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Published: August 19th 2015
On my first trip to Santa Fe in 1974, I was introduced to the International Museum of Folk Art. This was in late August or early September. I had just returned from spending the summer on a shoestring in Europe and had the privilege of visiting many fine museums – the National Museum in London, the Louvre & the Musee de Orsay in Paris , the Hermitage in Leningrad and the Glyptotek in Copenhagen were my favorites. But after all of that - when I started to wander through the Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe, my heart sang. It was a magnificent collection that was assembled largely by one couple, the Girards. Alexander Girard was a major designer and he essentially developed ‘brand looks’ for companies like Braniff Airlines and other companies too large to fail.
The collection is difficult to describe, but it’s the odds and ends of folk art that he and his wife gathered on trips to remote locations in North, Central and South America that he assembled into vignettes that display everyday life, ceremonies, feast days and just about every human activity that you can think takes place in villages all over South and Central America. It is an astonishing collection, laid out in the most loving way and it demonstrates the art and craft of many very skilled artisans.
This year, we were privileged to be there for an extended New Mexico themed Summer of Color. All of the museums in the state are participating. The Folk Art Museum is exhibiting the color Red. Not just any red, the exhibit is an extensive history of the use of the red that comes from cochineal scale. Cochineal scale is an insect that is found only on Prickly Pear cactus, it’s the white fuzzy stuff you will often see on these cacti. This scale is everywhere in the southwest – almost a pest. In fact many people consider it a pest.
But here is the magic, when you smush the fuzzy white stuff between your fingers, the most amazing pure and vibrant red liquid appears. It is what is used to make the artists color known as Carmine Red. In its pure form, right off the plant it is a beautiful shade of deep magenta.
That cochineal scale exists is not the interesting part by far. What is most interesting about this little insect and what it produces is how it affected economies.
The Peruvians and the Spaniards prized the dye it yielded and the Peruvians figured out a way to cultivate the cochineal scale and produce the dye. The Spaniards figured out how to move the dye through their trade routes. Europeans went crazy for the color the scale produces because prior reds were based in madder and other more dull looking minerals and plants. The colors they produced were red but muddy. Once the Europeans saw what this new dye could do all bets were off. Everyone wanted in on it – cloth makers, artists, weavers, furniture makers, even the makers of formal documents and codex’s. For the Spaniards, getting in on things early was a great opportunity and this one item was at one time their number one export. Over time it was one of the top 3 exports that helped make Spain a great power.
Here’s an irony of world trade that struck me as we went through the exhibit. The British Officers – the redcoats – wore uniforms dyed with cochineal scale. The enlisted men’s uniforms were dyed with madder, so much duller. But the biggest targets in the American Revolution were wearing wool dyed with color derived from this tiny insect that infests plants in what is now the American Southwest. What a route that dye travelled to get back to its native continent.
After the Museum of Folk Art we went to Canyon Road, the art district of Santa Fe. Somehow it didn’t compare to seeing red and folk art.
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