Old Valencia Gallery and Studio

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Just off the hustle and bustle of N.M. 6 in Los Lunas, sits a quiet oasis of art and history ― the Old Valencia Gallery and Studio.

It started with four basic rooms — a kitchen, receiving room and two bedrooms. A larger living room was added at some point and eventually a modern bathroom.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Artists Miguel Chavez, left, and Geraldo Armijo, right, have incorporated their love of art and history into a gallery at their historic home in Valencia. Their gallery, the Old Valencia Gallery and Studio, is open by appointment only.

One of the newest additions to the adobe house is a large, light-filled space with high ceilings. In that eastern room is a collection of artwork — oil paintings, photographs, paintings embellished with three-dimensional elements — belonging to local artists Geraldo Armijo and Miguel Chavez.

The two have been making art for most of their lives, and have had works juried into the New Mexico State Fair.

Armijo’s pastel on colored paper, “Vamos Al Zocalo,” took a blue ribbon.

“To me, as an artist, it means a lot to get that validation from your peers,” Armijo said. “Your friends and family tell you your stuff is good, but it’s different when it comes from your peers.”

“It’s very inspiring,” Chavez added.

Creativity was encouraged in Armijo’s family, he said. He calls his mother a “creative woman,” who allowed him free rein on one wall of his room whenever the house was repainted.

“I loved how the colors melted together. She let me do whatever I wanted on the wall, let me be creative,” he said.

Armijo said during an encounter with a grade-school friend, she reminded him that he always had the most elaborately decorated shoebox for Valentine’s Day and always got the most valentines.

“I’ve always loved art,” he said. “I always had access to colored pencils and crayons. And, of course, there are never enough crayons.”

Armijo said he had a fantastic high school art teacher in Howard Stansel and was awarded a fine arts trophy his senior year.

Armijo went on to study fine arts at the University of New Mexico. After graduation, he took some time off from the art world and, as often happens, life took some interesting turns and Armijo found himself working in Albuquerque as a “hair artist.”

But the salon turned into a blessing, he said, for both he and Chavez.

“We are lucky, we can bring our work there and, over the years, have sold many pieces,” he said.

When the couple decided to return to their roots in Valencia County, they moved into the home that belonged to Armijo’s grandmother.

Chavez grew up in Tomé, and they are both Los Lunas High School graduates.

The old house held many memories for Armijo — holding his grandmother’s hand in the pre-dawn morning as she flagged down the bus to Albuquerque with nothing but a lace handkerchief.

It wasn’t until they decided to purchase the house next door, which had belonged to Armijo’s uncle, that they realized just how old the family land was.

“They started doing the research and told this is ‘old land.’ It goes back to the king of Spain,” Armijo said.

Over the years, the land changed hands but never left the family. Armijo has an inch-thick stack of historical documents that traces the land back through the generations.

Chavez has his own lengthy lineage, tracing his family lines back to 1532 Catalonia, Spain. His ancestors migrated from Mexico City to Santa Fe, where the Chavez and Zamora families intermarried in the 16th century.

They slowly worked their way back down the Rio Grande, his mother’s side settling on the Tomé side of the river and his father’s side on the west side, in Los Chavez. Chavez said his father would ride a horse across the river to court his mother.

His grandfather, Estevan Zamora, was a skilled piano player and played for Masses and funerals at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Tomé.

Zamora’s home still stands on the plaza, Chavez said, and his brother lives in the heart of the community.

Growing up, Chavez said his mother always had a camera with her, capturing family gatherings and other notable events. So it wasn’t surprising that he took up the craft.

“What really inspired me to take up photography is the light in New Mexico. The light here is totally different than other parts of the country,” Chavez said. “It’s so intense. It has this magical quality.”

Armijo said people who have seen his oil paintings of the skies at sunset often ask if it really looks that way, or if he enhanced the colors.

“I tell them, ‘No, sometimes the sky is on fire,’” he said, laughing.

Like all photographers of his era, Chavez started with 35mm film, black and white, then color. He has made the transition to digital, but says it has its benefits and drawbacks.

“When I was shooting film, I would take a picture and when it was printed it was sometimes frustrating because the color wasn’t what I saw,” he saw. “I like digital because it captures what my eye sees.”

And for Chavez, capturing what his eye sees is the core part of his art. He expresses irritation over photographers leaning too heavily on digital-editing software.

“Sometimes they change things so much, it isn’t real. It’s really a different category,” he says. “Photography is about reality.”

For Chavez, there is no question of removing unsightly signs or other urban clutter in postproduction.

A client at the salon was disappointed a picture taken at Acoma Pueblo included a sign put up by the pueblo authorities.

“Well that’s what it looks like, it’s there, it’s reality,” Chavez said.

As an artist, Chavez isn’t above slight alterations to reality, so long as they are disclosed. He has recently begun mixing his photography with oil painting. After a print is made, he uses oil paints to add layers of swirling clouds above golden cottonwoods, bringing out the glow of the bark with more paint.

But those are always clearly identified as mixed-media pieces, not simple, unaltered photographs.

Part of the return to Valencia County was to preserve and pass on the history of both their families, Armijo said.

“We want to try to preserve history for future generations. Kids these days are not doing that; they’re too busy,” Chavez said. “We want to preserve it and leave it for the next generation.”

Their home and gallery is filled with santos ― large and small ― belonging to their families, along with old Bibles, rosaries worn by the hands of their grandfathers and hand-sewn vestments for infants now grown old and dead.

In addition to preserving history, Chavez and Armijo say they want to stay connected to and give back to their community. They are ardent supporters of programs such as Habitat for Humanity and its Restore retail shop, Adelante Development Center and Animal Humane New Mexico. Their two rescue Chihuahuas, Hannah and Lola, mark them as animal lovers.

They are also working to preserve the short-term history of themselves and their peers by planning the Los Lunas High School Class of 1974′s reunion next year. They were also in charge of the 20th and 30th reunion celebrations.

“You have to give back. It’s so important,” Chavez said.

“We’ve been blessed, so we contribute what we can whenever we can,” Armijo said.

Currently the couple doesn’t have a separate, dedicated gallery space for their work.

“When the economy tanked, that put the brakes on everything,” Armijo said of their plans for a gallery. “We still have clients come to the gallery at the house here by appointment and it’s nice. They like to come and look around Los Lunas, maybe go to the Luna Mansion and just enjoy the house here.”

In the future, they want to eventually offer workshops at the Armijo house to continue the love of art.

“It’s so sad to see art being taken out of schools,” Chavez said. “A big part of art is just the release you get from being creative. You can go work on something feeling angry and come out calm and relaxed.”

Viewings of the Old Valencia Studio and Gallery are by appointment only. Call or email Miguel Chavez at 440-6075 or mikelazo56@gmail.com, or Geraldo Armijo at 720-7071 or n2hrnrt@gmail.com to set up a time to see their work.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.