It’s a Monday afternoon and a soft chill rides the greying-cloud summer breeze, shuffles through the elm and locust leaves on the Santa Fe Plaza. Tourists bustle in and out of galleries, or relax on the benches set up in the city’s verdant belly button. A man with a white waterfall of a beard strums his guitar while, a few grassy patches down, two Native guys drum and sing loud, releasing ancestors from their throats. Under the Palace of the Governors portal, a line of artisans from different pueblos sell turquoise jewelry, weavings, dreamcatchers and the like, as they’ve been doing for over six decades as part of the Native American Vendors Program.
Sweet cacophony. This after a solid year of COVID quietness, which affected the livelihood of many of the artists, who rely on their plaza sales as a staple source of income. The reopening comes with differences, though. Instead of the regular 68 or 69 vendors, only 51 — chosen by a committee for the technical mastery of their craft — can participate now, spread out beyond the shade of the adobe portal and onto adjacent streets.
“More than anything, we are happy we get the chance to go back,” says Maya Quintana, a Zia silversmith and the vice chairwoman of the Portal Committee.
Listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, the Plaza is the heart of the city, and its spirited beat is felt in each step and each conversation had with the artists that make it come alive.
The Music Man Returns
It’s as if Johnny “Nailman” Alston walked out of a folk art painting. Pop tabs turned bracelets circle his Black wrists, a mine of turquoise wears his fingers, and his sunglass frames are painted with yellow and light blue dots, like the sky fell and decided to boogie around his eyes. He’s decorated the drum that he got in Taos some 20 years ago with red and purple and pink rays shooting from a rainbow sun. The cart he lugs his set-up to the plaza with is draped in bright fabric with little cloth figurines on them and a small sign that says “LET’S PARTY.” Inside the cart, a couple of fold-up stools, a striped umbrella, a small amp, and a bag full of Native flutes.
This is where the party begins. The wooden flute floating through Santa Fe’s center like a butterfly fluttering flower to flower. Alston plays an A-minor (his favorite) and it’s a consistent melody layered over the city buzz and over tracks coming through his speaker — at first, spacious and ambient, then with a solid hip-bouncing beat, then…is that…kinda…country? “It’s a fusion,” says Alston, who commutes to the plaza from Rio Rancho. “I call myself an Afro-Native American flute player.”
Alston has been playing weekends in the plaza for 16 years. He started playing flute around 18 years ago, when he bought his first off of Blue Linnartz. “It was love at first note,” says the Pittsburgh-native who moved to New Mexico in 1995 and who grew up playing the trumpet like his pharmacist father did. He’d practice his new instrument in the bathroom until he got brave enough to go outside, play in an alley. “A lady gave me a dollar, and I said, ‘I’m hooked!’” he says. Pretty soon he retired his nail art — individually hammering 50 or 60,000 nails into wooden sculptures of mountains or fish or Kokopelli — and how he got his nickname — and took up music full-time.
Now, an older white lady from stiff-aired Phoenix who’s been staying at the nearby La Fonda Hotel walks up to him and playfully asks, “Why did you stop?”
“My lips are numb!” Alston replies. “I’m getting old.” He’s 74. (“Yikes!” he says.)
“The last couple mornings I’ve enjoyed your music so much,” she says before buying one of his CDs. He has two — one accompanied by piano (Between Two Worlds), and the other more upbeat with a synthesizer (Desert Chill). He’s been nominated several times for the New Mexican Music Awards and recently celebrated Felix y Los Gato’s win for “Comanche Highway,” which Alston’s featured on.
During the pandemic, with the plaza shut down, Alston continued playing his flute — usually outside of hospitals and retirement centers, in hopes of providing some extra healing for those who needed it during the trying times. “It mellowed me out, and I hope it can help other people,” says Alston, whose Covid-conscious wife still tells him “Wear that mask!” when he goes out to play.
“I play from my heart,” he says, then looks up to the clouds and wonders if it is going to rain.
The Can Man Can
Almost everyday that Tony Baca goes home, there’s a new bag of cans hanging from his door knob. Tomato sauce can, cream of mushroom soup can, tuna. Cleaned and with the tops still on. Gifts from friends and fam who know Baca — a recycled-materials artist — needs all the cans he can get to cut designs into and make into things like candle holders and light fixtures.
“I used to be a cook for over 20 years throwing all these cans in the trash,” says Baca, 44, remembering his time on the line in Las Vegas, Nevada. Was at a low point then. Recently out of jail, drinking a bottle of alcohol a day, pushing 280 pounds and eating as many free meals at his restaurant as possible. He hated the world, a childhood of violence at his back, and, later, drugs in his veins. The cirrhosis, diabetes and peripheral neuropathy came on quick and moved Baca back to New Mexico, his roots, at 38, so pained he was unable to walk.
In that still stretch — cans. A trick his cousin, a blacksmith and welder, showed him. He worked in the backyard of his cousin’s house wielding an oxygen-acetylene torch like a purple-flamed knife against the (mostly) galvanized metal. “When you cut with a torch, it makes it to where the metal doesn’t have sharp edges. Anything else and the edges turn into a f***ing razor blade,” Baca says. He practiced and practiced his new art, even when the fumes sent him severely sick and shaking to the hospital five times. (Baca now has an air-fed mask — his new $1500 baby — along with his usual welding respirator and fan dispersing the exhaust to keep him safe.)
“This is what we start with — pork and bean cans and then we turn them into turtles,” Baca says to a curious customer at the Santa Fe Plaza, where he’s been vending for three years and is currently set up on the corner of Palace Avenue. Could only get his grandma to buy his first pieces. “They looked like shit, that’s why,” he laughs. He got his “craft legs” at the Rail Yards Market in Albuquerque, learning how to set up a booth, talk to people about his work, and carve into smaller and smaller cans (more difficult).
Now, he’ll show up to the Santa Fe Plaza almost everyday, selling items like pineapple cans with Zia symbols as night lights, his most popular. A number 10 can from a restaurant shapes into a funky planter for 60 bucks. Baca does the occasional shows, like the big Spanish Market on the same plaza in July. Was glad to be set-up in the white tents like blinders then — all those people milling about. Baca prefers quiet — 4 a.m. walks with the dog and stars, and hanging with his jeweler girlfriend he met while vending, who’s teaching him how to add stones to his pieces.
“I’m happy for the first time in my life,” says Baca, his smile big, his tattoos bigger, and his body slim. As his art evolves, he wants to share his craft with troubled teens, or anyone interested.
“I have to teach people,” he says, enthusiasm sky high. “There are too many cans!”
The Man Who Stands
It’s a smoky Sunday in August, Lyndon Standing Elk’s first weekend back on the Governor’s Palace portal with the other Native American artisans since Covid first hit.
During the pandemic’s height, he displayed his jewelry caddy corner from here, in front of a friend’s gallery.
“Bills to pay,” says Standing Elk, 54-years-old and from the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana. But business was slow, so he pivoted to some construction gigs, utilizing the carpentry he learned in the Job Corps “back in the 1900s,” he jokes.
Construction. Girl’s middle school basketball coach. Wildfire firefighting all over the West (including that big Los Alamos fire back in 2000, where the “ravines sent flames up like a pipe”).
“I’ve tried everything else, but I always come back to this,” he says, gesturing to his line of sterling silver “Figure 8” earrings curled into spirals, some featuring stones — bumblebee jasper, turquoise, lapis lazuli.
Art has always been his heart. He remembers watching his uncle and brother paint oil portraits when he was a kid. Once Standing Elk picked up a paintbrush himself, he layered hidden symbols into his landscapes laden with streams, yucca plants, mountains. By high school, he was painting hunters with their arrows drawn toward deer. “More movement,” he says.
When Standing Elk came to Santa Fe to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts in 1987, he learned metal smithing, and, having an easier time selling jewelry than paintings, he kept with it.
In the plaza, a woman approaches, tries on the silver feather bracelet that Standing Elk has carved edges out of and etched lines into to make look like a real plume. He calls the silver edition “Bald Eagle” and the brass one “Golden Eagle.”
“Feathers are the messengers to send prayers to heaven,” says Standing Elk, who’s been selling on the portal since 1992. “Everything has a meaning.”
When asked how he made the indentions in the cuffs, he says, smiling, “It’s an ancient Indian secret."