Meet 2022 best of show winner and Colorado resident Carlos Santistevan Sr.
By Kate Nelson
Santa Fe New Mexican
TRADITIONAL SPANISH MARKET
After fixing a busted muffler in 1966, Carlos Santistevan’s nephew abandoned the old one in Santistevan’s mother’s yard. He couldn’t get the kid to come clean it up, so Santistevan decided to do it himself. Picking up the hunk of metal, he saw inspiration — the face of Christ — and decided to evolve it into a piece of abstract art. But he wasn’t an artist. He was a welder, a body and fender guy. Harnessing those skills and a beauty of an idea, he turned that scrap into a sculpture that now lives in the Vatican’s collections. That trash-to-treasure moment also spurred the Denver resident to pursue another career (among many). He began reviving the Colorado style of santeros. “It was accidental,” he says of his first forays into making contemporary liturgical art. “I knew no artists in my immediate or extended family. None of my friends were artists.” Then he discovered a family tie to Pedro Antonio Fresquís (1749–1831), a renowned New Mexico santero known as the Truchas Master. “I thought, my God, this is where I came from,” Santistevan says. “All of a sudden, these roots of what I was doing crystallized.” He revived a childhood skill with knives and wood, researched traditional art, and entered the 1977 Traditional Spanish Market simply by showing up and claiming a spot under the Palace of the Governors portal — the first Colorado artist to do so. Last year he took home the market’s top prize, best in show, for the only piece he brought: a 5-foot-tall carved wooden tenebrae. In its most basic form, a tenebrae is a candelabra. Among the Penitente Brotherhood, it is used only on Holy Thursday. Now on display at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe, Santistevan’s unpainted masterpiece won acclaim for its meticulous inclusion of not just candleholders but also carved forms of God, the Holy Spirit, and the entombed and then resurrected Christ, and also removable matracas (noisemakers used to mimic how the earth trembled at the savior’s death). “It’s drop-dead gorgeous,” says Jana Gottshalk, a curator for the museum. “The craftsmanship is undeniable, and everything is carved with a purpose. I’ve seen tenebrae in moradas over the years, but nothing so stunning.” For any other 84-year-old, that standard of workmanship as a santero might be enough, but Santistevan is also a social justice advocate. He helped lead the 1970s Chicano rights movement in Denver, including founding the Chicano Humanities and Arts Council and the former El Grito Gallery. In the 1990s, he started People of Color Against AIDS, which had offices in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Nebraska. Until last year he logged manual labor at a food bank and continues to work as a teaching assistant in a Red Rocks Community College art class. Most importantly, he strives to pass on his skills and commitment. His son and daughter, who were essentially raised at Traditional Spanish Market, now show hide paintings and straw appliqué, respectively. “For me, it’s all about maintaining our traditions,” he says. “How do you maintain your traditions if you don’t have your children doing it too?” Santistevan’s wife has given over the family’s kitchen table to her husband’s carvings, at least until they grow so large that he has to move them outdoors, where a St. Francis he carved from a dying elm towers over the front yard. In May he was still noodling over three pieces, waiting for one to blossom into this year’s market entry. “I start with an idea, but I wait for it to gel,” he says. “If I start a piece and run into a problem, I set it aside. Sometimes it’ll be in the corner for a week or two.” He turns to trusted friends for advice, including fellow Colorado artist Francisco Zamora, and alternates traditional work with modern ones. The Smithsonian owns his 1979 welded-steel sculpture of Santo Niño de Atocha, and he’s working on a lowrider piece for the Denver Art Museum. The late Thomas J. Steele, a priest and art historian, called Santistevan “the dean of Denver santeros” and credited him as “founder and master of the Colorado style.” Santistevan is known for marshaling urban materials such as steel into devotional arts and pioneering a method of carving retablos before painting them — a technique other Colorado santeros have embraced. “In spite of all his honors and awards, Carlos remains in many ways an outsider artist,” Steele wrote for Tradición Revista in 1998. “For many years, he had to be a one-man school of santero painting and carving, moving through a succession of styles to keep himself fresh and creative . . . always reaching backwards in tradition and spirit, searching for the deep religious roots of his Hispanic Catholic heritage.” That accomplishment took overcoming skeptics. The santero art form is most commonly associated with Northern New Mexico, but Santistevan notes that southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley once was New Mexico. People throughout the region relied on the Penitente Brotherhood for their spiritual health and used local materials in their art. In addition, many Hispanics moved north for jobs in the Colorado mines and building trades over the centuries, taking their traditional art forms with them. Santistevan, whose father was from Trinidad, Colorado, had a multicultural childhood, growing up in the predominantly black Five Points neighborhood and attending Irish Catholic schools, where he did jigs on St. Patrick’s Day and was continually told he lacked the intelligence to attend college. While working as a welder, he took classes here and there, finally earning both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He also dove into his Hispanic heritage, reading “every book I could find,” connecting with the city’s Latino culture, and latching onto that precious link to Fresquís. “I had to indoctrinate myself into Northern New Mexico and southern Colorado,” he says. “There’s a New Mexico dicho that says you don’t know who you are unless you know where you came from.” Today his hands bear scars from errant knife nicks; arthritis has stolen some of his strength. But his jovial spirit stands strong. He’ll be in his usual spot at this year’s Traditional Spanish Market, the westernmost corner of the Palace portal, where last year one lucky collector nearly walked away with tenebrae for the bargain-basement price of $4,000 until another collector decided to purchase it for the museum. At prices like that, Santistevan says, his artwork barely covers his costs, but financial security isn’t the point. “I’ve had other employment, and that feeds my body,” he says. “My art feeds my soul.” Placitas-based writer Kate Nelson holds an abiding love for the historic churches found throughout New Mexico.