Some artists discover their vocation early in life. Others blossom somewhat later, embracing a second or third career and excelling at it. Lorrie Garcia, a master santera from Peñasco, is living proof that success is worth the wait.
Garcia taught at the Peñasco High School for 25 years.
“I enjoyed teaching,” she said. “And I loved my students. This is a tight-knit community, so I knew their parents and grandparents, and by the end of my teaching career I knew the children and grandchildren of some of my former students; we were all part of the Peñasco family. However, just before I retired, I also felt I had something to contribute to the world as an artist.”
In 2000, a year before retiring, she and her husband Andrew Garcia (also a high school teacher) decided to take a Spanish colonial furniture-making class taught by one of Garcia’s former students, Daniel Tafoya, also from Peñasco.
“He offered me a lot of help and encouragement when he realized how much I enjoyed carving, but since I was afraid of power tools, I pretty much became my husband’s sidekick,” Garcia said. “That was fun for a while, but it didn’t feed my creativity, so I began to experiment and try dierent things on my own.”
Garcia said she used her newfound carving skills to do relief carvings of wild animals and horses. Her husband encouraged her to pursue her art when he saw the quality of it, so he suggested that they sign up for a bulto/retablo class in El Rito.
“That class,” said Garcia, “was the beginning of my career as a santera, and I can honestly say that it changed my life. Art became my passion from the very beginning and 15 years later, it still consumes me. I wake up every day either a project or starting a new one.”
She had barely started painting retablos the year of the Annual High Road to Taos Art Tour. “Andrew and I participated and used our front yard as a showplace,” she said. “I exhibited my pieces there and, to my surprise, we had a very successful show selling my paintings and Andrew’s furniture. Several of my very pieces were purchased by my former students. Some of them still collect my work.”
Lorrie Garcia. Patrona de la Santa Fe, 2004.
entire piece: 38 × 18 × 9 1/2 in. (96.5 × 45.7 × 24.1 cm). Courtesy of the Artist
Garcia’s artwork can be found in churches, museums and private collections around the U.S. and other countries, but she says the most rewarding and humbling validation of her work comes from her former students, her family and her close friends who continue to support her.
Garcia has won many awards and values all of them, but attaches special importance to the Archbishop’s Award, which she has won twice.
“Because,” she explained, “it is the highest honor for a santera or santero.”Garcia has also won the People’s Choice Award twice and the Best Collaboration Award with her husband at the Traditional Spanish Market in Santa Fe. Other distinctions include the Women’s De Colores Award of Excellence; Best of Show at the Taos Fall Arts Festival; Best of Show at the Taos Santero Market and Best Traditional Spanish Colonial Award at the State Fair Hispanic Arts.
The traditional art of the santeros Santera Garcia prefers to call her traditional wood-carved sculptures santos instead of bultos.
“Before I began to study santero art, I used to think of a bulto as a spirit, not a carving,” she said. “So I’d rather say that I carve santos.”
New Mexico santos, she explained, started as strictly religious artwork that the New Mexico settlers used to decorate churches and homes.
“In the late 1700s and through the 1800s, the local artists didn’t have access to commercial paints and tools that were produced in Mexico or Spain,” she explained. “They were quite isolated here and had to make their own pigments, adze their own lumber to use for retablos and use local woods for carving santos. This gave rise to a very distinct style of devotional art found only in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. At glance, some of these pieces may seem rustic, but a closer study reveals a beautiful, free-owing style which collectors d so enticing, be it santos, retablos or rededos (altar screens).
”Garcia makes Northern New Mexico traditional retablos out of ponderosa pinewood and uses pigments and gesso that she prepares herself, following the old santeros’ tradition. Among her artistic influences, she mentions José Rafael Aragón, a popular 19th-century santero whose artwork can be found in many museums and mission churches throughout New Mexico and Colorado. “He was a one-stroke artist,” Garcia said. “I always wanted to be as conent in my work as he was in his. His have delicate features with careful attention to detail.”
Santos, retablos and the Virgin
Over the years, Garcia has carved and painted hundreds of retablos and santos. It usually takes her two to three weeks to do the carving of the santo, and a week or two to add the iconography and paint before it is complete. She strives to depict santos in a respectful, but humanlike manner. “I hardly ever depict my santos with a sad or gloomy look,” she said. “I look to them as role models and patrons, but I never forget that they started out as regular people and they experienced many emotions, including happiness, of course.”
Though her work includes a wide range of themes, Garcia considers herself basically a Marian artist. “I have represented la Virgen as La Guadalupana, La Dolorosa, Nuestra Señora de la Luz, La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre and as many Marian apparitions as I’ve heard of,” she said.Art and faith“Through my work, I have a spiritual connection with the saints,” Garcia said. “In that sense, my art is like a prayer. I strive to be a better person because of what I do.”
Though she enjoys the “wow” reaction that her artwork elicits in those who look at them, there is a dierent feeling that she expects to transmit.
“I feel at peace when I am working and that’s what I try to infuse my pieces with — the knowledge that there is a God and He loves us, and has sent many saints to help guide us,” she said. “For me, being a santera is a calling that goes beyond technical expertise.”