Serving up saints
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