Finding Folk Art — Indigenous and International — in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Sculptures Among Public Landscapes in Santa Fe (photo credit: Chuck Eirschele, c 2012)

Where New Mexico’s pinyon pines and junipers have grown together, so, too, all manner of artists have built a lifestyle in Santa Fe. At the height of summer heat, the cooler weather in the high elevations of the Southwest provides a perfect environment for searching out the crafts made in this colony of artisans.

Pick any mark in time and it is easy to find the thread tying generations of artists together around Santa Fe. The art colony in Santa Fe got its start at the time of the Pueblo Indians, famed for their ceramics and inlaid jewelry, reemerged in the late 1800s as it became an important settlement in northern new Mexico, and then, beginning in 2004, began attracting artists from around the world to its yearly International Folk Art Market.

In the peak of summer, Santa Fe offered appealing respite: Sweltering at home in my low desert Arizona garden, I had thought I would never feel coolness again. So I was easily enticed with the promise of milder weather, to explore the art and its history by my relatives: one a cousin, a former docent and volunteer at the visitor’s center in Santa Fe.

In Your Bucket Because . . .

  • Santa Fe is designated as an UNESCO City of Folk Art.
  • The Santa Fe International Folk Art Market annually hosts the largest gathering of folk artists in the world.
  • Santa Fe is home to a greater-than-average per capita number of artists, galleries and museums.
  • Santa Fe is the second oldest city and oldest state capitol in the United States.
  • Variety of artists means crafts appropriate for all ages and interest.

Cathedral Bells Attracting Art Lovers

Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in the Heart of Santa Fe (photo credit: Chuck Eirschele, c 2012)

Santa Fe is encircled by the Paseo De Peralta, a winding road often intersected by such storied trade routes as the Santa Fe Trail. Looking out the car window, I couldn’t help but ponder what the late western writer, Louis L’Amour, would think on the irony of us sitting at a flashing red light waiting our turn at this city intersection.

Getting out to stretch our legs, we at once heard the bells tolling from the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Sections of the cathedral are more than 400 years old, but the impressive towers are complemented by much younger soaring evergreen and deciduous trees that grow on the neighboring grounds. The shade and the benches at adjoining Cathedral Park are welcome sights for pedestrians and gallery goers worn out from walking.

In front of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, named for the patron saint of animals and the environment, is Estella Loretto’s bronze sculpture of Kateri Tekakwitha.  She was the first Native American named a saint.

Walking Palace Street

Edging the cathedral grounds on one side is Palace Street, which leads to the Palace of Governors. From a distance, the famous blue shop doors — a tradition in Sana Fe architectural design — could barely be seen for the low slung roof that covered the long building and hung over the narrow sidewalks. The simplistically-styled southwestern structures seemed like an homage to the artists now seated down the street in front of the Palace of Governors.

The Palace of Governors is the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States. A Registered National Historic Landmark, it  was originally built as Spain’s seat of government in the early 1600s, and has had three different national flags flying over it. Now, the flags of the United States and the state of New Mexico wave over its roof.

But for artists, and those who admire handmade crafts, it is the Native American Vendors Program at the Palace of Governors that  draws shoppers here on Saturdays. Artisans from 19 New Mexico tribes line the sidewalk with crafts made of metals, beads, shells, or leather laid out on blankets.

Small narrow streets frequently lead from Palace Street to courtyard restaurants and more tiny shops. But there is one plain facade whose serious role in history sharply contrasts with the creative arts and design: 109 East Palace Street was the one-time address for Manhattan Project workers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. LANL workers were not listed by name but rather by number to receive and drop off their mail.

Artists Row Found on Canyon Road

Life-like Bronze Sculptures on Public Display for Tourists (photo credit: Chris Eirschele,c 2012)

Another interesting lane that intersects Paseo De Peralta is Canyon Road. Rows of artists’ studios and galleries that showcase their work line this street, which was labeled the first Residential Arts and Crafts District in the nation. It was first built by Spanish settlers, and the oldest adobe homes still standing dates back more than 200 years.

We strolled along the street turning down cul-de-sacs where we were greeted by  sculptures inter-planted in the landscaping and lifelike bronzes outside the galleries. We sat on a bench with Mark Twain, stared into the face of an Indian warrior covered in a wolf headdress and petted the black padded feet of a long-legged dog. We held the line at drinking from a marble shaped fountain bubbling water, although it seemed placed there for just that purpose.

Celebrating at International Folk Art Market

Tables of Felt Dolls Made in Kyrgyzstan (photo credit: Chris Eirschele, c 2012)

Our search for art in Santa Fe culminated at the International Folk Art Market, a three day event held annually in July. An air-conditioned tour bus took us from a downtown park and ride to Museum Hill, where the last day of the three-day event was being celebrated with bold colors matched only by the music and food.

150 artists representing 54 countries sat in booths under billowing white tents. Although it takes place on three levels the festival was accessible via an elevator (as well as the flights of stairs).

Music Stage with Mala Mana Singers and Visitors Dancing (photo credit: Chris Eirschele, c 2012)

Taking a seat at the music stage, I found it easy to lose track of time while listening to the reggaeton and merengue by Mala Mana. A crowd of impromptu dancers made their own floor just in front of the stage with couples of all ages (and talent!) soaking in the mellow atmosphere.And then, at the end of the day, one by one my cousins found each other at our prearranged meeting spot: As I waited, I thought how perfect it was to be listening with eyes closed to the voices around me, sharing stories about the art they had discovered.


  • Santa Fe elevation encourages warm summer days with cool nights and snow in winter.
  • Santa Fe is a small city with no freeways but has reliable public transportation.
  • The downtown artist venues are located within walking distance of each other.
  • Purchasing tickets online for the International Folk Art Market will save time.


  1. Kate Bateman says

    Chris Eirschle’s article on Santa Fe is so vividly written that everybody reading it will be left with wonderfully clear reasons for visiting the city – especially during the International Folk Art Market. She lets us readers know just how serious making, exhibiting and purchasing art matters to visitors and denizens. She emphasises the multicultural side of life in Santa Fe and takes you on her own very do-able tour – seeing everything often numbs the senses, while a discerning eye is enabling. A fast, accurate immersion laced with excellent photographs – many thanks for the opportunity to read the piece.

  2. says

    We’re so happy you had such a great time here. You really captured the spirit of Santa Fe, in your article: “Pick any mark in time and it is easy to find the thread tying generations of artists together around Santa Fe.” It’s so true! We had the same thought about another event still coming up, the Fiesta de Santa Fe, which brings together early Spanish Colonial history and modern art! Great minds must think alike, huh? We hope to see you again soon! Great blog!


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