Meet the Artists: Tenth Anniversary of the "World Nativities" Exhibition

Glencairn Museum News | Number 11, 2018

Figure 1: Christina Orthwein, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania.

Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania

Christina Orthwein lives in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, where she works in her home studio and teaches ceramics and photography at Bryn Athyn College. Orthwein completed this ceramic Nativity triptych (see lead photo, above) in November of 2018. Her visual inspirations included the Gothic architecture of Glencairn, the Celtic lettering style found throughout the building, and the General Church Seal, a circular bronze plaque designed in the 1930s by Raymond Pitcairn and metalworker Parke E. Edwards. (A copy of the seal may be seen above the fireplace in Glencairn’s Great Hall.) The quotation featured in Orthwein’s triptych (Luke 2:14) was used in several Christmas cards sent by Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn when Glencairn was still a home. The triptych frame, crafted from poplar, was made by Bryn Athyn woodworker Charles Grubb. According to Orthwein,

“The inspiration for this piece comes from the sacred, cozy feeling of a family circled around the Bible for a Christmas morning worship service. That precious space is echoed in the curve of the tiles around the Bible and by the shepherds, wise men, and Mary and Joseph, all gathered around and bending toward the newborn baby Jesus. Mary is the closest to Jesus, touching Him directly, which represents her direct connection as the one who gave Him human form. Joseph is touching Mary’s hand to depict his absolute support of her and his commitment to their journey ahead. The wise men and shepherds represent a variety of ages and ethnicities to show that the Lord’s birth brings love to the entire human race.”

Figure 2: Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. Detail of Nativity triptych pictured in lead photo, by Christina Orthwein, 2018.

Figure 3: The shepherds. Detail of Nativity triptych pictured in lead photo, by Christina Orthwein, 2018.

Figure 4: The wise men. Detail of Nativity triptych pictured in lead photo, by Christina Orthwein, 2018.

Figure 5: The Adoration of the Shepherds. Nativity by Nancy Schnarr-Bruell, 2018.


Figure 6: Nancy Schnarr-Bruell, from Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, poses with “Belsnickel” (aka Patrick Donmoyer, director of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center) and “Santa Jr.” (aka Jim Morrison, founder/curator of the National Christmas Center). Santa Jr. is holding a Belsnickel doll crafted by Schnarr-Bruell. Photo taken in Glencairn’s Great Hall in 2016.


Figure 7: The Christ Child. Detail of Nativity pictured in Figure 5, by Nancy Schnarr-Bruell, 2018.

Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania

Nancy Schnarr-Bruell, like Christina Orthwein (see above), is an artist who lives in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. Over the past several months she has created this three-dimensional version of an illustration in The Christ Child, a 1931 children’s book by Maud and Miska Petersham. The Petershams, a husband-and-wife artist team, were well known in the first half of the 20th century as illustrators and authors of children’s literature. Before illustrating The Christ Child the Petershams traveled together for three months in Palestine, researching the clothing and customs of the Holy Land.

The Petershams’ books were well regarded by Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn; Mildred gave copies of The Christ Child to over 100 families and friends in the year 1949 alone. The Pitcairns’ enthusiasm for the book was so great that in the late 1930s they commissioned Frank Snyder to paint a life-size interpretation of the illustration of the Adoration of the Shepherds for Glencairn, their newly-completed home in Bryn Athyn.

A reinterpretation based on the original book illustration and the Snyder painting (which has not survived intact) was completed by Bryn Athyn artist Edwin Herder in 2016, and now hangs above the fireplace in Glencairn’s Upper Hall during the Christmas season. The three-dimensional version by Nancy Schnarr-Bruell was hand carved and sewn, and includes a backdrop created by her husband, John Bruell. According to Nancy,


Figure 8: Mary. Detail of Nativity pictured in Figure 5, by Nancy Schnarr-Bruell, 2018.


“I love making Nativities because I love making images of the Lord. I think the Petershams in The Christ Child book, especially in their illustration of the Adoration of the Shepherds, were able to capture a sphere of innocence that we should all strive for when we come before the Lord. I grew up with many of the Petersham books, and The Christ Child was a favorite part of my childhood Christmas tradition. Ever since I was little I’ve always wanted to ‘step inside’ the scene, and be there at the manger with the shepherds. So this year I decided to make a three-dimensional version. I hope it will help others to experience what I’ve been experiencing in my own imagination for many years.”


Figure 9: Jeronimo Lozano with a Nativity retablo in Glencairn’s Great Hall, 2018. Lozano grew up and learned his craft in his native Peru; he now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.


Figure 10: The Christ Child. Detail of Nativity retablo pictured in Figure 9, by Jeronimo Lozano, 2018.

Peru/Salt Lake City, Utah

Jeronimo Lozano is a 2008 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow. A native of the Ayacucho region of Peru, Lozano sculpts all of his figures (made from a potato/plaster mix) and paints them by hand, and also builds and paints the retablo boxes. Retablos (literally “behind the altar”) are thought to have originated in the large altarpieces in Catholic churches. The tradition of making them was brought from Spain to the new Spanish Empire in America. By the late 18th century the word retablo was also used to describe small portable plaques painted with images of holy figures, such as the Holy Family and saints. 

In Peru, retablos are created in the Andes Mountains, near the city of Ayacucho, by the Quechua-speaking people (the language of the Incas). They often assume the form of shallow boxes with hinged doors. Used as household shrines, retablos depict religious scenes, festivals, and daily life in Peru. 

Lozano has exhibited his work in a variety of museums. He now lives in the United States, and considers himself an ambassador for Andean arts. He hopes to preserve and promote this traditional folk art. According to Lozano,

Figure 11: Nativity retablo by Jeronimo Lozano, 2018.

“At Christmas time the Quechua-speaking people in the high mountains of Peru celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ with simplicity and devotion of faith. Sometimes they create large Nativity scenes by clothing the saints in the traditional costumes of their respective villages. For example, the three wise men are dressed to represent the three regions of Peru: the coast, the mountains, and the jungle . . . These traditions were preserved for many years, but recently may have changed and some of the original traditions of the Andes are being lost.”


Figure 12: Detail of Nativity retablo pictured in Figure 11, by Jeronimo Lozano, 2018.


Figure 13: Nativity in a sunflower, by Jeronimo Lozano, 2017.


Figure 14: Nativity santo by Sabinita López Ortiz, 2018.

Figure 15: Sabinita López Ortiz, Córdova, New Mexico, poses with her Nativity santo pictured in Figure 14. Made in 2018. Photo courtesy of El Potrero Trading Post.

Córdova, New Mexico

Sabinita López Ortiz is the granddaughter of José Dolores López (1868-1937), a santero (carver of santos, or saints) from the village of Córdova. López began the New Mexico folk-art carving tradition known as the “School of Córdova.” The Córdova school does not paint their carvings, adding details such as clothing with a knife instead of a paint brush. Traditionally the carving of santos has been the job of male members of the community; Ortiz’s mother, Benita Reino, was probably the first documented santera (female carver of saints). Sabinita now carries on the santera tradition. 

Ortiz’s uncle (and adopted father), one of the sons of José Dolores López, taught her how to carve: “I have been woodcarving since I was eight years old. I was taught by my father, George López. My favorite is the nativity scene because it is a special piece people like to buy for Christmas.” A distinctive element of her Nativities is the curved willow branch, a coronita (“little crown”) above the Holy Family, which is then decorated with leaves. She uses a sharp pocket knife to carve the santos from dried aspen wood, which is plentiful in the mountains of New Mexico. Aspen, a soft, white wood, becomes honey-colored when it ages.

She has taught her children and grandchildren how to carve, so that the Córdova style now extends to five generations. According to Ortiz, “every time I carve a santo, I feel holy in my heart, and it feels like I am talking to the santo I am working on because it is a gift from God to us through my grandfather, Jose Dolores López” (Norma E. Cantú and Olga Nájera-Ramírez. Chicana Traditions: Continuity and Change; 2002: 41-43).


Figure 16: Mary. Detail of Nativity santo pictured in Figure 14, by Sabinita López Ortiz, 2018.


Figure 17: El Nacimiento En El Cerro (The Nativity on the Hill), by Carmen Gutierrez Vazquez, 2018.


Figure 18: Carmen Gutierrez Vazquez, San Miguel Aguasuelos, Veracruz-Mexico. Photo courtesy of Cactus Fine Art.


Figure 19: Detail of Nativity pictured in Figure 17, by Carmen Gutierrez Vazquez, 2018.

San Miguel Aguasuelos, Veracruz, Mexico

Each year on December 12th Carmen Gutierrez Vazquez travels to Naolinco, a small town in Veracruz, Mexico, to celebrate the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe (an apparition of the Virgin Mary and the patron saint of Mexico). Vazquez climbs a path filled with poinsettia blossoms to the top of a steep hill in order to offer flowers before an image of the Virgin, which is displayed beneath an atrium. This extravagantly detailed clay Nativity scene, titled El Nacimiento En El Cerro (The Nativity on the Hill), is her depiction of this annual event. The scene includes 72 human figures, most of which are approximately one inch tall. 

Vazquez learned the embroidered clay technique used in this sculpture, which consists in pasting clay applications to the figures, from her sister-in-law. She does not use paints or dyes; her pieces are all-natural mud colors, varnished with a natural “lacquer” known as engobe. Her goal is to preserve the ancestral clay techniques and honor what she has been taught by using only what nature gives her.

Figure 20: Detail of Nativity pictured in Figure 17, by Carmen Gutierrez Vazquez, 2018.

Figure 21: Detail of Nativity pictured in Figure 17, by Carmen Gutierrez Vazquez, 2018.

For Vazquez, this unique creation in clay on exhibit at Glencairn this year, to which she has dedicated close to 400 hours of intense work and prayers, is “more than art, this is my offering to God, a piece of my heart and a display of my deepest devotion.” Vazquez is one of the most famous pottery artists in Mexico, and she works hard to preserve this traditional folk art for the next generation. In her words, “It’s all about Mexico, about spreading its light and colors all over the world, so people can see what we are made of . . . pure love and magic.”

The editor would like to thank Michelle Ibarra for her assistance with the research and writing of this article.

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