Keeping a centuries-old art form alive

This Española native creates paint colors from nature — a form of engineering

March 15, 2024

2024-03-15

Some people connect with their roots through the food they cook, the way they dress or the names and languages they use. For Dominic Roybal, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, this connection is nurtured by engaging directly with the earth; he fills buckets with soil, enriched with diverse plants, colors and textures, to create his own pigments and paints. It's how he bridges time to ancestors who first came to Northern New Mexico 400 years ago.

"The Roybal roots date back to the Spaniard Ignacio Roybal, who settled here after the Pueblo Revolt, around 1680 or 1690," Dominic says. "I have lived in other places around the country, but I grew up in Española and I live in Española. My roots are here."

When Dominic gets home with the plants and soils he's collected, he sets about turning them into pigments and paints he can use. Dominic is a member of a small community of artists who work in straw appliqué, a traditional Northern New Mexico art form that draws inspiration from the Moorish damascene style in Spain.

"It's sometimes called 'el oro de los pobres,' or 'the gold of the poor,'" Dominic says. "This tradition arose from the use of inlaid gold to decorate a variety of objects, but when the missionaries arrived in Northern New Mexico there was an absence of gold, so they used straw instead."

2024-03-15
The most important element of Dominic's works is straw, which represents gold and gives straw appliqué its name as an art form.
2024-03-15
Along with using straw to simulate gold, Dominic develops his paint pigments from natural sources, using soils and plants to produce vibrant colors.

Reconnecting with his roots

Straw appliqué traditionally involves taking carved wooden objects, applying a base layer of paint derived from gypsum, adding color through ground-up soils and plants, inlaying or applying straw to emulate gold, and then finishing with a pine resin to seal everything. The complicated and tradition-laden process was one Dominic got involved in later in life.

Growing up, Dominic never really had an interest in art. He was more interested in things like science and math, which led him to become an engineer.

"It was through a girl, and being exposed to an artistic family, that I took an interest in art and this tradition," Dominic says. "My brother-in-law was a woodworker, so I learned how to work with wood from him and then I learned how to create the pigments and work with this art form from a local artist named Felix Lopez."

Lopez, along with other artists, helped introduce Dominic to the Santa Fe Traditional Spanish Market, where he sold his work and found a community and audience. Dominic stayed involved with the Spanish market for about a decade until 2001, when work and family started to take more time in his life. Intent on keeping the traditional art form alive, Dominic taught it to both of his children.

"Whether they take it on or not, it's up to the individual," Dominic says. "But you do what you can and pass on an art form and tradition that your ancestors carried."

2024-03-15
Traditional art in the style of straw appliqué focused on religious imagery such as the image depicted here, which Dominic added to the top of a wooden box.

Imparting a piece of himself in his art

From start to finish, Dominic estimates that it takes four or five days to create each piece of art. The timeline varies, though, based on what he's making and what form he uses. Straw appliqué comes in two primary forms — traditional depictions of religious imagery and a more expressive form focused on mosaics and patterns.

"When you do more of the traditional side, you're working with a design that has been passed down and is established and often quicker to work with," Dominic says. "When you're doing your own design, that's where my creative side comes out, but it can take longer because you want to do something different."

While Dominic says he believes in the importance of understanding the traditions and history behind straw appliqué art, he also notes that it's important for each artist to leave behind something unique in their work.

"As an artist, you do the traditional things and then you expand from that. I've incorporated other art forms or mediums. I've used ceramics in my work, and I've used sculpture with straw appliqué," he says.

"I think when you have an art form or some other medium of expression, it's a great way to communicate to other people and stimulate other forms of creativity while keeping true to yourself."

2024-03-15
When Dominic creates a piece of art, he makes everything from scratch. Along with creating his own paints and pigments, he cuts blocks of wood into his desired shapes. Then, using a wide array of tools, he carves and inlays his designs.

Reflecting on his artistic journey, Dominic is proud of the work he has done and how it has shaped him.

"It's made me a broader person that I never would have been before," he says. "I'm an engineer, I'm into science, I love to work with math. When art was introduced to me, it was a different way of looking at things and a different way of saying 'I can create something from almost nothing.'"

Dominic sees a lot of similarities between the paint production process and a chemistry problem where a green plant suddenly turns into hues of blue when crushed. To him, the mixing and production of the paints is a form of engineering but with the added freedom of expression that comes with any artistic medium.

With such a small community of artists who produce straw appliqué, Dominic is always looking for ways to share the art and tradition with people. He says he hopes that others take an interest in connecting with the natural world and northern New Mexican history, so that traditions like straw appliqué stay alive.

"There's so many different mediums of art and kids now have so many devices, that to go and collect pigments from the soil and the earth, there's probably not a large percentage of people willing to do that," Dominic says. "It's easy to go and buy paint, but making it from scratch, carving wood, pushing your chisel through it, painting — you learn those by doing, not by watching."