Those Unexpected Connections

A few months ago I was reading about the artists' communities in Santa Fe and Taos from a book published by the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, How the West is One. At one point the author, Joseph Traugott, discusses the interest that several artists in the New Mexico region had in capturing a sense of place through objects. During the 1920s and 1930s in particular, Raymond Jonson, Marsden Hartley, and others painted still lives of bultos and other seemingly indigenous New Mexican objects in an effort to capture the distinctive uniqueness of the Southwest.

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Marsden Hartley, El Santo, 1919, oil on canvas, 36'' x 32''. Image courtesy of
This inevitably got me thinking about the notion of site specificity in objects. An an art historian, I'm not interested so much in the place of origin of an object (don't get me wrong, it's interesting), but in its connections with other places. Pieces are shipped, transported, and moved to other destinations all the time, and it is these migrations that interest me most, probably influenced in part by me moving around a lot. If I've learned anything from these different experiences, it's that we're more connected with one another than we realize, not only through the Internet, but historically as well.

I explored this idea of cultural interconnectivity recently in a sketch.

What you're looking at is a small calaca figure dressed as a nun. Now I'll bet you're thinking that since I'm in New Mexico, I picked her up in the area and sketched her in homage to the still lives I was talking about earlier.

As it turns out, I brought her here from New England.

In downtown Portsmouth there is a shop called Cool Jewels (or more appropriately, was, since it's apparently closed, but correct me if I'm wrong! 'Tis only a rumor) that features ceramic calacas and other Mexican imports. Historically, Portsmouth has long been an important trade center, so the fact that it would feature exotic imports is not at all surprising.

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 Image courtesy of

When I first saw the figure, I liked her because she reminded me of the body of a saint I had seen in Rome several years ago (which was, I'll admit, a disarming experience, but a memorable one all the same). My mother got her for me as a Christmas present soon after. When I see this figure then, I think more of my travels abroad in Italy, and of Portsmouth's history as a bustling trade center, than I do Mexico.


Even the plant in the background has New England connotations. Those of you who have been following this blog may recognize it as my tillandsia, or air plant. These plants are indigenous to tropical environments, but there was a shop in Burlington, Vermont that carried them, and that is where I got mine. As for that shell, I'm not sure where it came from originally, but it's definitely not originally from New England.

For me then, this sketch isn't so much about the Southwest than its dispersion through trade and commerce. Objects such as these are no longer the prerogative of a single location, but can be accessed virtually anywhere. A casual consumer in New Hampshire can buy calacas from Mexico or an air plant without ever leaving the state.