Mas­ter of whimsy

‘Con­tem­po­rary tra­di­tional’ san­tero carv­ing out his own place


The pa­tron saint of gar­den­ers strad­dles a bug-eyed pray­ing man­tis like some hy­brid cow­boy knight.

St. Michael steers a jumbo truck over a prone and crushed devil. Santo Niño perches on a dash­board be­neath a pair of dan­gling dice.

Arthur López skews the tra­di­tions of Span­ish colo­nial art with a scathing sense of satire and whimsy. This year, the Santa Fe san­tero scored a $50,000 grant from the Chicago-based non­profit United States Artists. The win puts López in some heady com­pany. Pre­vi­ous re­cip­i­ents have in­cluded the leg­endary jazz sax­man Wayne Shorter (Miles Davis, Weather Re­port, Her­bie Han­cock and Joni Mitchell) and Os­car­win­ning di­rec­tor Barry Jenk­ins (“Moon­light,” “If Beale Street Could Talk”).

USA spokes­woman Shan­non Lee said, “Arthur is a mas­ter at his wood­work­ing craft and ex­em­pli­fies the unique char­ac­ter­is­tics of the tra­di­tional arts field, which our panel has ar­tic­u­lated as the con­ti­nu­ity and evo­lu­tion of preser­va­tion of a tra­di­tion and/or cul­tural her­itage.”

Some­what sur­pris­ingly, López didn’t grow up in an artis­tic home, al­though he’ll cop to a great-un­cle who worked in New York for the pre­de­ces­sor comic strip to

“Ri­p­ley’s Be­lieve It or Not.”

Both his par­ents were sup­port­ive. His fa­ther showed off his son’s draw­ings to his friends.

But the san­tero never thought he’d make a liv­ing as an artist.

The two-story Santa Fe home he shares with his wife, Ber­nadette, re­sem­bles an art mu­seum packed with the bul­tos, retab­los and crosses he bought or traded with friends. A back­yard stu­dio serves as his carv­ing shed; a for­mer porch/green­house houses his paint­ing desk. He uses only wa­ter­color or his own nat­u­ral pig­ments, cre­at­ing his own gesso from a mix­ture of rab­bit hide glue and mar­ble dust.

He cred­its his first art teacher, Santa Fe High School’s Gary My­ers, with show­ing him how to see.

“If I was frus­trated, he’d just say, ‘The best thing to do is to do 1,000 pieces, not the same piece 1,000 times,’” López said.

López at­tended Eastern New Mex­ico Univer­sity for two years, tak­ing sec­ond place for his first art com­pe­ti­tion. He stud­ied de­sign in Tempe, Ariz., and then re­turned to Santa Fe and worked for a real es­tate weekly. He com­muted to Al­bu­querque as an as­sis­tant art di­rec­tor. He nearly moved to New York to take a sim­i­lar po­si­tion for Macy’s cat­a­log when his fa­ther de­vel­oped throat can­cer.

López re­turned to the fam­ily’s Santa Fe home and cared for his fa­ther un­til he died three months later.

“After he died, I just had this pas­sion to want to paint retab­los,” López said. “I had this pow­er­ful de­sire to draw and paint. I had never done sculp­ture.

“I saw the 3-D fig­ures and I was so taken. They were so artis­tic and beau­ti­ful.”

He re­searched lo­cal li­braries and mu­se­ums, ask­ing Span­ish Mar­ket artists for ad­vice. He went to El Ran­cho de Las Golon­dri­nas to watch the wool dy­ers work with nat­u­ral pig­ments. He picked up his first piece of wood, a dead piece of aspen, in Hyde Park and be­gan carv­ing a fig­ure of the Vir­gin Mary. The re­sult­ing un­painted piece still sits on his night ta­ble.

López ju­ried into his first Tra­di­tional Span­ish Mar­ket the first time he en­tered, in 1998. The Mu­seum of In­ter­na­tional Folk Art bought a piece within six months. He calls his style “con­tem­po­rary tra­di­tional.”

“I learned all the ba­sics and moved on from there,” López said. “I never wanted to be known as a fol­lower. I’ve al­ways been at­tracted to peo­ple and things that make me laugh. Even as an al­tar boy, I was so afraid of look­ing at the cru­ci­fixes be­cause they were so bloody.”

A 5-foot-long cru­ci­fied Christ en­cased in a glass box serves as his cof­fee ta­ble.

Some­times, he’ll un­wit­tingly step into con­tro­versy. He once crafted a bulto of a priest con­fess­ing to an al­tar boy amid the turmoil of the abu­sive­priest scan­dals. He ti­tled it “For­give me son.” Some of his Catholic friends were of­fended.

“I was so mad and ap­palled by it,” he said. “It was dur­ing the (2002) Car­di­nal Law scan­dal in Bos­ton.” Bernard Law re­signed amid ac­cu­sa­tions of a cover-up by The Bos­ton Globe.

A visit to López’s back­yard stu­dio re­veals un­painted carv­ings of the Holy Fam­ily and a snail he calls “Low and Slow.”

“It’s go­ing to have a lowrider,” he said. “The snail is go­ing to be metal­lic red with pin­strip­ing.”

He’s al­ready carved it a som­brero.

He learned he’d been nom­i­nated for the award about a year ago, then for­got about it un­til he got the phone call.

“Hon­estly, I cried,” he said. “I couldn’t be­lieve it when I saw the names. It’s great com­pany, to be sure.

“We have a kid at UNM and one who will be there in a year. I’m def­i­nitely not go­ing to put it on red at the casino.”


San­tero Arthur López stands in his Santa Fe home sur­rounded by art.


A cof­fee ta­ble carved and painted by Arthur López.

“San Fi­acre y los Pa­trones de Jardin” by Arthur López.

“San Miguel Devil Crusher” by Arthur López.

Arthur López, the win­ner of a 2019 U.S. Artists award, holds a work-in-progress.


San­tero Arthur López re­laxes in his Santa Fe home.

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