Russell Sanchez works old school. The San Ildefonso Pueblo potter digs his own clay, cleans it, mixes it and builds his crafts in the traditional hand-coil method, burnishing them with stone and firing the pots and jars outdoors, using cedar wood and dried manure.

Sanchez’s aunt Rose showed him the way many years ago, telling him to take the technique and make it his own.

“Tradition doesn’t mean necessarily sticking with the same style of pot, technique, design,” said Sanchez, 52. “You refine it. You keep building on the base along the way. That’s what she meant. It’s about the tradition staying alive. It continually grows as long as the base is there.”

Sanchez’s interpretation of the evolution of the craft, feeling out its boundaries and expanding them, has been his focus for decades. All the same, he said, it’s nice to be recognized.

He was among the eight New Mexico artists and contributors to the arts who were chosen this week as winners of the 2017 Governor’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts, a prestigious annual celebration of the state’s diverse artist community.

Artist recipients include William deBuys, an El Valle author of nine books, eight about the Southwest; Gustavo Victor Goler, a master santero and conservator of Taos; Ken Keppeler and Jeanie McLerie, folk musicians of Silver City who are better known as Bayou Seco; and William Wilson, a Diné photographer who is an artist in residence at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe.

Recipients to be recognized as contributors to the arts are Helen R. Lucero of Albuquerque, an educator and curator; and the Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program, which has hosted more than 230 artists for one-year residencies in its 50-year run.

“The work of these distinguished artists and arts supporters enriches our lives, our communities and our state,” Gov. Susana Martinez said in a statement announcing the winners.

Ranging from Georgia O’Keeffe to George R.R. Martin, from blacksmiths to poets to sculptors, from Las Cruces to Taos, the governor’s arts award winners are an impressive roster of New Mexico artists in many genres. This year’s recipients, who will be feted at a September ceremony, said they were humbled to join the ranks.

“I feel very fortunate to live and work in New Mexico. I thank my lucky stars every day for that,” said deBuys, the author, who has made New Mexico his home since 1972.

The arts awards, handed out annually since 1974, serve in effect as lifetime achievement laurels for artists whose work has become part of the state’s aesthetic tapestry, as well as for scholars and benefactors who have helped sustain New Mexico’s vibrant cultural environment.

Loie Fecteau, executive director of New Mexico Arts, a division of the state Department of Cultural Affairs coordinating the awards with the New Mexico Museum of Art, said the six-member committee that selects the winners strives for balance in region, ethnicity and genre from the dozens of nominations.

And the recognition can be hard won, added Fecteau, who noted that New Mexico’s vast and varied company of artists creates a sort of bottleneck for worthy winners, some of whom must be nominated several times before they clinch the award.

“We’ve had people in the past who have received Academy Awards or Pulitzer Prizes who don’t necessarily get the governor’s arts award on their first nomination,” Fecteau said.

“One of the things I always get a kick out of and appreciate is there’s a family within the governor’s arts awardees,” she added. “We see, oftentimes, former awardees among the folks who nominate or write letters of recommendation for other folks.”

And many are friends or contemporaries. Goler, the Taos-based master santero, said the state-level recognition was made more special by his familiarity with a pair of this year’s recipients, Lucero and Sanchez, the potter.

“For me, it’s super cool. I’ve either worked with these people or participated in different exhibitions with them — or shared beers,” Goler laughed.

Contact Tripp Stelnicki at 505-428-7626 or


What: 2017 Governor’s Arts Awards ceremony

When: 5:15 p.m. Friday, Sept. 15

Where: St. Francis Auditorium, New Mexico Museum of Art, 107 W. Palace Ave.

Cost: Free

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