NICOLAS MADRID LEARNED TINSMITHING from his father, Jimmy, who taught him to make his own silver stamps and instilled in him a discerning eye. “I focus on New Mexico tradition,” Madrid says. “A lot of people get more whimsical, but I like to stick close to that traditional style.”

Madrid’s work is a compelling combination of homespun and elegant, decorative and functional. Born and raised in Cañon Plaza, near Vallecitos, he has claimed first prize at the Traditional Spanish Market numerous times. His pieces are in the Museum of International Folk Art’s permanent collection and displayed at the Blake Hotel, in Taos, and Hotel Chimayo, in Santa Fe.

Every year, Madrid makes nativity retablos for Susan’s Christmas Shop, in Santa Fe, using triptychs painted by his mother, Mary Jo, featuring images of Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus with a donkey. His parents often collaborated, and Madrid sees these retablos as carrying on that tradition.

Madrid makes small picture frames in the Río Arriba County style, meaning that they are constructed from a single piece of tin, with no soldered parts. His crosses are often embellished with flowers inspired by late 19th-century tinsmith Jose Maria Apodaca. Madrid’s signature pieces are octagonal mirror frames, a shape that comes from the Mora style. He usually includes Apodaca-inspired fastened floral pieces on the frames, as well as Mesilla-style combed glass—an old technique Madrid and his father revived after countless hours of research and experimentation to discover its origins. They traveled to Mexico to find out what sort of substance 19th-century artists smeared on the glass to create swirl patterns that are dark in some places and light in others.

“It turned out to be tar,” he says. “I put it on the glass, about the thickness of peanut butter, and then comb it off with a comb I made myself.” Then he places painted paper behind the glass, using only traditional colors like greens, yellows, and reds. “These are the colors that I’ve seen in museum pieces,” he says, “pieces that I’ve held in my hands.”

Read more: On the same street in Santa Fe, two year-round Christmas stores spread cheer near and far. 

Retablo with St. Nicholas reclining on a chair in a snowy field, surrounded by children and joined by a burro, a rabbit, a blackbird, and a sack overflowing with toys.


St. Nicholas Retablo
St. Nicholas reclines on a chair in a snowy field, surrounded by children and joined by a burro, a rabbit, a blackbird, and a sack overflowing with toys. Behind them, the sun sinks low on the mountains. It’s a quintessential Southwestern Christmas scene, complete with an adobe church and a small house puffing smoke from its chimney into the wintry air. “That’s up in the Trampas area,” says artist Lynn Garlick. “I have a Holy Night and a New Mexico Madonna that I also put up in the high country.” Garlick moved to Taos in the 1970s and started making her popular retablos on a whim in the early 1990s, when she needed extra money to have a nice Christmas for her son. Since then, she’s come to a deep appreciation for the saints she paints. “The more I saw how they touch people’s lives, the more fortunate I felt to be able to make these,” she says.