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Living architecture

Millicent Rogers Museum debuts 'Earthen Temples' exhibition on adobe churches

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Carmela Quinto said she began working with mud as a child growing up in Northern New Mexico.

She has many fond memories mudding adobes, a process that involves adding a new layer of adobe on the walls with a mixture of mud and straw, and "instead of getting in trouble for getting into the mud, it was seen as community service … it is an incredible feeling the coolness of it on a hot day to a child … sometimes we forget all those things."

Today, in her role as curator at the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos, Quinto has transferred her childhood reverence for the sacred process called enjarre, or mudding, into an exhibit of photographs documenting the community working together on three northern New Mexican churches.

The new exhibit, titled "Earthen Temples: The Life of Adobe Churches," opened Friday (March 23). A reception for the show was conducted at the museum on Palm Sunday (March 25) at which members of the communities represented in the exhibit were on hand.

The museum is located at 1504 Millicent Rogers Road in El Prado. The show will remain on view through June 24.

Photographs by Rupert Chambers depict the San Francisco de Asis church in Ranchos de Taos while Carrie Levin documents the San Antonio de Padua church in Questa. Images of the restoration of Nuestra Señora de Los Dolores church in Arroyo Hondo are courtesy of Lorenzo Ortiz.

The exhibition comes at a time when Catholic churches are struggling to get funding for the time and the material-intensive task of caring for the adobe. Additionally, the springtime is when the focus shifts to replastering the exteriors after a winter of extreme temperatures that erode the structures.

Quinto said that the exhibition is especially timely and historic because of the continued need for restoration and preservation.

"The most important reason we are featuring this exhibition right now is because many communities in New Mexico are searching for ways to restore historic buildings," she said. "There are programs, grants and organizations that help fund public buildings. However, it is difficult for many Catholic churches to find this help as it focuses on nonreligious projects. Church communities are left to create their own plan to save their churches."

The three parishes featured in the exhibit were selected based on similar hardships, but different stories. Quinto said, "Each [parish] has dealt with their hardships differently, yet each has completed their restoration projects despite financial and other difficulties."

Photographer Rupert Chambers, who splits his time between Taos and Austin, Texas, said he's been documenting the process for two years and became interested after many visits to photograph the iconic San Francisco de Asis church in Ranchos de Taos.

"The iconic physical structure of the church ... is preserved and protected by the people of the church, who also in a very real sense constitute the church," he said. "They have heretofore not been chronicled in this activity, something I sought to change."

Chambers said his work is "more than just a procedural documentation. I hope my photography has captured in some intimacy the spirit of the people in relationship to one another as a community and in loving and caring relationship to their church.

"That is what captivated me … it so captivated me that I began attending the 8 a.m. Spanish mass even though I am not a Catholic. The church is beautiful. The people are beautiful, and the relationship between the two is beautiful. I hope my photographs reveal that in such a way that the viewer can participate in what I experienced. The longer I photographed, the closer I got to the people, both physically in photographic proximity and spiritually."

Quinto said about Chambers' work, "Every photographer is qualified to share their story from their own point of view. Mr. Chambers has the most unique perspective as an artist as he has not (yet) placed his hands full of mud on the church.

"His point of view is this process of enjarre as an art form. The beauty of his images are new to the enjarradores. The other images and photographers featured in this exhibition are workers and parishioners. This is a part of life for them. Their images were not meant to be art, yet they will now be able to see them as art. For them, their work on their church is an offering, a prayer."

Quinto said she hopes visitors to the museum will leave the exhibit with a better understanding and appreciation for the story of adobe architecture. "There is nothing like using your hands to heal the structure where you have been worshipping all your life. The story of the longevity of the adobe churches in New Mexico is a result of the faith, hard work and love that has sustained each community through the last 200 years. This exhibit is a story of adobe architecture and a story of the history of a piece of the Catholic faith in northern New Mexico."

For more information, call the museum at (575) 758-2462 or visit millicentrogers.org.

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