Nicolas Otero chosen to illustrate Rudolf Anaya’s book

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Local artist Nicolas Otero, a resident of Los Lunas, was chosen to illustrate the latest children’s book, “How Hollyhocks Came to New Mexico,” by the acclaimed New Mexican author Rudolfo Anaya, who wrote “Bless Me Ultima.”

Otero was approached at one of his art shows by the Rio Grande Books publisher Paul Rhetts last February. Rhetts asked Otero if he would illustrate Anaya’s book.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: Santero artist Nicolas Otero is in his Los Lunas studio, where he created the illustrations for the latest children’s book ‘How Hollyhocks Came to New Mexico,’ by the award-winning New Mexican author Rudolfo Anaya.

“I was really excited, too, when they told me it was going to be a hardback,” Otero said.

Though he has been a professional artist for the past 16 years, this is the first book he has ever illustrated, and is very honored to be chosen for the project.

“The great thing about the book is that it is bilingual,” Otero said. “You’ve got the English, and then the Spanish (on the same page).”

Otero is a graduate of the University of New Mexico, and is the first in his family to take up painting traditional retablos, the colorful Latin American devotional paintings.

The publisher’s chose Otero’s work not only for his composition, but also for his colors, he said.

Traditionally, Otero works with natural pigment paints made from clay, plants and insects, so it was a test of skill to create the same colors out of acrylic paints.

He drew the sketches on quality drawing paper, and adhered them to masonite panels to paint them, he said.

“It was challenging, too. I mean, there is imagery in here that I’d never done before,” Otero said.

Drafts of the book were sent to him with suggestions for the illustrations, and Otero designed the colorful textures of the pages, the cover art and page borders as well as the pictures for the story. Paul Rhetts put it all together, he said.

“How Hollyhocks Came to New Mexico,” is a story rendered from an old New Mexican oral tradition, a legend of how the flowers came to be in the state.

“The hollyhock is a tall flower by nature, so its got these beautiful blooms that come out (along the stalk),” Otero said. “There’s an old oral tradition that says it’s the staff of St. Joseph — when he was betrothed to Mary his staff bloomed a beautiful red flower. Hispanic stories tell of calling it the ‘vara de San José.’”

Anaya writes that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were warned by an angel, Sueño, that King Herod was going to kill all newborn sons because of a rumor that a newborn king would usurp his power.

Sueño helps them escape, but he falls asleep in their flight, and being nearsighted he mistakes White Sands for the Egyptian desert, Otero said.

Once in New Mexico, they travel through the Hispanic villages and pueblos learning about the cultures and traditions of the people.

Otero did extensive research over a period of about seven months, visiting Santo Domingo Pueblo and watching their dances, making sketches and paintings to conjure the imagery for the book.

“I felt an obligation to be authentic, not only to the author, but to what’s being asked and represented in the book,” Otero said. “If it’s going to be published, kids need to know, you know, you don’t want to give them some wash — something that’s not inaccurate.”

In an interesting twist, before Otero visited with the award-winning author at his home in Albuquerque, Otero painted a lavender hollyhock in a retablo he created as a gift for the man.

When he gave Anaya the gift, the author showed Otero the hollyhock that had sprung up in his backyard while he wrote the book. It had violet blooms.

Later, in a letter Anaya wrote, “Your paintings will make the book a classic.”

A meet-and-greet book signing event with the author, translator and illustrator is scheduled to be held from 6 to 8 p.m., Friday, Dec. 14, at the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts.


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