Artist mentorships revitalize traditional Spanish colonial arts beyond the market

By Karen Fischer Photography by Gabriela Campos



Santa Fe New Mexican


By day, Albuquerque-based Adrian Montoya is a crime scene investigator. By night he’s a santero. He moves between his garage workshop and his kitchen table, painting retablos on prepped wood and animal hides. A few years back, his daughter, Mya, started to casually watch him paint day after day. Now 13, Mya joins him to paint and learn about the world of symbolism that goes into painting any image on a retablo, from a saint to a flower. Montoya started his own journey painting retablos at a class in his native Las Vegas, New Mexico, in the late 1990s. The history in the paintings captivated Montoya’s imagination from the start. “You have to know the history and do the research,” he says. “You can’t just paint something because you like it.” Nearly 30 years later, Montoya has a rolodex of iconography at his disposal. The dove represents the Holy Spirit. Holly is solely used to represent Christmas. A red berry indicates the blood of Jesus. Specific leaves refer to everlasting life. The petals in a rosette — three, five, or seven — represent Eternity, Mysteries, and Our Lady of Sorrows, respectively. Arguably, this knowledge is just as important as painting a retablo itself. It connects craftsmen like Montoya to artisans hundreds of years ago. “I know now that it’s only specific to New Mexico because of the Spanish heritages in this region. The art is something different you can’t find anywhere else,” Montoya says. Now, by mentoring his daughter, Montoya is passing this heritage knowledge on so she too can keep the traditions alive. He — and other artists like him — see mentorships among both family members and other interested youth as vital for passing techniques to the next generation. Many of these emerging artists show their work at the Youth Market within Traditional Spanish Market and go on to show alongside their mentors at the adult fair. But the mentorships foster an artistic relationship that goes beyond the bounds of the oncea-year market. Montoya started mentoring young artists when he saw kids’ interest at Traditional Spanish Market. His niece was the first to request a formal mentorship from him. Mya followed, along with other family members and younger kids. Montoya meets with his cohort on Saturday afternoons when he has the day off work. They bring their own materials, and Montoya supplies fresh-cut wood for retablo making. “I like the history and symbolism of different items and objects that are related to religion,” Mya Montoya says. As an eighth-grader, she can already see herself potentially participating in Spanish Market as an adult. The mentorship program is also a stark contrast to everyday life at school, where most people her age are mainly interested in social media, not art history or in-person group activities. Felipe Rivera, who also shows at Traditional Spanish Market, also found the heritage crafts of New Mexico enchanting from a young age. As a child in Peralta, he observed his grandfather making wooden furniture. His uncle made various Hispanic-style carvings, including retablos, homemade crosses for cemeteries, and furniture. His grandmother and mother both worked in pottery. These quiet, diligent practices were everywhere he turned, yet he didn’t engage in them in his youth. After completing a master’s degree in occupational therapy, he found he needed a release from his career and returned to his artistic foundation. “The process never stops!” he says. Rivera finds there is always something new to learn, whether it is jewelry making, metalworking, or woodcarving. Rivera mentors youths with the hope that the art form will cast the same lifelong spell over new artists. “I’m just afraid that we’ll lose this if we don’t have the numbers,” Rivera says. “If there’s no exposure in school or through a Spanish colonial arts mentorship program, we’re at risk of losing the whole art form.” Rivera fosters his mentor/mentee relationships through word of mouth. He says the demand is remarkable. When he posts images of his work on social media, local families invariably ask if he provides lessons. Six students meet with him every other Sunday afternoon. Like Montoya, he supplies wooden boards. Some mentees like working with natural pigments. Some like blending those colors to get certain traditional shades just right. Rivera observes that others simply like chatting with each other to get advice on how to approach the finer details of their paintings. Eliana Barela, one of Rivera’s mentees, is older than most of the other members of the cohort. As a rising sophomore at the University of New Mexico (UNM), she often assists Rivera with guiding students through their practices. The blend of acting as a mini-mentor and learning herself has been profound for Barela. “It’s so inspiring because these kids are just as passionate as I am, if not more,” she says. “They know [this art is] a part of their culture. They’re very detail oriented. . . . They have such a respect for it even at their young age.” Barela is weighing whether to major in painting or wooden sculpture at UNM and plans to exhibit at Traditional Spanish Market next year. But to both Rivera and Barela, mentorships matter for more than just educational and professional pursuits. Mentees don’t have to study art or exhibit in Traditional Spanish Market to be successful. As with Rivera’s journey, a mentorship experience might lie dormant for years until it’s called to the surface again. So it’s the foundation that matters. Once it’s instilled, the students can keep returning to and sharing it as time goes on. “This art is a devotional art. It’s made me more knowledgeable about saints and how it’s affected my ancestors,” Barela says. “I feel closer to my culture and to the people in the past, my family, and New Mexico in general. This art has been a saving grace for centuries for families who did not have images in their church; they had to create them. This art makes me a better person.” Karen Fischer is a writer based in rural New Mexico. You can find her bylines in publications such as “New Mexico Magazine,” “Business Insider,” “The Verge,” and “Eater.”