, or growing food in a field in the dirt in the vicinity, it’s hard not to wonder, Were my ancestors planting here hundreds of years ago?” says renowned Santa Clara Pueblo sculptor and builder Roxanne Swentzell. “Did they use this particular clay for a pot or finishing a floor? We’re still using our place to create the world that we live in every day, like my ancestors did. It is a beautiful way of living in a place, with the knowledge of place at a very deep level.”
When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they brought artistic traditions with roots beyond Spain, creating religious objects, weavings, pottery, and furniture. Spanish Colonial art in New Mexico “travels through time and place and picks up influences along the way,” says author and cultural historian Carmella Padilla, whose books include Conexiones: Connections in Spanish Colonial Art, written with Donna Pierce. “It really is an expression of a multicultural migration.”
The Spanish and the Pueblo people influenced one another. The Puebloans, for instance, were expert weavers, but they began using an upright loom brought by the Spanish when they arrived in the region, Padilla says. The Spanish, in turn, learned about local dyes from the Pueblo people.
It’s a similar story with silver, Padilla says, which arrived with Spanish and Mexican metalsmiths. “Of course, the Indigenous people ran with it and put their stamp on it,” she says, “no pun intended.”
The intersection of cultures meant that traditions grew and evolved. “All of this starts out as things that were needed, things that were necessary, and they have an innate beauty to them,” Martínez points out. “It’s not until the 1920s that people started looking at our architecture, our art, our food, and saying, ‘These are beautiful things.’ ”
Anglo artists and writers who established art colonies in northern New Mexico in the early 20th century admired the Pueblo and Spanish Colonial art and craft traditions. They helped bring awareness to the beauty, which in turn drew others to the state.
“The art of the santeros and Puebloan craft provided an exotic break from what they perceived as the rigidity of American culture back east,” says Martínez, “and let them breathe, be free, and be themselves without being judged.”
Today’s makers innovate and celebrate New Mexico’s rich maker history. Consider James Morris of Morris Saddlery, who continues the state’s longtime saddle-making tradition. In the hands of Gallup silversmith Philander Begay, a horned-toad cuff serves as a pandemic protector. Patience Pollock turns scraps of leftover leather into earrings rather than watching them end up in a landfill. Santa Clara Pueblo artist Susan Folwell’s brightly painted ceramic smartphones, water jars, and other pieces share social commentary and personal narrative in a modern take on traditional Pueblo pottery.
This place seems made for makers—whether they’re sparked by the dirt, the skies, the past, the promise of the future, or the abundance of other creators whose hands have been worn down and whose souls have been uplifted by this Land of Enchantment.
“New Mexico is unique,” Segura says. “It’s pretty inspirational, if you take the time to open your eyes and let it sink in.”