Santero, Los Lunas

You might not expect an artist in a New Mexican village of 15,000 to receive the kinds of honors and opportunities Los Lunas-based Nicolás Otero has received. But the 38-year-old contemporary santero (or saint maker) has met with remarkable success. His illustrations grace the pages of two children’s books by Bless Me, Ultima author Rudolfo Anaya — How Hollyhocks Came to New Mexico (2012) and How Chile Came to New Mexico (2014), both published by Rio Grande Books — and he has work in the archive collection at the White House. In addition, Otero won the Grand Prize Best of Show award for one of his altar screens at Spanish Market in 2017. Now he’s the recipient of a 2019 Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts for his work as an artist and educator.

“I feel like this is something that should be given to a much older artist,” Otero told Pasatiempo. “It’s been kind of a mind-blowing experience because you hear about the award and people receiving it — and as an artist myself I’ve always kept up with who the state is honoring — but never in my wildest dreams would I think that I would be the one.”

His work has earned him no less than 42 awards.

“The Otero family has a long-standing history of being santeros in Valencia County,” said Cynthia Shetter, director of the Museum of Heritage and Arts in Los Lunas. “It’s so nice to see his talent being recognized.”

Otero began apprenticing with master artists at 16. Today, his work resides in museum and church collections from coast to coast.

Like his forebears, Otero uses locally sourced materials, which include wood, pigments, and varnish. Wood panels are prepared using a traditional gesso made of gypsum and animal glue. The varnish is made from pine sap.

His work has been featured in many books, including Saints & Seasons: A Guide to New Mexico’s Most Popular Saints by Ana Pacheco (Gran Via, 2005), Southwest Art Defined: An Illustrated Guide by Margaret Moore Booker (Rio Nuevo, 2016), and Saints, Santos, and Shrines by John Annerino (Gibbs Smith, 2013).

“I’m a diehard traditionalist. I really value and love my culture. My work is Spanish Colonial-style, but there’s also innovations within that tradition that I’ve been doing,” said the artist, who’s known for including movable parts on altar screens and retablos, such as small doors that slide open to reveal images within, and for his miniature work. “Those are considered innovations now because, back then, they would simply be flat panels or very primitive-looking carvings and statues. I enjoy that aspect of changing the construction of a panel or icon.”

For Otero, carving saints and altar screens and painting animal hides and retablos is about more than maintaining tradition. It’s about educating others, so that the knowledge can be passed down to future generations. For 10 years he’s worked as an art teacher at Bosque Farms Elementary School, and in March he curated an exhibition — Ayer, Hoy, y Manaña/Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: An Exhibition of Traditional and Contemporary Hispanic Arts — at the Museum of Heritage and Arts in Los Lunas. “For me, it was like, OK, I had Best of Show at Spanish Market in 2017, so what’s next?” he said. “I reached my goal, and now it’s time to basically give back and support other artists.”

The show featured the work of 63 regional artists, including Luis Tapia, Lawrence Baca, Andrew Garcia, Arlene Cisneros Sena, and Otero’s own mentors Alcario Otero and Rhonda Crespin.

“In Valencia County, we’re so proud of him because he’s accomplished so much, and he’s turning around and bringing it into our community,” Shetter said.

Otero hopes the Governor’s Award will motivate and encourage his students. “These kids come in every day and it’s my job to inspire them,” he says. “They inspire me.” He sees his acceptance of the award as something he’s doing on behalf of the village of Los Lunas. “My bosses that I work for now were once my teachers. I don’t think anybody else from the Los Lunas area has ever received the honor. So I feel like I’m representing my community.” 

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