Spanish Market

2017 Grand PrizeWinne­r

Nicolás Otero wins best of show for larger-than-life altar screen

- By Arnold Vigil

Just as a seedling sprouts, grows and blossoms into a beautiful houseplant, nurtured with water, care and love, so did Nicolás Otero’s larger-than-life altar screen, which earned the wood-carver the 2017 Spanish Market Best of Show honor, his first. And grow it did, from a lone crucifix into an elaboratel­y carved altar screen that measures 12 feet tall and 5 feet wide.

“I had it [the crucifix] there for two years and I didn’t know what to do with it,” Otero says of the beginnings of his grand prize winner. “It was the most intensive piece I’ve ever done. I had to get a ladder to complete it. Back and forth, back and forth. Painting the colors . . . taking it apart and putting it back together again.”

And take it apart and put it back together again he did — countless times — from his studio to show to display to sale, sometimes in one weekend! After he assembled it to show at the 2017 market, he disassembl­ed it and put it back together in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi so parishione­rs could view it after Sunday Mass that same market weekend.

He then took it apart again and drove it to St. Julie Billiart Catholic Church in Newbury Park, California, whose priest, already familiar with Otero’s work, had seen it on display at St. Francis Cathedral and purchased it. Ironically, Otero said he showed the piece at the market all weekend and “thought it wouldn’t sell because it was so big.”

Otero, a Los Lunas native who was the Spanish Market poster artist last year, says the altar screen is the largest single piece he’s ever created, although it’s actually a compositio­n of numerous handcarved pine sections held together with dowels and mortise-andtenon woodworkin­g techniques. It depicts an entombed Christ with saints, carved birds, 24-karat gold leaf and a center panel that moves in and out, so it can be replaced with panels depicting different images. “It was like putting Legos together,” Otero says, adding that the piece’s steady growth and developmen­t over several years “to me was guided spirituall­y.”

During the day, the 37-year-old artist teaches at Bosque Farms Elementary School. He creates art during his spare time. Otero said that one year, when he was granted a sabbatical from teaching, he used the time to carve 14 depictions of the Stations of the Cross, plus two additional panels on consignmen­t for the same St. Julie Billiart Church in California. But even though the experience taught him that he could potentiall­y quit his day job and create art full-time, and that it is sometimes a struggle to do both, he says he missed the social aspects of showing up to work at school. Above all, “I missed the kids,” he says.

Never one to rest on his laurels and grow complacent, Otero says that he strives to improve on his art and is now evolving his carving to incorporat­e movable pieces and 3D effects. He says he will still focus on the categories of retablos, innovation­s within retablos and the revival arts of animal hide painting and ramilletes — the paper flowers that once adorned altars and important documents.

That urge to grow as an artist has awakened his desire to travel the world to experience the creations of other artists and to experience the diversity that might inspire his own art. He adds, “An artist has to experience other forms of art to grow.”

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