Cady Wells Collection of Folk Art at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Arts

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Review of Cady Wells Collection of Folk Art at the Museum


  • Publication: Journal Santa Fe Section; Date: Mar 4, 2011; Section: Gallery Guide; Page: S8

    CULTURAL TREASURES Cady Wells collection of folk art a blessing for New Mexico Art Issues


    For the Journal

    Although museum visitors must touch with their eyes, artists who collect art handle the works in their possession gauging their heft, turning objects over to see theraw and unfinished undersides, as well as sniffing, shaking, and reading the surfaces with their fingers.

    Many of the pieces in Cady Wells collection now on view at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Arts invite physical contact. Wells collected a panoply of media, eachwith its own sensorial properties, including the crusty Pieta by the anonymous Quill Pen Santero; the warm, worn and satiny wood of a small Sheraton-Pyle inspiredside chair; and, the sharp-edged, cross-shaped tin wall sconce.

    The most enticing textural item, however, is the unlikely, so-called embroidery by Policarpio Valencia (1856-1934), a virtually unknown Espaola sui generis textileartist. A phenomenon unto itself, there are only 10 known pieces by Valencia, three of them collected by Wells and three others collected by E. Boyd for the SpanishColonial Arts Society.

    Until now considered folk art, University of New Mexico scholar Michael Trujillo currently places Valencias textiles incorporating the written word usually proverbs oralabados (religious hymns) into the context of modernism. Although this textile is truly amazing and is undoubtedly an object that would be appreciated bymodernists who used text and word fragments in their compositions, it seems quite a stretch to position it within the artistic context of modernism.

    It is such a unique piece that to even call it embroidery doesnt seem accurate. A patchwork of old clothing is used as the ground for thick cotton rug thread overlaid likea web that covers and obscures most of the ground. One of the textiles two Spanish texts translates as follows: That which is does not seem to be. And that whichseems to be is. Appearances teach. In that they give understanding. This feels and looks like visionary outsider art, but Trujillo will present his arguments forreconsidering Valencia as a modernist in a lecture at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art on Thursday, April 28.

    Wells fits the clich of the misfit offspring from a prosperous Eastern family who found in the remoteness of northern New Mexico a place to make a home where hecould choose his intimates and create his own family of supportive friends. Although Wells may have been a disappointment and formally undereducated by thestandards of his puritanical, hardworking family who numbered many generations of Harvard graduates he was never cut off from his legacy. Not only did Wellsbring determination to create a life for himself as an artist to his adopted home, he had the good fortune of still being loved by his Massachusetts family, therebybringing substantial family financing with him.

    During his first brief visit in August 1931, Wells met the premier Spanish Colonial scholar E. Boyd, who became his lifelong friend, adviser and collaborator. Within a fewshort years of his initial summer visits here, including two summers in Taos to study watercolor with Andrew Dasburg, Wells bought a home in Jacona and hired societyarchitect John Gaw Meem to renovate it. When he moved into his gracious property in the spring of 1936, he was able to begin his own collection in earnest, eventuallyhiring E. Boyd to educate his eye and catalog his acquisitions.

    In contrast to early 20th century Taos and Santa Fe landscape and genre painters working in a European mode that romanticized the lives of the native and Hispanicpeoples and dramatized the vast skies, all of the early modernist artists like Wells looked at the arts and crafts made by the people living here. They liked what they saw,and it matched their own aspirations to create art from conditions in America. In the aftermath of the horrors of World War I, the prestige of European culture was inquestion. In the material culture and arts of both natives and Hispanics, artists saw authentic artifacts made by local talent untainted by decadent Europe. Theyappreciated the bold geometries, primary shapes, and basic palettes they found in northern New Mexico.

    Wells mentor and friend Andrew Dasburg who was among the first of the Modernist American artists to arrive in Taos as Mabel Dodge Luhans guest in January 1918 began collecting santos, tinwork, furniture, textiles, and pottery within days of stepping off the train. It was in fact because of the train that Spanish Colonial religiouswork and handmade furniture was so available. These items were being discarded from churches, private chapels and homes, to be replaced by mass-producedpolychrome statues and household goods.

    Dasburg, who was a partner in the Spanish and Indian Trading Post, beginning in 1926, was more typical of early modernist artists who bought and sold early work tosupport themselves. Wells had the good fortune to collect it, the foresight to seek the best advice, and, finally, the generosity to pass it along to the rest of us.

    He continually improved his collection, selling a lesser piece when a better piece was found. The Guadalupe bulto by the maestro Jose Rafael Aragon (b. 1780sd.1862) is surely among this great santeros most beautiful and delicate works, the full figure with her sweet face lifted heavenward and surrounded by an elegant openframe. The sureness and fluidity of Aragons curling painted lines transform this piece into a song of praise.

    Wells was most drawn to the santos of Jose Benito Ortega (1858-1941) of Mora, one of the most prolific late 19th century santeros. Ortega is distinguished by his use ofmilled lumber, rather than cottonwood or pine tree trunks or limbs, resulting in flat almost 2-dimensional profiles. They are also bold and painterly with a palette of vividreds, yellows and black. The museum has augmented Ortegas collected by Wells with a wall case of 10 more Ortega enigmatic bultos in many different sizes fromdifferent donors. The exhibition of Wells collection juxtaposes his own compositions with five bultos three by Ortega that directly inspired his paintings. For themost part, Wells paintings are flattened close-ups of only the head of each the sculptures emphasizing a range of emotions from a serene St. Rita to a tragic Christ to aregal Head of the Virgin, who could also be a Kuan Yin.

    Disturbed by the bomb-making at Los Alamos, World War II veteran Cady Wells moved in 1951 from his beloved Jacona home, where he could see, feel and hearexplosives detonating, to the Caribbean island of St. Croix. Upon his departure, Wells donated his collection to the Museum of New Mexico with the proviso that theinstitution would create a Department of Spanish Colonial Art and hire E. Boyd as its curator. The current exhibition is the first time this gift has been suitably recognizedand celebrated.

    If you go

    WHAT: Collecting New Mexico: The Forgotten Cady Wells

    WHERE: Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, 750 Camino Lejo on Museum Hill

    WHEN: Through Aug. 28.


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  • HOURS: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday

    COST: Free.

    CONTACT: 505-982-2226


    A wool and cotton embroidery, ca. 1920s, is one of only 10 known pieces by the obscure Espaola textile artist Policarpio Valencia (1856-1934).


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    Head of Christ is an oil and watercolor on paper, ca. 1934-40, by modernist painter Cady Wells (1904-1954).



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  • Jose Benito Ortega (1858-1941) of Mora, one of the most prolific late 19th century santeros, created this Crucifixion.


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