An art history lesson

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Starting in the sixth century, Saint Michael became widely known as the leader of the Army of God and a major force to help prevail over the forces of evil.

Santero Nick Otero stands with one of his works, Our Lady of Guadalupe.

By 1600, La Virgen de Guadalupe and her glowing aura energized settlers and local villagers before the Pueblo Revolt, an uprising of mostly Pueblo Indians against the Spanish settlers in Santa Fe, chasing them and their saints back to Mexico.

But today, the image of La Virgen can be seen in murals, art, clothing and many other places throughout the state, where her radiant presence continues to inspire Catholic and non-Catholic people alike.

However, during these early times, artists called Santeros became popular for capturing the power of these saints and dozens of others on mediums including hide paintings, which were done on the hides of cattle.

Centuries later, Los Lunas resident Nicolas Otero has helped keep the tradition alive by painting saints and other Catholic icons, including retablos and altar screens.

Otero, 31, a Santero, first developed an interest in retablos when he was in high school. More than 15 years later, some of his work comes in the form of commissioned pieces.

Painting has become a full-time job, often involving unique works, such as a 58-inch tall piece that will be on display at the Albuquerque Museum.

Otero will be one of six artists who will be part of a collector’s dinner where people can purchase his works, some of which can sell for more than $5,000.

The Santero paints images such as the Sagrado Corazon, or sacred heart, a colorful image of a heart with wings on either side, surrounded by white daisies.

Another image depicts St. Catherine of Siena holding a Bible while a halo glows directly over her head in a simple, but powerful painting.

“I wasn’t familiar with (holy images) at first,” Otero said. “But it became a passion.”

Otero uses traditional methods and natural pigments to create his work and has worked his way into becoming a well-known artist at venues in Santa Fe and at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Ariz.

Back home, he has worked at trying to preserve local art and spent three months traveling to all of the local churches in the state to take an inventory of traditional artwork. That tour included churches in Tomé, San Antonio and the Laguna Acoma Pueblo. He took pictures and said he wants to eventually volunteer to help preserve artwork.

“I think it’s an interesting story to tell,” Otero said. “I think the truth about (how the works) came to be is why it matters.”

Otero, a Los Lentes resident, taught art in the Los Lunas School District and said he wants to educate younger generations about a tradition of Santeros that has lasted some 300 years.

The art of painting saints has become popular enough to garner attention from the East Coast. He has sold his work to Saint Paul’s Church in Salem, N.Y., and has had his work shown in places such as the Luna Mansion in Los Lunas and the El Potrero Trading Post in Chimayo.

Otero insists he doesn’t work for monetary gain, but instead to keep the tradition alive.

“(The role) has a strong spiritual base,” Otero said. “It’s a way to connect with younger generations.”

In Tomé, another artist, Jan Pacifico, found her niché when she learned there was a property available along N.M. 47. The property, which featured an old adobe structure, was about 75 years old when she bought it with three others in 1996.

Years ago, the structure was a grocery store and a gas station, where customers could also purchase tires.

Pacifico, a potter of 50 years, had a vision for what eventually became the Tomé Art Gallery. Now, the gallery has more than 50 members who pay a small annual membership fee and most offer some sort of artistic talent that often gets featured in the structure’s main room.

Artists, such as painters, metal workers and Santeros, have made the art co-op a breeding ground for both young and old creatives who share a passion for art.

Pacifico teaches pottery classes a few times a week and said she wants people to remember that for generations the Rio Grande Valley was built with many things that were handmade.

“People made the things that they needed,” Pacifico said. “They were beautiful.”

Now, she says, most people have done away with traditional values and have succumb to buying for cheap at big box chains when it comes to acquiring items such as bowls and coffee mugs.

The artist says there’s “no heart and soul” in store-bought items.

But Pacifico admits local residents have kept old ways alive through supporting the Tomé Art Gallery by attending events such as the Souper Bowl, an occasion where people get together and eat soup on Superbowl Sunday.

Out-of-town shoppers are a big reason why the gallery is still in business with locals telling friends and family members about the charm that envelopes the adobe building brings to Valencia County.

“The tourists want a souvenir,” Pacifico said. “They want to meet the artist.”

Pacifico makes “functional stoneware,” such as teapots and mugs and more recently, urns. A production potter, she makes things over and over again to help fill a particular order.

The gallery, located at 2930 N.M. 47, is a featured stop on the Trails and Rails tour, which gives people a guided tour to art destinations in Valencia County.

Events include a Day of the Dead — Dia de los Muertos Show, which runs from Oct. 26 through Nov. 4, with an open house set from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 28.

Pottery classes taught by Pacifico are $15, and run from 10 a.m. to noon every Tuesday and Saturday. A kids class, taught by Dora Hernandez, is offered from 2 to 4 p.m. each Saturday. Additional pottery classes are offered from 6 to 8 p.m. every Thursday.

Pacifico said she wants to continue to teach a tradition that New Mexico has known for hundreds of years.

“I want to continue doing this,” Pacifico said. “I love it. I don’t know what I would do all day if I didn’t have pottery.”


-- Email the author at bruffner@news-bulletin.com.