The Art-Filled Lives of Carmella Padilla and Luis Tapia

“We both love stuff.”

That’s the simple explanation for this houseful of cultural treasures, the striking backdrop to the lives of Carmella Padilla and Luis Tapia. She’s a journalist, the recipient of a Governor’s Arts Award, and the author and/or editor of seven books, including her first, The Chile Chronicles, an important social history of Chile in the state. He’s a much-honored sculptor, whose work is grounded in traditional New Mexican woodcarving and furniture making, for which he received the prestigious National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship at the Library of Congress last fall. Both come from families who count their New Mexico roots for centuries.

Tradition and Modern Meet in the Middle

Their 250-year-old home, at every turn, shows off their collections — of vintage and modern Mexican ceramics, 1930-40s Works Progress Administration furniture, and Mexican and Guatemalan masks. The home’s a showcase too, for Luis’s art, and pieces by his contemporaries. The intimate adobe in La Cienega feels at one with the land, rising organically from its site near El Rancho de las Golondrinas. The home shares that living-history museum’s sense of place, nestled under cottonwoods, in a green patch fed by a spring and marsh, the Cienega of the village’s name.

Love at First Sight

Luis found the house some 35 years ago when it was in such disrepair that the owners considered knocking it down so that it simply could return to the earth. Renovating it was an enormous challenge, made all the more so by the snakes, skunks, and other critters who thought the place was theirs. While Luis was busy battling nature, painstakingly rebuilding the house, and becoming known as a sculptor, Carmella was in college, planning her escape from what she then thought as the confines of Santa Fe.

She headed to a press internship in Washington, DC for Senator Pete Domenici, and then on to a Wall Street Journal job in Dallas. Eventually, she circles back to work for the Santa Fe Reporter, by previous owner Hope Rockefeller Aldrich. It was her work at the Reporter, on stories about northern New Mexico, that made her fully appreciate the state’s heritage and cultural landscape. Although the Padillas were acquainted with the Tapias, and Luis had gone to school with three of Carmella’s brothers, it was an interview she was assigned about his art that sparked their relationship.

Roots in the Traditional Arts

Luis’s first works were santos and furniture, in classic Spanish Colonial style, that he exhibited for a few years at Traditional Spanish Market. As Luis researched the historical roots of these classic arts, he started creating sculptural pieces that incorporated more contemporary imagery and commentary on current social issues. Dashboard altars have become a long-running subject, inspired by his mother’s car, which had small santos attached to her dash. Injustice in immigration is a major theme in his work these days too. Some of his pieces include elements of whimsy. His Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner includes mini-images of the WPA chairs and animal masks in their collections, along with plates of his favorite red enchiladas.

Coming Together with Dinner

Dinner is always a worthy subject in this household, with both spouses enjoying cooking. Carmella, an avid reader from a very young age, devoured every page of her family’s Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook, and then began preparing dishes from it for fun. Luis’s dad died when he was a child, and his mother had to work long hours, so he began cooking as a necessity.

Posole, beans, grilled lamb chops with green chile, and a chile dog with a secret blend of red are among his specialties. Enchiladas, such as those featured in Luis’s sculpture, are Carmella’s territory. She follows her mother’s recipe, with blue corn tortillas and pork-enriched red chile. Which you’ll see artfully on Puebla ceramics. Another piece by Luis, An Homage to a Good Bottle of Tequila and a Beer Chaser, suggests what else might be served. Luis has some 30 premium tequilas and mezcals ready to share. In their home, Carmella and Luis together have created a feast for all the senses, as well as sustenance on the plate.

Story by Cheryl Alters Jamison / Photography by Tira Howard 

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