Ribbons adorn the artwork at the New Mexico State Fair. The best in blue, and on down the spectrum with honorable mentions along the way. Just like the prized heifers or the best green chile, there is a quantifiable scale that a group of judges uses to dole out these awards. In the arts buildings, there are signs up telling fair-goers not to take pictures, complete with twitchy security guards at the ready to lunge in front of some Lea County farmer with their phone out.
You’ll see some fine work there in the arts building (though truthfully, much of it is contrived), but if you are looking for the heart of New Mexico, then the real question is: Where is the art that truly reflects the place it came from? The State Fair is an excellent and unexpected place to find such a thing, if you know where to look. For the adventurous fair-goer, the New Mexican art lover or the seeker of the creative spirit that can only be found in New Mexico, I suggest marching right out the doors of the arts buildings and into the nearest agriculture building.
The Agricultural Building
“I’m not an artist,” says Rio Grande Valley HO Model Railroad Club president Joe Filebark. Maybe not, but the decades of dedication to craftsmanship, creativity and occasionally even whimsy contradict that statement. The permanent exhibit of the model railroad contained within the Agricultural Building is not a representation of an actual place in New Mexico, but rather an interpretation of memories of places, some the builder’s own, and some seen through photographs of long-gone 19th and 20th century photographs, mixed in with their own thoughts on how a place should look and function. Here you are looking at the culmination of no less than 23 years worth of work by the Railroad Club. The blue ribbon for endurance in creative arts should go to this ongoing project. Honorable mention in this building belongs to the performance art project initiated by the state dairy people handing out cups of fresh cream. If you choose the right day, you will be treated to a dance where the right arm of every fairgoer throughout the building rhythmically shakes as they try to churn their own to-go cup of butter.
The Youth Hall
Within the Youth Hall, 4-H groups and the Future Farmers of America from across New Mexico display a mountain of work, creative and otherwise, that has for generations been part of the rearing of rural children. If you take your time to look, you will see a reflection of the ongoing values and cultures of these communities. The blue ribbon for folk art here should always go to the culinary arts, with their cakes and biscuits sitting in the cases for the duration of the fair in an unwavering tradition as old as the fair itself. Honorable mention belongs to the young photographer with their horse pictures. Within them there is a level of intimacy and trust that no Magnum photographer could ever achieve.
The School Arts Building
As is often the case, the best reflection of ourselves can be found in our children. No other exhibit offers a more telling story of the diversity of this state. Displayed on the temporary walls are an aggregate of the least filtered impressions of the local communities where this work originated. As the children get older, the art gets darker. Pastels of cheerful primary colors give way to an abundance of black ink and paint as the artists here begin to express their teenage years. The blue ribbon in the disturbing category goes to Belen High School, with an honorable mention for Cibola High. Exceptional work that’s sure to chill rancher’s daughters statewide.
Home and Creative Arts Building
A lot of people, when pressed for an alternative to the high arts at the Fair, will recomend the Lego displays, but let me suggest that as soon as you enter the Home and Creative Arts building that you head straight for the creepy dolls. Handmade dolls will orient you towards the greatness of the type of art found in this building and deserve an honorable mention. The blue ribbon for creativity here absolutely does not belong in the photography section, but rather in the adaptive reuse of dog food bags. Turning these bags into aprons doesn’t simply offer a reminiscence of the Depression-era craft of turning flour bags into little girls’ dresses, but renders the thing itself into art for its sheer impracticality. As one fairgoer relayed to me, she had been given a bag apron and tried to wear it while shearing her sheep. She found that it was useless in preventing fleece from getting on her. In this context, placing these bag aprons on display elevates them from a commonplace object to truly great art. These, like much at the Fair this year, require the viewer consider the context of the object before them. Doing so, you will find much more to identify with and appreciate from this state then you will seeing the works deemed art elsewhere.