Jordan at SMU-in-Taos

Jordan is a senior from Atlanta studying cinema/television and music. He 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.

Last day in Las Trampas

The final day of working at the church flew by. Everyone had smiles on their faces as we put the finishing touches on the wall and the archway entrance that led up to the church. At the end of the day, there still remained work to be done, but as I mentioned earlier, the building is a growing and living thing that depends on the support of its people for survival.

For the last day of class, we met in the classroom at Fort Burgwin and relived our experiences in Taos via a photo slideshow that Dr. Herring produced. We laughed and cherished our shared memories. We held our heads high as a result of the pride we had in our completed work. We tasted a learned to appreciate what it was like to be in another time and we grew. I think I speak for all the members of the class when I say that we hope to revisit that church again and marvel at what we accomplished as a class and team.

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Getting our hands dirty

We spent our fifth day of class in the classroom reviewing our experiences before and discussing our plans for the remaining week of class. Dr. Herring prepared a slideshow of photos and we were relieved to stay on campus for a change. As soon as class was dismissed, students began to enjoy the weekend. We headed to the Rio Grande River for relaxation, a scenic view and beverages.

Day six of class started off with a bang. We gathered together in the morning and squeezed ourselves into the van. We drove half an hour away from Taos, up the mountains and into the small town of Las Trampas. This community was established in 1751. We arrived at the destination where we spend the next four days of class, the Catholic church of San Jose de Gracia which was established in 1760.

We knew little about what we would be doing at the church prior to our arrival. Dr. Herring had organized a sort of service project for us through the Cornerstones Community Partnership Organization. We exited the van and were greeted by two Spanish men of small stature, Mr. Martinez and Mr. Lopez. The men looked uneager to meet our acquaintance and lacked the social politeness we city-slickers are used to. They obviously wanted to get straight down to business. ???Grab a shovel and follow me!??? said Mr. Martinez with a mottled accent. Without hesitation we dropped our paper bag lunches and started getting our hands dirty.

By noon, the entire class had worked up a sweat as well as an appetite. While some of us were unloading the truck???s trailer, others disassembled an old adobe that surrounded the church. The wall had been eroded from years of water damage and needed to be reconstructed. We had the honor of rebuilding the wall brick by brick. Some students sifted dirt in order to create rock and pebble free bricks.

We learned that creating adobe is neither the most complicated process nor an exact science. We shoveled dirt into an industrial-sized mixer along with water and hay. The blazing sun was beating us down and we took a break for lunch. Some students were still able to crack a smile while others we upset about ruining their designer shoes and shirts. We SMU students managed to remain fashionable despite being covered in dirt.

While we were eating our lunch, we were visited by Polly Summar, a reporter from the Albuquerque Journal. She interviewed Professor Herring along with some other students. Some of us, myself included, got our pictures in the paper.

We knew the ropes and our jobs by the second day of working with adobe. We learned that whistling while you work can make a huge difference in the enjoyment of working when we played music through our portable CD player. By the third day, we had successfully demolished the wall and rebuilt half of it.

Both Mr. Martinez and Mr. Lopez wore new faces once they realized our impact. Their smiles stretched from ear to ear and we even managed to get a laugh out of them once or twice. We were visited by both tourists and more reporters that were curious about our business in Las Trampas. And we began to take pride in our work.

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Day 4: A living church

We loaded into the van again on day four for yet another fieldtrip. At this point in time, I was convinced that I had enrolled in the best possible class for summer school. I couldn’t remember the last time I had gone on a fieldtrip for school.

That day, we headed to Ranchos de Taos church. It is an old adobe Spanish Mission church and is one of the most painted buildings in the world. Before going inside, we sat and observed, photographed and discussed the structural aspects and elements of the church.

While the front is a beautiful example of Spanish Mission architecture, it is the back of the church that is the subject of so many paintings. Void of doors and windows, the leaning and curved lines of the adobe walls provide a simple form of freeform shape against a big sky background. The image changes dramatically throughout the day and season just as the Taos Pueblo did.

The church is made of sun dried mud bricks with a layer of mud stucco. While this style of building is durable in sunshine, during the rainy season it suffers significantly. The annual mudding requires an army of volunteers who apply a new outer layer to the entire church. As we learned in class, the process of re-mudding the church gives a secondary theme to the art seen in the building; a religion that is constantly being built – a church as a living architecture dependent on members to continually maintain the physical, community and spiritual structure.

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Day 3: American beauty

Dr. Herring lead us to The Millicent Rogers Museum for our third day of class. At the museum, our class observed some outstanding historical collections of Native American jewelry, ceramics, paintings, and weavings; Hispanic textiles, metalwork, sculpture; and a wide range of contemporary Southwestern art.

Millicent Rogers was a fabulous woman who both consumed and created style. She was known to the world as an American beauty and fashion icon. She had a passion for life’s aesthetic pleasures. She journeyed to the beautiful and historic land of Taos, New Mexico. Taos, with its scenic beauty, tranquility, ideal climate and Native American culture, fueled her creativity. She believed the Southwestern Indian culture was a precious part of America’s heritage that had to be recognized and preserved.

As we toured the museum, it became apparent how instrumental she was in popularizing this rich culture; not only through her own jewelry creations, but through her lifetime collections of indigenous art.

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Day 2: Frontier life in the Spanish Empire

For the second day of class, Dr. Herring led our group on an excursion to the Martinez Hacienda, which was built during the Spanish Colonial Period. It is one of the few northern New Mexico style “Great Houses” remaining in the American Southwest. Built in 1804 by Severino Martin, this fortress-like building with massive adobe walls became an important trade center for the northern boundary of the Spanish Empire.

This Hacienda also was the headquarters for an extensive ranching and farming operation. The original building has been restored and converted into a museum. The hacienda’s twenty-one rooms surround two courtyards that provided us with a rare glimpse of the rugged frontier life and times of the early 1800s. We were amazed at the simplicity of things. Some of us bought traditional arts and crafts from the region at the gift shop before heading back to camp.

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Day 1: Hands-On Study

Dr. Adam Herring, a professor of art history at SMU, introduced an entirely new method of teaching to his course entitled “Art and Architecture of Hispanic New Mexico.” His unique class taught in Taos, New Mexico, not only utilized the tradition classroom environment at Fort Burgwin but also made use of surrounding buildings, galleries, and sites of historical, cultural, and religious importance. More specifically, this course examined the artistic heritage of colonial New Mexico as it applied to secular life in Spanish haciendas, churches, museums, and towns.

The element that differentiated Dr. Herring’s class from other art history courses was the interdisciplinary approach to teaching he used. Within this one course, students read and creatively wrote about, drew, photographed, visited, experienced, and physically learned how to make Hispanic art and architecture. In addition to studying artistic and architectural angles, Dr. Herring’s class dug deep into anthropological, philosophical, cultural, and social perspectives though a healthy balance of lectures and discussions. The hands-on learning aspect of the course was what made it unusual.

For the first day of class, students took a fieldtrip from Fort Burgwin to the Taos Pueblo. The Taos Pueblo is the only living Native American community. It has been designated both a World Heritage Site and a National Historic Landmark. The multi-level adobe buildings have been continuously inhabited for over 1000 years. These structures are visually impressive because they transform appearance as the angle of the rising sun changes.

The pueblo’s design mimics the prowess of the mountains in their background. The current inhabitants of the land continue to observe many of the practices of their ancestors. Much of what they eat is grown on site or hunted in the nearby mountains and their drinking water is provided by both rainfall and their origin of life, the great Blue Lake. Today, the Taos Pueblo is also a place of commerce. The residents sell locally made jewelry, art, instruments, and religious artifacts.

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