Art of the Santero opens at Woody Creek Gallery |

Art of the Santero opens at Woody Creek Gallery

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Daniel Bayer photo.From left: Cruz Lopez, Shawna Chavez and Pat Chavez with Lopez's sculpture "The Ultimate Battle of Good over Evil."

Santero art, an art form practiced in Latino cultures from Spain to Cuba to New Mexico, is no casual pursuit. Santero art is deeply embedded in family traditions, passed along not only from father to son, but also from husband to wife, and from one family to the next. It is a distinctive reflection of the Latino culture that came with the conquistadors from Spain, and spread throughout South America, Central America and the Caribbean, a culture that the Santero artists take seriously.

But perhaps what most makes Santero art such a significant part of the culture is how closely the art is connected to religious beliefs. The iconography of Santero art is religious through and through – images of the Virgin Mother and Jesus Christ, crosses and saints, devils and angels. The word Santero itself means “saint-maker,” and the creative process itself is filled with a sense of the holy.

The Art of the Santero, a new show at the Woody Creek Store and Gallery that opens today, Friday, June 28, should shed considerable light on the Santeros. The exhibit features works of seven members of the extended Lopez family of Espanola in northern New Mexico, a hotbed of Santero culture, as well as pieces from Patrick and Shawna Chavez, who are husband and wife from Chimayo, N.M. The Art of the Santero – subtitled Makers of Saints (devotional art of the Southwest passed down through generations) – opens with a reception this evening from 5-8 p.m. The reception will also feature music from Woody Creeker Jimmy Ibbotson and a book-signing by Old Snowmass novelist Scott Lasser, author of the recent book “All I Could Get.” The show runs through July 19.

A highlight of the exhibit is the first-ever showing of a 15-foot wood sculpture by Cruz Lopez. Titled “The Ultimate Battle of Good over Evil,” the sculpture borrows from the Book of Revelations and depicts St. Michael the Archangel fighting the forces of evil.

“I really get into the piece when I work on it and make that connection,” said the 27-year-old Lopez, talking about the religious overtones of making Santero art. “I’m doing God’s work: I see what the wood wants to become – a saint or a religious figure. It seems to be appearing on its own. It’s like I’m God’s tool. It’s not for myself.”

According to Lopez, who teaches both modern sculpture and traditional woodcarving at Northern New Mexico Community College, Santero art traces its roots back to Europe in the early years of the second millennium, A.D. There were religious artists, saint-makers, who used the usual biblical Santero iconography. In the 1200s that iconography was banned for some time; the heads of the Christian church found something unholy in what they believed to be the creation of images of God.

Public opinion eventually won out, and images of saints became popular again. The re-emergence of the biblical-inspired art roughly coincided with the era of the conquistadors in the 16th century. The conquistadors brought to the New World not only Christianity, but also the Christian iconography.

Since then, Santero art, at least in New Mexico, has experienced its ups and downs. In the middle part of the 20th century, according to Cruz Lopez, an archbishop came into New Mexico and urged a movement toward modernism in art, and away from the cruder styles that were the foundation of Santero art.

In the 1960s, Lopez’s father, Jose Benjamin Lopez (whose work is included in the current Woody Creek exhibit), was at the center of a group of New Mexican artists who were instrumental in bringing back the Santero traditions. The elder Lopez and some friends formed La Escolita – “the Little School” – an art group devoted to the traditional Santero images as well as the use of natural pigments, local wood, and pine-sap varnish in the work. The members of La Escolita began showing their works at the art-filled Plaza in the center of Santa Fe.

Over time, there was formed the Spanish Colonial Arts Society, a group of artists and historians interested in the traditional Santero arts. Each year, the Arts Society sponsored the Spanish Market, an annual summer event at the Plaza. The Spanish Market has become a major Santa Fe event and hits its capacity of some 300 artists.

For the nine artists exhibiting their works – paintings, sculptures and more – in the Art of the Santero show, the creative process is more about family and religion than it is about commercial concerns. That shows in the intensity of the religious aspect of the art, and in the way the artists work as families.

Cruz Lopez traces artists back at least seven generations in his family; among his ancestors is his grandfather, Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, a well-known mapmaker and Santero artist who made stone altar screens. Lopez is joined in the current show by his father. Benjamin, and his mother, Irene, as well as a brother, an uncle, an aunt and a grandmother. Also represented in the show are Pat and Shawna Chavez. Pat is a fifth-generation Santero artists; he began teaching his wife Shawna how to paint and sculpt some seven years ago.

“This is part of our culture, part of who we are,” said the 28-year-old Pat, who sports Santero-like tattoos dedicated to his children on his arms. “I started when I was 9 years old, carving and painting. I started teaching my wife, and we work very closely together.”

Pat, who teaches at Northern New Mexico Community College and also owns Chavez Artworks and Retablo Shop in Chimayo, considers himself self-taught. But he was surrounded by art at home, especially the work of his father, a furniture-maker.

“All the pieces of furniture in my house – we made them all,” said Chavez, who also does tattoo art.

The church is as much a source of inspiration as is the family for the Lopezes and Cruzes. One of the reasons Santero art is so much a part of the Latin culture is that the churches are filled with altars, and it is common for Latino Christians, mostly Catholics, to have small altars in their homes. And those altars all feature the colorful, dramatic, highly emotional Santero art. The images bring the faithful closer to their beliefs and their God.

“The churches where I come from are filled with saints and carvings and tablos and paintings. The town is full of crosses,” said Pat Chavez. “The artwork brings faith to a lot of people. They pray to these things to connect themselves with God. These are the living saints. There’s a lot of faith involved. It’s not just beautiful artwork.”

The art itself, however, is not meant to be a holy object itself but a reminder of what is holy. “Instead of praying to the piece of wood,” said Lopez, “they use the art object as a focus. You’re looking at the sculpture, say of the Virgin Mary, as an image, to reflect on her Life. You see her face, you see something there.”

Santero art tends to be unabashed in its emotional content. In the Art of the Santero exhibit, there is no shortage of blood, crucifixions, tears, battles and agony.

“We have to suffer to be seen by God,” explained Chavez. “We have to have pain. If you’re suffering, you’re closer to God.”

A good example is Lopez’s “The Ultimate Battle of Good Over Evil,” which depicts the eternal struggle as a literal war.

“It’s a metaphor for our society,” said Lopez, adding that the piece is his effort to mix the traditional Santero with a more classical sculptural style, with greater detail. “We have a personal choice between good and evil. We can let the evil come out and win, or we can use our inner strength to stop the evil from coming out. There’s that duality in each of us.”

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