Barbe Awalt and Paul Rhetts have been collecting New Mexico santos for about 30 years. The religious creations in painting, sculpture and embroidery are a New Mexican tradition, and the style is unlike other similar artistic works.
The unique exhibit, showing about 16 percent of their collection, according to Rhetts, is on display at the Silver City Museum until early March.
Rhetts said the collection is housed in their home, and putting items on display creates a bit more room for additional pieces.
"Most of the items displayed here are santos from New Mexico by New Mexico artists working in the New Mexico tradition," he said.
Awalt said a couple of the artists are from Colorado, but they work in the New Mexico style. "You might remember that New Mexico and Colorado were once part of Mexico."
"We also collect modern pieces built on the same tradition," Rhetts said.
"We were told to collect only ones that we like," Awalt said. "These are part of our family. These are on display here, because I want to paint the room where they usually are."
"We find ourselves talking to them," Rhetts said, "and some of them start talking to us. They really are part of the family."
Awalt said many pieces of their collection spent seven years in a traveling exhibit. Rhetts added that they had separation anxiety, "so it was time to bring them back to New Mexico."
Most of the pieces shown at the museum are individual creations, with a few having been mass-produced. They pointed out magnets, pendants and a tiny jewelry box that were mass-produced.
"They were stolen," Awalt said. "They took the images out of a book. I let the producers know that they had a choice—settle or we'll see you in court. They settled."
Rhetts pointed out a fairly large statue of Santo Niño de Atocha, to whom prisoners ask for intercession, and who is the subject of devotion by pilgrims. The statue graces the front of the published catalogue of the collection.
Awalt pointed to an embroidered fabric colcha, the tradition of which is found only in New Mexico. She also showed those listening to the discussion a retablo of Awalt and Rhetts painted as a gift to them.
"My favorite saint right now is San Antonio," Rhetts said. "He is often turned to for help finding lost items. I need him a lot. Sometimes, people turn to him to find something for the family or a young woman seeks San Antonio out to find a worthy husband."
Awalt said her favorite was Santa Librada, the patron saint of independent women. "She had converted to Christianity, but her family wanted her to marry a non-Christian. She prayed to God and her prayer was answered when she grew a beard. The prince no longer wanted her, and her father was so angry, he crucified her. "
She pointed out that most santos are created by New Mexico Hispanics, but a couple of Anglos have also followed the santos tradition and painted retablos.
The exhibit continues through early March. As a true New Mexico tradition, the exhibit is worth a trip to visit. Awalt and Rhetts said the museum has, ready for the Christmas season, a tree decorated with santos-tradition ornaments. The show will not remain static, and it deserves several visits over the period of its display.