The curious contemporary
Santero Arthur López explores the human spirit through art
By Devon Jackson Photography by Kitty Leaken
Santa Fe New Mexican
TRADITIONAL SPANISH MARKET
Viewers of Arthur López’s bultos and retablos tend to have instant reactions — a laugh, a gasp, a twinge of disbelief. Even among connoisseurs who think they’ve seen it all, pieces such as San Miguel Devil Crusher or Flight into Egypt (the former depicting St. Michael in a monster truck driving triumphantly over Satan and his flattened sedan; the latter showing biplane pilot Joseph flying through the clouds with Mary and the infant Jesus on board) induce an almost instant response, a feeling. What’s often lost in the immediacy of those responses is how layered and full of multiple possible meanings his works can be. After all, almost all of his bultos (three-dimensional wooden sculptures of saints and other religious figures) and retablos (flat panels depicting religious figures) are based on oft-told, if not timeless, stories found in the Bible or drilled into kids at Sunday school. Underneath this religious iconography and teachings, there’s yet another layer. Taken as a whole, his body of work seems to ask fundamental questions about what art is, who it’s for, and why it’s made. Fresh off his 2022 New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, López brings his traditional roots, his biting wit, and his desire to question to Traditional Spanish Market. Always a doodler and drawer at Santa Fe High School, López studied fine arts at Eastern New Mexico University for a couple years before questioning how he could make a living at art. He transferred to a graphic design school in Tempe, Arizona. After earning his associate’s degree, he worked at a real estate weekly and then at Lakeshore Learning Materials, an educational supply store in Los Angeles. Soon after, one of his old bosses asked López to join him at Macy’s by Mail in New York. He accepted. Then fate intervened. On the drive from LA to New York, he decided to see his recently divorced parents in Santa Fe. When the visit revealed his father’s throat cancer diagnosis, he turned down the New York job to care for his dad. He soon met his future wife, Bernadette. Three months later his father died. “I had a renewed passion to get into art again,” recalls López, seated in the living room of his and Bernadette’s home — once his parents’ home. Almost every surface there bursts with santos, bultos, paintings, and sculptures — his own and those of artists he collects. After his dad died, he took a purposeful stroll through Traditional Spanish Market to seek inspiration. “I was so taken with the bultos,” the self-taught artist says. “Even though I’d never sculpted before, I got out a hunting knife and a razor and got some aspen wood from up in Hyde Park and started carving.” He also went through the archives at the Spanish Colonial Arts Society and El Rancho de las Golondrinas, talked to market artists, and soaked up all he could. By the next year, he had his own booth at Spanish Market. “Everything happens for a reason,” he says, not necessarily nodding to the heavens as he says it but acknowledging life’s mysteries. Bernadette gave birth to the first of their two sons the day he got into the market in 2000, when he was famously juried in with his fourth finished piece and only three months after he had started woodcarving. He sold 17 of the 19 pieces he took to his first show. Not everything came with such ease. There were lean times, including what he calls his “oven mitt period,” when he produced pieces that today look heavy or awkward. But he kept at it, adhering to his high school art teacher Gary Myers’ advice: Don’t do one piece 100 times. Do 100 pieces one time. “It’s been a steady thing,” López says. “You get to one level and think you’ve made it, and you haven’t. You go through those plateaus. The consistency of pushing through shows through in the evolution of it. And in never being comfortable. I’m nowhere near where I want to be.” Yet the accolades have poured in: the Santa Fe Mayor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2015, a best in category award in the Traditional Spanish Market Innovations within Tradition category in 2017, first place in the Bultos en Nichos category that same year, and a United States Artists Fellowship, for which he received an unrestricted $50,000 grant in 2019. “Arthur exemplified the importance of upholding and evolving santero through his impressive technique, innovative use of color, and the inclusion of his own personal narrative through the content of his sculptures,” says U.S. Artists program manager Jessica Ferrer. “Contrary to what the word traditional might imply — such as fixedness or resistance to change, Arthur and his work are future-facing, dynamic, and expansive.” When he first started, he adhered to heritage techniques. He made his own dowels, harvested his own sap, made his own gesso from rabbit-skin glue, boiled walnut hulls to create shades of brown, and ground cochineal beetles to produce red hues. Nowadays he sometimes uses newer pigments (out of a tube) and occasionally breaks out a bandsaw. But he’s as assiduous a researcher as ever. He still gets occasional pushback from strict Catholics for his imaginative works, but “I’ve never done anything I’d consider irreverent,” says the former altar boy. “All my pieces have that religious undertone, but I see them as more spiritual. They’re relatable. I’m relating the same story but making it relevant to now. I make it relatable and familiar to people by putting these figures — like the Virgin as a chola, or juxtaposing the Virgin with Wonder Woman — into this modern context.” He’s also sometimes criticized as being ahistorically baroque. However, López is quick to ground his ornate detail, which is reminiscent of the 17th- and 18th-century art style, in the work of one of New Mexico’s early, notable santeros Bernardo Miera y Pacheco (1713–1785), who also championed the style. He knows his craft and its history better than some curators. And at this stage, he stands alongside other noteworthy santeros such as Luis Tapia and Nicholas Herrera. “He’s taken his generation to a new level,” says Richard “Hank” Lee, owner of San Antonio’s San Angel Folk Art Gallery and one of López’s longtime gallerists. “He’s doing these modern subjects in this phenomenal baroque historical style but in a way that’s completely current and speaks to everybody.” “He has this ability to interpret or translate what you know — interpreting the past into the present or translating ancient ideas into present-day ideas,” says Cesáreo Moreno, visual arts director and chief curator at Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art, which has exhibited one of López’s pieces in its annual Day of the Dead exhibit since the late 2010s. “If you understand the history, you can understand how deep some of his pieces go. But if you don’t understand the history or know religion or iconography, you can still appreciate it in so many ways.” “If I’m not there to tell the story,” López says, “I want people to feel the piece. I want it to stand on its own.” In López’s works, the sacred and the profane coexist. Peacefully. As if they are two sides of the same coin. López’s art has everything to do with faith, spirituality, and religion. The humor in so many of his pieces isn’t his way of deflecting or avoiding; it’s an acknowledgement of our imperfections — everything that makes us human. “I was so terrified of all the imagery. All that Catholic guilt freaked me out,” López says. “Now I look at things completely differently. I’m not scared anymore, just curious.” Devon Jackson is a freelance writer and editor, including of the Home insert for the “The New Mexican.” He’s written for “The New York Times,” “People,” “Sports Illustrated,” and “Discover,” among others.