Paula Rodriguez

Paula Rodriguez

(1915 - 2008)


Many New Mexican Spanish Colonial artists are quite literally turning pieces of straw into highly collectible and valuable art. Of all the Spanish Colonial art forms practiced in New Mexico, straw is fast becoming the most popular. But it wasn't always this way. The art form nearly died out in the early twentieth century.


No one knows exactly when straw appliqué (or encrusted straw) art arrived in New Mexico. Noted folk-arts scholar, E. Boyd, claimed in her 1959 booklet, Popular Arts of Colonial New Mexico, that the Moors taught straw art to the Spanish, and that the Spanish then brought it to their northern colony. The claim is entirely possible, but Spain and the Moors were not the only Europeans working in the medium. Both Belarus and Poland have a long history of making intricate art pieces using straw. The process also exists in the Netherlands and the Peterborough Museum in England has a collection of straw inlay art created by French prisoners during the French Revolution.


Straw artist, Jimmy Trujillo, believes that the practice of his art in New Mexico predates the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. He believes that many of the designs and motifs on some early straw work displays Native American influences. Although straw appliqué crosses are attributed to the Spanish colonists, it was the Pueblo of Santa Ana, where artists continued to make straw boxes and crosses and still practice this art form today, that likely kept this art form from completely dying out in the early twentieth century. However, credit for the revival is typically given to the WPA (Works Progress Administration) and Eliseo and Paula Rodriguez for rescuing the art form from oblivion in the 1930s. 


In 1935, Eliseo Rodriguez learned the tradition of straw appliqué art while participating in the WPA program and, in turn, taught the technique to his wife, Paula Rodriguez. By the 1950s, they were among but a few practitioners of the craft.


"Since then, their family has carried on the tradition of straw appliqué as they taught their children and grandchildren the technique, working out of their kitchen in their home," said William Field, director of the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe. When informed of Paula's death in 2008, Field remarked: "Paula was a tremendously important person in the Hispanic arts."


Adding to that, Stuart Ashman, the state Department of Cultural Affairs secretary, said: "Paula Rodriguez, along with her husband, Eliseo, are the two artists most responsible for the revival of traditional straw appliqué. They truly turned straw into gold. She will be missed, as she is revered by many Santa Fesinos. Muchos cariños (affection) a la familia Rodriguez."


In the 1970s, a conservator for the Museum of International Folk Art saw work by Paula and Eliseo Rodriguez and encouraged them to showcase their pieces at the Spanish Colonial Arts Society's Spanish Market. As a result of doing so — and because of immediate interest in their work — the two periodically conducted workshops in straw appliqué at the Museum of International Folk Art and at the New Mexico State Fair. In 1994, Paula was honored with a Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts for her work in straw appliqué. Ten years later, both she and Eliseo were recognized for their contributions within folk art traditions with a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship. Together, their work has been collected by the Smithsonian Institution as well as private collectors throughout the world.


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