Ramón José López enters an exhibit at the Museum of International Folk Art. The much celebrated artist pauses to take off his dusty work coat. López’s graying brown hair is bound in a thin braid that tapers to the middle of his back. His sky blue eyes shine above high cheek bones in a face the color of rich earth.
He pauses before a santo of San Ysidro Labrador that he made years ago. A casual viewer would enjoy the work simply for its delicious carving and joyful colors. But López wants people to looker closer, see deeper. Indeed, the santero can be found at the exhibit honoring New Mexico’s National Heritage Fellowship recipients as often as once a week. For museum-goers fortunate enough to speak with him, the experience is powerful and enlightening.
Today, López points to the satchel slung across San Ysidro’s chest. “He’s the patron saint of farm workers. So I put beans, seeds, chiles, and earth from Chimayó in his bag.” The Santa Fe-born santero walks around the base of the piece. He has painted what he calls “alavados” on each side. He reads them aloud in the quiet room, translating the Spanish texts entreating God to protect fields from hailstones and thunder, from locusts and other calamities. His voice is hushed while he says them. It’s as if López is praying alongside the farmers who’ve praised and pleaded to God for centuries.
While most of López’s pieces are rooted in his deep Catholic faith, his “Don’t Drink and Drive” deals with a more mundane subject. “I was reading about DWIs in the newspaper,” he says, walking to his next sculpture. “I thought about the wrecks here in New Mexico and throughout the country.”
From that contemplation arose a work that features Doña Sebastiana, a traditional female version of death, sitting in a carreta pulled by two oxen. While she is often depicted alone, López added her husband and children. “I wanted to include the whole family because everyone is affected by DWI.”
All the figures are skeletons, their wooden bones painted an eerily bright white. Again López wants the viewer to see beyond first impressions. He motions to the small plaques on the front and back of Doña Sebastiana’s cart; they allude to license plates. “Look at the children,” says the artist. The boy sticks out his tongue and holds a slingshot. Lopez nods toward the mischievous youngster’s head; the hair comes from one of the santero’s own sons. The carreta in the young girl’s hands? Lopez’s daughter made it. And the girl’s long braids evoke the same style his mother used to wear.
Though he has earned much acclaim for efforts to revive traditional techniques, López says, “I’m not a folk artist. I just make things.”
Many people would dispute this claim. Whether it be a whimsical life-size carousel or a wood carving of San Miguel with silver wings that actually flutter when a person blows on them, López’s “things” are created with extraordinary care and craftsmanship.
The artist walks into another part of the museum and extends his hands in a circle in the exhibit hall. “Everything has been done so much better than I can do,” he says. “The silver pieces in the Baroque period . . . the Egyptians . . . .” López marvels at the mastery of folk artists who worked without the benefits of modern precision tools and technology. “Every technique I learn is a stepping stone to advance. I advance to go backwards,” he says, his eyes twinkling.
Whether it’s a lantern made of wood and selenite or an illustrated manuscript on vellum, López studies it to learn how the original was made. “I’m attracted to one-of-a-kind pieces, those that have survived for centuries when so many others have been destroyed or neglected,” he says. Perhaps it takes a year, perhaps six, for López to acquire the skills necessary to make something similar. But he does. He then adds personal touches to make it utterly unique. “Every work is a channel to spirit,” he says. “It’s also a reflection of yourself and your culture coming forth.”
López feels a strong connection to the long-ago artists whose works he studies. One, in particular, has had tremendous influence on his life. Don Lorenzo López Sr., a well respected Santa Fe santero, was López’s grandfather. Though Don López Sr. died two years before Ramón José López was born, those who have known both believe they are linked by more than blood.
It’s not just that the two had the only blue eyes in their family. Don López Sr.’s artistic abilities manifested early; so did his grandson’s. Ramón José López taught himself how to carve wood with a razor blade when he was only five years old.
Both men honor their faith through their art. One project that inspires Ramón José López to this day is a stone chapel his grandfather built on a hill near his home in Santa Fe. Don López Sr. hauled the rocks up by hand in 1928 when he was 75 years old. Decades later, his grandson—along with other family members—restored and rededicated the capilla.
Ramón José López often uses his grandfather’s tools – and tricks – for his own creations. “Don López Sr. used strips of cow hide to bind pieces of wood together in his pieces,” says the santero touching a toy cart his grandfather made decades ago. The grandson does the same thing and adds his own twist; he uses buffalo hide instead.
After visiting the museum, Ramón José López returns to the home he and his wife Nancy built just outside of Santa Fe. He opens the door to his family’s private chapel. Inside, the silence resembles the deep quiet of the heart of a cave. Slowly the eyes become accustomed to the natural illumination. The room is packed with furniture, altar screens, silver candelabras, paintings, processional crosses, santos . . .
An astounding three-panel buffalo hide painting of the Last Supper hangs flat from the ceiling. “This is a parapolvo,” says López. “They were used to prevent dust from falling onto altar tables in adobe churches.” He explains that parapolvos used to be common in New Mexico. Today, the only remaining example is at San José de Laguna church in Laguna Pueblo.
López pauses by a hand-made pine wood chest his son Bo designed and created when he was only 10 years old. The joy in the father’s face is undeniable. It’s evident that family and faith are the cornerstones of López’s daily life.
He looks up and begins to talk about an experience that happened to him while he was building the chapel. Early one morning before sunrise, the artist had to go outside and climb to the top of the structure. “When I got up there, I saw this big black cross in the center of the roof,” he says. “The light coming through the four skylights from the room below outlined it.”
López tells of another powerful moment he had while making the altar screen that now occupies one full side of the family chapel. He was painting the spiral columns by walking around and around them. The altar’s panels were balanced against the wall nearby. López stood closest to the one depicting San Gabriel, the messenger.
“It was late at night,” says the santero. “All of the sudden a formation came within the space where that panel should be. It was a white, brown and gray cloud.” López speaks softly now, his gaze faraway with the memory. “The voice of God asked me to come into that space,” he says. “Do you know what I said?” In an instant, his demeanor changes and he’s come back to the present. “I said, ‘I can’t. I have too much work to do.’” He chuckles, still astounded at his reaction. “That’s what I’ve always said. To my mom and to others.”
López walks to a large framed display leaning against another wall. In it are dozens of copper grabados – engravings – and prints he created from them. He explains the centuries’ old process, how the demanding technique requires everything to be the mirror opposite of the final print. He taught himself the painstaking craft in order to make a buffalo hide book – Santos y Oraciones – for the 2009 Spanish Market.
López moves on, looking for just the right piece of art to explain next. While he considers the hundreds of objects in the room – each infused with such intent, detail and reverence – López speaks about how he believes that every person has natural abilities. “God gives you all of these talents in your life,” he says. “You have the choice of what you want to do with them,” he says.
The artist pulls out a full-size copy of his Book of Hours and turns to the page featuring Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. “She was a remarkable lady.” He point to the books he has depicted behind her and starts to explain their titles.
“Look at this,” he says. Again, Ramón José López urges the viewer to look deeper, to see the many layers of rich meaning, to find the spirit within.
[Pari Noskin Taichert is a New Mexican novelist and two-time Agatha award finalist. She is also the founder of the Anthony-nominated web blog www.Murderati.com Find Pari at: www.PariNoskinTaichert.com]