Eiseley at SMU-in-Taos

Eiseley is a senior majoring in art history from St. Petersburg, Florida. She is helping restore the Catholic church of San Jose de Gracia in Las Trampas, New Mexico, this August at SMU-in-Taos as part of Professor Adam Herring’s course, Art and Architecture of Hispanic New Mexico.

A hard week’s work

Day 4: Today was our last hoorah at Las Trampas. And fortunately, we knew how to take advantage of the situation. The group kept up a great level of enthusiasm throughout the workday, which rubbed off on everyone around us.

I started the day by chopping hay (straw) with Sarah and Kelly. This task was more time-consuming than I’d previously assumed! We turned an entire bale of hay into finely chopped pieces using a gardening tool with mechanical difficulties.

Early in the morning, members of the Architecture Graduate program from UT San Antonio dropped by to join the effort. There were only a handful on this team, and they mostly kept to themselves. Mr. Lopez pointed their team members in different directions, and their presence at Las Trampas didn’t really affect any of our activities.

Mud baseball
Our class pitched in to fill the space behind the halfway-completed side wall with freshly mixed adobe mud. Next, the majority of us moved to work on the entranceway arch. After the removal of the chicken wire and outer layer of mud, it was ready for re-mudding. Jordan, Jolie and Stephanie worked on the outer side of the structure, and the rest of the group mudded the inner side. At one point, Sam hastily saved Preston from falling off the tall scaffolding. It’s just proof that we work well as a team!

Everyone dabbled in different methods of making the mud stick in place. Throwing a handful of mud like a baseball (although underhand pitches were probably more effective) worked best for me. But as you can imagine, the range on the splatter from throwing large globs of mud against a wall of existing mud is pretty far. As a result, a number of mini disputes arose.

Chilling out
After lunch, Dr. Adler from the Taos campus stopped by to offer some assistance. He jumped right in and added mud to the outer side of the entranceway. He also brought the class a chilled 12 pack of Dr. Pepper. Nothing reaches to the core of a college kid like cold beverages. We sat back in the sun covered in mud and leisurely drinking Dr. Pepper. It reminded me of the scene in the film The Shawshank Redemption when Andy barters for beers from the prison guard in exchange for working his finances, and his buddies drink away on the hot roof they’ve just finished re-tarring.

Shortly after, the Executive Director of Cornerstones, Mr. Jim Hare, dropped in to thank us and gave a Southwestern-style porcelain church replica to the SMU-in-Taos program. He congratulated us on our hard work, and encouraged the team to stay involved with restoration efforts in the future.

Warm welcome
After breaking apart the scaffoldings and cleaning up for the final time, Mr. Lopez invited the group to his home, right across the street! He explained that he had some inventions and art that he wished to share with us. His backyard was a haven of green amid the arid desert. It included a century-old tree that sprawled across the sky above the house. It was the most appropriate tree for climbing that I’ve ever seen in my life! Then we saw a small watermill that Mr. Lopez constructed from bike tires and cans for the flowing stream water. This was his artistic invention.

It was an incredibly kind gesture for Mr. Lopez to invite the class into his home, and it showed us that we had worked diligently enough to win his favor. After all, it takes a great deal of effort and understanding to be accepted into any community when you start as an outsider.

– Eiseley

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Mud, mud and more mud

Day 3: Today was a muddy one. We began under the blazing morning sun executing some standard gardening. The front entrance of the church was, as I noted before, a bit of a mess. The wall lining the entrance was drastically bowed out in the center; the earthen steps leading to the entrance were overgrown with weeds; and the adobe archway needed re-mudding.

Thus, we got on our hands and knees and yanked weeds out of the dirt, we hoed and we dug deep with our shovels to get to the roots of some trickier growth. We laughed at the fact that we were probably using the same tools as the original workers on the church here in Trampas. We had nothing but shovels and hoes – and luckily a basic aptitude for gardening.

After clearing a truckload of dirt from the front lawn space and finishing our gardening procedures, we stood back to realize that we did, in fact, make a great improvement in a short period of time. The adobe brick wall at the entrance was not yet rebuilt, and this will also make a significant aesthetic difference upon completion.

As we struggled to push dirt-filled wheelbarrows up a wobbly ramp and into the bed of the truck trailer at the onset of this task, we heard the distinctive clamor of heavy machinery on the nearby road into Trampas. A decently large Caterpillar front-end loader pulled into the parking lot of the church. Our group of mud-encrusted laborers dropped shovels one-by-one and stared at this miracle in both disbelief and relief – Until we realized that the driver mistakenly took a wrong turn, and simply used the church parking lot to make a U-turn. This was undoubtedly the letdown of the week.

Nonetheless, we regained momentum. We worked on the side stretch of wall parallel to the main road. Since we’d completed deconstruction, we embarked on Day 2 of restacking the adobe brick wall. This time, the entire class participated.

Fun with mud
Kelly, Sam and Kelsey started by covering the top layer of bricks in the adobe mud. We had a great deal of mud to work with, and the churner was in motion all day. Mr. Martinez posted up near the churner and instructed students to throw necessary ingredients into the mixture. Professor Herring did the bulk of brick lifting and moving.

By mid-afternoon, the entire class experienced the glory of sticking your hands into a wheelbarrow of warm mud. It’s liberating, I swear. Hayley and I experimented in mud ball throwing as well. Some batches of mud were better for this pastime than others. Kelly modeled her own adobe pottery. In fact, she made an adobe donut. Upon finishing, she placed it in the sun to dry until tomorrow.

Mr. Lopez and Mr. Martinez oversaw this collective effort and gave instruction only when necessary. They were impressed. I could tell.

Say Cheese – slowly
A gentleman approached the group in the late afternoon asking if he could shoot a photo of the group with a large format Civil War-era modeled camera. He is a photographer for NASA, and travels in New Mexico annually with his wife to take photographs of the architecture and landscape here. He posed the group and demanded that we stand perfectly still while he slowly shot four frames. The image that he saw through the viewfinder on the camera was upside-down and backwards, so as you may imagine, this whole process took some time! He promised to send a print to Professor Herring.

We also received copies of our very complimentary article in the Albuquerque Journal. We made the front page! The photo is an action shot of Stephanie throwing an adobe brick down from the wall. The article explained how Professor Herring became involved with Cornerstones, and quoted Sam, Sarah, Preston and Kelsey concerning their ideas and opinions about the project. The tone of the article is supportive and appreciative of our efforts. Professor Herring was pleased with the press coverage so far!


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Day 2: Progress!

Today, we walked into the grounds of San Jose de Gracia with driven purpose. There were no first-timer shocks today. We jumped right in, shovels in hand.

After finishing the disassembling of the portion of the wall that we began yesterday, we started on the side facing the parking lot and the entrance. It was basically the same procedure that we knew so well by this time. Hammers were used to crack the mud in between the outlying bricks and shovels became levers to release the bricks entirely.

Throughout the day, we devised our own individual methods for this process. Some used only the shovels and jammed the pointy tip into the mud to break it off. Others used a combination of hammer blows to the back and sides of the bricks with sheer manual force in lifting. We became very accustomed to the methods of dismantling these walls, and chatted the day away. One student brought a battery-powered boom box along, and we argued about cd choice when a labor break was due.

In the morning, a photographer from the New Mexican newspaper stopped by to observe and shoot. He was less involved than the reporter from Albuquerque, and watched our work quietly from afar. News travels very quickly around these parts! It was incredible to witness the number of people who stopped at the church. A visitor from South America asked to take pictures with a member of our class, and tourists looked at us baffled ouside the entrance of the church.

After our lunch break, Professor Herring’s wife, Professor McCrossen, stopped by with her Culture in New Mexico class to lend a hand. It was great to have the extra help, and we were proud to boast of our completed work.

Two students finished the wall that I helped rebuild yesterday. They added another 4 layers of brick and mud to level off the top layer with the corner supports.

Professor McCrossen’s class took turns atop scaffolding to remove a layer of chicken wire from the entrance arch. The chicken wire is used to anchor the outer layer of adobe. Unfortunately, on this structure, most of the adobe was missing and the chicken wire plainly exposed. The removal of this made a huge difference in the general appearance of the entranceway to the adobe masterpiece.

Tomorrow we hope to begin re-mudding and reconstructing the remaining sections of the walls, and maybe even start adding mud to the church itself. I think that all of us are patiently waiting to get to work on the church (the main attraction).

After today, we can all agree that Mr. Lopez and Mr. Martinez are warming up to us.

– Eiseley

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Day 1 in Las Trampas: Hard work

I don’t think that any of us expected to work as strenuously as we did today. When we arrived at San Jose de Gracia at 8:30 am, we met our supervisors: Mr. Martinez and Mr. Lopez. I’d say that these two older gentlemen were skeptical of our commitment and ability at first. Nonetheless, they put us to work right away.

After a brief tour of the church grounds and the stunning interior, our first task was deconstructing the outer perimeter wall, one adobe brick at a time. Over the years, rainfall caused the wall to bow out at the center. Many of the adobe bricks are crumbling.

Our group of 11 (plus Professor Herring) split up to perform varied tasks. Some took shovels, hammers and picks to the wall itself and loosened the mortar-like mud in between the bricks to disassemble one piece of a time. Once these bricks were free from the wall, we stacked them, by propping each brick up diagonally against a center pillar of stacked bricks. Then, bricks were stacked on top of these diagonal rows. This method allows the bricks to sit on the ground without becoming waterlogged and soggy after rainfall. It rains often during a New Mexico August. Since we’ve been here, it’s usually once a day.

Other students piled bales of hay into a chopper numerous times to end up with small and fine pieces of hay. Hay is an essential ingredient in traditional adobe mud. Another ingredient, of course, is a combination of sand and clay. Before adding this, however, students shoveled a large pile of the essential adobe component into a sifter to remove gravel and debris. Mr. Lopez and Mr. Martinez then assisted some in mixing the dirt, water and hay in an industrial-sized churner.

I aided another student in restacking and mudding one shorter side of the wall, which was basically demolished when we arrived. This was my favorite part of our experience so far. We did everything with our hands in an all-inclusive team effort. While Sam and I globbed about an inch of mud on top of the cement base for the wall, other students handed the 35-pound adobe bricks to us. We placed our bricks half an inch apart and covered them with another inch of mud, while also cramming it into the crevices. Once we reached 4 layers of mud and brick, we stopped to allow our wall to dry for a day or so.

During our refreshing lunch break, we received a visit from Polly Summar of the Albuquerque Journal newspaper. Ms. Summar is a journalist for the Albuquerque’s Journal North Edition. She sat and chatted with Professor Herring while we ate and rested, and stayed to observe and converse for approximately an hour. She recommended that we look in the paper tomorrow to see our story. We were all very psyched to attract so much attention from the local and state community. Although, many of us feared the photos that the Journal‘s photographer shot. By 1 pm, dirt was an integral part of all us!

In addition, many members of the Cornerstone Community dropped in to observe our progress. They all seemed enthusiastic about our presence in Las Trampas, and encouraged us in our work. This morale-boosting was essential in getting through the first day, as the unshaded church courtyard became hotter and more humid as the hours passed.

We finished our day around 3 pm. Once we cleaned our trash (water bottles, etc.), we bid farewell to Mr. Lopez and Mr. Martinez, and climbed into the SMU van caked in mud and exhausted.

– Eiseley

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An introduction to our project

During our first week in Professor Adam Herring’s course studying Art and Architecture of Hispanic New Mexico, we received an introduction to the historical monuments in and around Taos.

Our class visited the Taos Pueblo, the Martinez Hacienda from the Spanish Colonial period, the Millicent Rogers Museum, and the well-known Ranchos de Taos Church. My favorite was the vast collection of Native American jewelery at Millicent Rogers. Most girls will surely agree with this! The silversmith work and rare turquoise sold me immediately.

This week, we embarked on a unique, labor-intensive adventure. We’re lending a hand (and shovel) in restoring the adobe-constructed Catholic church of San Jose de Gracia in Las Trampas, New Mexico. This small community lacks able-bodied residents to complete the labor that adobe re-mudding requires, and our class is pleased to take part in this experience.

Through the Cornerstones Community Partnerships Organization and Professor Herring’s determination, the church invited our group to study the ancient building material in a hands-on manner.

The fact that we have this opportunity is amazing and rather unusual. Small communities, such as Las Trampas, are often hesitant to open their doors to outsiders, particularly into their prided historical sites. The village of Las Trampas was established in 1751, and the San Jose de Gracia Church was constructed in 1760 by 12 families who relocated from Santa Fe.


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