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Documentary highlights NMSU retablos collection, largest in U.S.

They are small rectangles of metal or wood whose painted faces tell the stories of saints, religious devotion and miracles. Now a film highlighting New Mexico State University’s massive collection of a unique genre of folk art called retablos will debut at noon on Tuesday, Nov. 18 at Corbett Center Auditorium on campus.

Four people from the waist up, one holding a camera, and one holding a book
Aaron Macias, a graduate of the CMI program, Scott Saiz, a cinematographer, and Cynthea Molina, a current senior in the CMI program, helped NMSU Creative Media institute professor Philip Lewis (right) to produce the documentary “Painting My Miracle” which premieres Nov. 19. (Courtesy photo)

After the showing of “Painting My Miracle: The Story and Conservation of New Mexico State University’s Retablo Collection,” NMSU professor Philip Lewis, who produced the film, will host a discussion.

“When I heard about the retablo collection at NMSU, it just seemed like a perfect match,” said Lewis, a professor in NMSU’s Creative Media Institute in the College of Arts and Sciences. “The largest collection of retablos in the United States is right here at New Mexico State University and not many people know about them.”

Retablos are religious paintings usually on wood, copper or tin. NMSU’s collection of 1,700 retablos was obtained between the late 1960s and early 1970s from a number of independent collectors in the area. Most were made in the 19th century in Central Mexico, though there are some from the late 18th century. Several have circulated in international exhibits.

“There are three stories we are trying to tell with the film,” Lewis explained. “The first is about the retablos here at NMSU, nobody really knows too much about them. The second is since 2000 we’ve been doing conservation of the retablos. The NMSU museum conservation program is one of only three in the United States.

“The last part is how we take the 21st century technology of tablets and smart phones and use their GPS locators and QR code readers to have an interactive film about each of the retablos as you go through the gallery.”

In 2006, Lewis started researching how interactive short-form documentaries could be told via smart phone or tablet. He felt the retablos project provided the perfect opportunity to put his research into practice. While shooting the documentary, Lewis and his team of CMI alumni and students simultaneously shot a series of one-minute long videos to become part of the gallery exhibit, each telling the unique story behind an individual retablo.

The counterpart to the retablo is the ‘ex-votos,’ in which the painter of the retablo offers thanks for a miracle by including a short narrative with his painting. Lewis recounted one of those stories.

“One of the retablos shows a man kneeling next to a car that’s been rolled over and there are bodies all over the road. This is a primitive painting. And the story is that he was in a car crash and when got out of the car and saw he had survived but his family had not, he prayed to God that his family would come back to life. He initially thought they were dead and when they were alive he considered it a miracle.”

Lewis has experience in many aspects of the film industry. He’s worked on several feature-length documentaries: captured children in Venezuelan prisons and gypsies in Central Europe, as well as the documentary “Trabant Trek” in which a group of seven travelers venture from Germany to Cambodia in plastic cars called trabants.

“These retablos are just fascinating stories,” Lewis said. “How people demonstrate their devotion to God and how their prayers are answered and how those stories become pieces of art in the 21st century.

“I funded the retablos project myself because it’s my research and I believe in it, but I think there are others who will support it once we get the film out there and begin placing the interactive videos with the retablos at the gallery.”

The place-based cinema experience with the NMSU retablos will begin in January at the NMSU Art Gallery. The film will air on KRWG-TV after the gallery show begins and then will be distributed to all western PBS stations.

A video with clips from the documentary is available online at http://youtu.be/_SkIQF6d4Lc .