Serv­ing up saints

Pasatiempo - - 2010 Governor’s Awards -

When Spain’s Prince Felipe and Princess Le­tizia vis­ited Santa Fe in Oc­to­ber 2009, the gifts pre­sented by Arch­bishop Michael Shee­han in­cluded a retablo of La Con­quis­ta­dora painted by Ar­lene Cis­neros Sena. Dur­ing the 2000s, the Santa Fe san­tera also cre­ated the Sta­tions of the Cross at the San Isidro church in Te­suque; ren­dered scenes from the life of San José, or St. Joseph, for the al­tar screen at the Cathe­dral Basil­ica of St. Francis of As­sisi; painted an im­age of St. Katharine Drexel for a chapel at Santa María de la Paz Catholic Com­mu­nity; and fash­ioned an al­tar screen (in a col­lab­o­ra­tion with wood­worker Robert Mon­toya) for St. Anne Catholic Church.

Cis­neros Sena was named for the Mayor’s Award for Ex­cel­lence in the Arts in 1998, and she has taken home many prizes at Span­ish Mar­ket over the years. Al­though her artis­tic flair was al­ways ap­par­ent, in­clud­ing with a pre­vi­ous cake-dec­o­rat­ing busi­ness, her work mak­ing retab­los (wooden tablets on which im­ages of saints are painted) only started in 1987. The turn­ing point was a work­shop with renowned New Mex­ico artists Char­lie Car­rillo and Ramón José López.

“I was vol­un­teer­ing in the in­for­ma­tion booth at Span­ish Mar­ket, and I took the work­shop to find out more about the tra­di­tions, just to know what I was talk­ing about,” Cis­neros Sena told Pasatiempo. “How­ever, I’ve been an artist all my life, paint­ing and draw­ing as long as I can re­mem­ber. It was my hus­band, Richard Sena, who re­ally pushed me to do more.”

The san­tera at­tended St. Anne’s Catholic School as a child. “I’ve of­ten said I’m nun­raised, and I did wear a beanie and sad­dle ox­fords and a bow tie and that plaid skirt you wore in parochial school. And I found friends of a life­time.”

Her fa­ther’s fam­ily, which goes back at least eight gen­er­a­tions in New Mex­ico, is from Questa. Her mother is from Cos­tilla, just a few miles from the Colorado border. “I re­mem­ber the tra­di­tions in those towns, how they did the wed­dings and the fu­ner­als. I lived those, so that was part of the jour­ney,” she said.

Cis­neros Sena is a found­ing mem­ber of Santa Fe’s Can­cer In­sti­tute Foun­da­tion, and she now serves on its ad­vi­sory board. She for­merly served on the board of Santa Fe’s liv­ing-his­tory mu­seum, El Ran­cho de las Golon­dri­nas. She is cur­rently on the board of the Span­ish Colo­nial Arts So­ci­ety.

The artist said each of her retab­los is in­tended to func­tion as a de­vo­tional piece, and she tries not to play fa­vorites in paint­ing saints. “It varies. I change my mind,” she said. “I have a strong de­vo­tion to St. An­thony, and he was the first retablo I ever did. My pa­tron is Our Lady of Sor­rows, and I’ve painted her quite of­ten.”

The piece at the cathe­dral was com­mis­sioned by the arch­bishop. “That was dur­ing a tough time, be­cause that was the year I lost both of my par­ents, but it was a tremen­dous honor, and it brought a lot of peace,” she said.

Two larger projects Cis­neros Sena is now work­ing on are a paint­ing for the pri­vate chapel of the bishop in Gallup and an al­tar screen for her mother’s old church in Cos­tilla. The artist would like to find time to learn more about wood­work­ing and to paint santos on her kitchen cab­i­nets at home, but she’s al­ways busy mak­ing retab­los.

She en­joys work­ing with nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als in her art. She uses sugar pine for her retab­los and cochineal bee­tles for the best red col­ors. “The crushed bee­tles con­geal, and it smells hor­ri­ble, but that makes the most beau­ti­ful color, a plum or ma­genta,” she said. “Then you add lime juice, and the acid changes the color to more of a pur­ple; then you add creme of tar­tar and alum to make scar­let — I learned that read­ing a book about the masters and their tech­niques. That’s what makes what I do fun, and what it says about the early works from back in colo­nial times.”

As a re­sult of her ded­i­ca­tion and at­ten­tion to such de­tails, Cis­neros Sena’s skill has changed greatly over the past two decades or so. “The style has evolved, and that keeps the in­ter­est,” the san­tera said. “I’m never bored. I’m al­ways look­ing for new di­rec­tions.”

— Paul Wei­de­man

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