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Saint Makers: A Living Tradition in American Folk Art

September 23 - December 3, 2005



(above: Luis Tapia, Santa Verónica, 1980, carved and painted wood, cloth, 10.25 x 4.25 x 4.25 inches. Collection of Chuck and Jan Rosenak)


The Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University (FIU) is presenting an exhibit of the art of santeros from New Mexico and southern Colorado. The show at the Frost Art Museum, University Park in Miami, will open September 23 and continue through December 3, 2005. Saint Makers: A Living Tradition in American Folk Art will be accompanied by a full-color catalogue. It will be based on selections from the collection of Chuck and Jan Rosenak, most of which are on long-term loan to the Frost Art Museum.

Santa Fe's Nobel Laureate, Murry Gell-Mann, has lectured at FIU, and the university's reputation for scholarly pursuits has grown year by year. And so it was thought that the time had come to introduce southern Florida and FIU students to the Hispanic New Mexico santero tradition. Participants in the exhibition will include several santeros and santeras who are household names in New Mexico, together with essays by the well-known scholar and teacher, Thomas J. Steele, S.J., of Albuquerque, founder of the Regis Collection of Santos housed at Regis University in Denver, as well as Cathy Wright, director and curator of the famous Taylor Museum at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

Saint Makers: A Living Tradition will consist of some hundred or so bultos and retablos to be selected by the curator Elizabeth Cerejido. It will feature work by established masters like Marie Romero Cash, Charlie Carrillo, Victor Goler, Nicholas Herrera, and Feliz Lopez. The exhibition will also include pieces by less well-known santeros and santeras, such as Archie Perea and Krissa Lopez, who are becoming important in the contemporary religious art of the Southwest. The earliest work will be by Frank Applegate (the Anglo artist who was one of the founders of Spanish Market in 1925) and the latest, Saint Joan of Arc by Marie Romero Cash (purchased in 2005).

Florida has become the land of "milk and honey" for wave after wave of Hispanic and Latino immigrants during the 20th century. Immigrants to North America from Spanish, French and Portuguese speaking countries bring with them the religious traditions and the saints of their grandfathers, but often have little understanding or knowledge of the well-established santero tradition of New Mexico and experienced the arrival of Spanish soldiers, Franciscan friars, and settlers in the 16th century, bringing with them Christian images. Most of which, unfortunately, were destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Thus, in the 1700s, the santero tradition began to emerge out of necessity in the isolated villages of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado; the remembrance of European religious life and art became a folk art tradition in the New World.

Over many generations, the living tradition of the santero, a maker of saints, has changed -- new materials have been introduced, new saints have arrived on the scene ( Saint Katherine Drexel, for example) and modern interpretations of old truths have been adopted, occasionally including secular subjects such as President Clinton and Monica ( Nick Herrera's much publicized bulto is in this show). But, to date, contemporary santero art has seldom been seen in Southern Florida.

A santero will construct a typical New Mexico home altar as part of the show, and there will be a lecture program and workshop (dates and times to be announced).

The Frost Art Museum is part of Florida International University. FIU is a relatively new and growing institution with a student population of about 35,000. Its enrollment includes the largest number of Hispanic and Latino students in the country. The Frost Art Museum has had several shows of Carribean art.

Chuck and Jan Rosenak say "We were fortunate to live in Santa Fe and to witness, collect, and write about the renaissance of santero art in the 80s and 90s. During our voyage of discovery in the Southwest, we met Dahlia Morgan and her artist husband, Andrew, who summered in Santa Fe. When Dahlia, then director of FIU's Frost Art Museum, learned of our pending move to Coral Gables, she suggested that our collection of bultos and retablos be placed on loan to the Frost Art Museum so that it could be exhibited and so that Floridians -- many of whom have similar traditions -- could study and become familiar with the contemporary Hispanic culture in the Southwest." Chuck and Jan Rosenak have written several books on santeros and on folk art. They live in Coral Gables, FL.

According to Morgan, "The cultural experience afforded us in Santa Fe, strolling through the annual Spanish Market in July during the cool of early morning, chatting with the hundred or so santeros and santeras exhibiting there, and learning about the contemporary religious art on display, has been one of our treasured experiences in Santa Fe. We usually attend Market with the Rosenak's book in mind (The Saint Makers: Contemporary Santeras y Santeros, Flagstaff: Northland publishing, 1998) having become aware of their collection which included many of the artists exhibiting on the plaza, along with a few that are no longer among us, like Luisito Lujan and Frank Applegate. Also, some of the artists in their collection, Tapia and Herrera for instance, had become so successful through gallery representation that they no longer attended Market. So it is no wonder that their move to Florida excited me, and their loan to the Frost Art Museum made this exhibition possible."

Wall text from the exhibition



A Living Tradition in American Folk Art
The Rosenaks sought works from artists with a unique, creative vision expressed in an idiosyncratic style, artists who work beyond the constraints of "traditional" Spanish Colonial art by applying modern resources and sensitivities to express very old, deeply felt beliefs. As this collection demonstrates, the santeros (makers of saint images), while basing their work on traditional styles and iconography, have created innovative works that express their own individual spirit.



In the late 17th and 18th centuries, a unique form of folk art developed in the American Southwest in the region that is now northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Led by Juan de Oñate, in 1598, soldiers, settlers, and Franciscan friars from Spain and New Spain (Mexico) brought their cultural traditions, including religious images for the new mission churches. Their dual mission was to settle the land and convert the native peoples to the Catholic faith. In the Southwest, the images are called santos (saints) and were made mostly by untrained artists.
The "golden age" of santo making occurred from about 1750 to 1850. The santo tradition evolved as the need for religious images increased and imported images dwindled. Untrained artists in the town of Santa Fe and in isolated, rural villages filled the gap with images made in a folk style. At least a dozen artists are known who worked during that time, and these santeros created the majority of images still in existence. It is their legacy that today's santeros strive to continue.



Santos, as the word is used in the Southwest, includes images of saints, Christ, the Trinity, the Holy Family, and images of the Death figure (muerte). Their forms include bultos (wood sculptures), retablos (paintings on wood panels), and reredos (an altar screen comprised of several retablos). Traditionally, aspen and cottonwood root were used for the sculptures and pine for the panel paintings. Water-based paints were derived from local and imported mineral and vegetal pigments. Before painting on the wood, artists applied a gesso made from animal glue and gypsum.
Most contemporary santeros and santeras try to replicate these materials in their work. Others have turned to acrylic (water-based) paint. Many will gather their own natural pigments and/or use commercially processed pigments. Pieces may be finished with a coating of resin varnish or, sometimes, wax.



The revival of traditional Spanish Colonial crafts in New Mexico was spurred by two movements. The Spanish Colonial Arts Society, founded by writer Mary Austin and artist Frank Applegate, was established in 1925 in an effort to "broadcast a list of examples of such crafts as might be profitable to revive and to offer prices for new work that conformed most exactly to the old models." The first Spanish Market, called Spanish Fair or Spanish Colonial Art and Crafts Exhibition, began in conjunction with the 1926 Santa Fe Fiesta at the Museum of New Mexico's Fine Arts Museum. Many important artists were found and promoted through the Society's efforts.
In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing the Works Progress Administration, a federal relief program designed to ensure employment. The Federal Art Project was intended to employ persons in the fields of art, music, drama and writing. Through these programs many New Mexican artisans were given a chance to begin a new vocation. These movements were important in the revival of many traditional crafts, which had suffered a decline products, such as plaster sculptures or lithographic prints of saints. The program also provided a new source of income for villagers' art were included in WPA exhibitions and eventually placed in museums throughout the country.
The activities of the Society fell off in the late 1930s, and were re-established in 1952, largely through the efforts of E. Boyd, the first curator of Spanish Colonial art at the Museum of New Mexico, and the first person to thoroughly research Spanish Colonial crafts of the Southwest. In 1965, Spanish Market was reinstated. Today, the Society's two markets, one in July and one in December, are the major marketplaces for the presentation of contemporary Southwestern Hispanic arts.



Just as the Spanish Colonial artists were inspired by their culture, the Catholic religion, and by the unique landscape of the American Southwest, so too are today's artists. Many artists have been practicing their art for more than twenty years, conferring them a "master" status. Others are younger artists who have developed their work inspired by the more established artists. And still others have come to their calling in their later years. For a few of the artists, a precipitating event transpired, bringing them back to their Catholic faith and a unique form of expression (see Nicholas Herrera's Walking the Line). All have been inspired by the unique folk art of traditional Spanish Colonial santeros found in village churches, family chapels and moradas (penitente meeting houses*).
One interesting trend among contemporary artists is their dedication to community, demonstrated in recent years by those who create santos and other Hispanic crafts for newly restored village churches and chapels. In these endeavors, one is likely to see a group of artists working together to create a new altar screen or recreate an old, lost one. Many santeros are involved in the conservation and preservation of older artworks that reside in churches. One can also find the work of a local artist displayed in the home of another. These works are often traded and/or purchased among artists in support of each other.
Many of the artists are award-winners at traditional Spanish Market and other cultural fairs and exhibit their work in museums and galleries. Most evident, however, is the dedication and spiritual devotion shown by the artists to making santos. They are deeply involved in carrying on their cultural heritage and traditions. The art comes from their hearts, centers their lives, and guides them in their daily endeavors.
*The penitentes, or the Brotherhood of Our Father Jesus Nazarene, is a Catholic lay confraternity that has been active in village life for hundreds of years.



A few santeros have broken away from traditional santo images in search of more freedom of expression. Santeros are making strides with innovative works that stretch the boundaries of traditional iconography. Artists may still include saints and other religious images in their work, but they also make work based on their own social and cultural experiences, expanding their subject to include political commentary on American, Hispanic and Chicano culture. Luis Tapia and Nicholas Herrera have converted the carving and painting of traditional santos into other figurative and representational forms of contemporary expression, such as tableaus or scenes based on current events or personal encounters.
Traditional Spanish Colonial arts have a great influence on contemporary art and artists, but artists continue to incorporate innovative ideas and forms. This continuity and change in traditional arts ultimately reflects the evolving Hispanic culture in the Southwest.


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