Charles Carrillo has blended craft, conservation, and innovation throughout his career as a santero, a carver and painter of images of saints. The depiction of saints for religious purposes dates to the 18th century in Hispanic New Mexican communities. Carrillo started his creative journey in 1978 when he began researching the techniques, materials, and subject matter of the early santeros. Today he is recognized not only as the primary authority on this subject but also as the most accomplished artist practicing in this regional tradition.
Testimony to his skills includes his awards, including the Museum of International Folk Art's Hispanic Heritage Award, as well as numerous First Place, Best of Show, and Grand Prize entries in the Annual Traditional Spanish Market in Santa Fe. In 2006 he will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Spanish Market. Carrillo earned a doctorate in anthropology/archaeology from the University of New Mexico, but his true commitment to tradition has led him to work within the religious community of northern New Mexico as an artist and an advocate.
He spearheaded the rebuilding of La Morada de Nuestra Señora de Dolores del Alto (chapter house of the Penitential Brotherhood) after it was damaged by a tragic fire and vandalism. One of his nominators said of Carrillo that he "has a splendid sense of tradition and a deep knowledge of its particulars, which he respects and adheres to and aids his friends to come to love; he has the knack – the genius – to make an old tradition new every day..."
NEA: First of all, congratulations on your award. How did you feel when you heard?
MR. CARRILLO: It was kind of a shock, and overwhelming. I started to ask myself, "What does this mean? How do I live up to it?" Then I realized, "This is my life. I am living up to it."
Nothing's going to change, you know. I'm just exactly who I am. People called me and said, "I bet your prices are going up." I said, "No, no, no." This is my livelihood -- it isn't a job. It's more of a vocation than a job.
NEA: I've read that your interest in santeros began in the late 1970's with some research you were doing. Can you tell me about that?
MR. CARRILLO: I was an archaeologist, you know. Starting when I was six or seven I wanted to learn as much as I could about archaeology. I went to field school [at the University of New Mexico] right out of high school. Within four years I was invited by a professor of mine, Linda Cordell, to help with a project up in the Spanish village of Abiquiú, New Mexico, about two hours north of Albuquerque. This was the little village made famous by Georgia O'Keefe. I went to Abiquiú to do work on the first Spanish colonial village there. Because I was interested in Spanish colonial archaeology, I began doing research there and as I read through documents I was fascinated with all the references to santos. And because the ruins of Santa Rosa de Lima de Abiquiú Church are there I decided one day to paint an image of her [Saint Rose of Lima] based on a historic picture I had seen of her from New Mexico. That got me started. And before I knew it, I was painting for people in the community and just giving things away. This was in 1977. In 1978 I got married up there -- my wife is from Abiquiú. And the interest grew and grew and grew.
In 1980, I began work on a Ph.D. in historic archeology at University of New Mexico focusing on pottery, not on santos. My dissertation was on New Mexican Hispanic pottery. The whole time I was working on my dissertation, I kept coming across references to the santos and to the images on churches and everything else. The more I read, the more I wanted to paint. By 1980, when my daughter was born, I was attending my first Spanish Market [Santa Fe, New Mexico].
I grew up in a very traditional Catholic New Mexican family. My family has been in New Mexico since it was colonized in 1598, so our Spanish roots go all the way back to 1598. My Native American roots go much farther back, but we were raised in the Hispanic community and so consider ourselves Hispanic. But since I grew up in in Albuquerque, in an urban center, I was pretty detached from all that. When I went up to Abiquiú I got re-immersed into the traditions. I saw lots of old santos in churches and in family homes and I really began to take an obsessive interest -- I wanted to know everything I could about the santos. I also began to do research about pigments -- I thought if I was going to be painting these things I ought to know what the traditional saint makers used for pigments. Everybody at Market at that time was using commercial pigments, not natural, homemade ones and I thought there was something wrong with that. So began my quest, my constant research on what the traditional New Mexico saint makers were using for materials and where they were getting their colors and how they produced them. I've written and published numerous articles in books and magazines on this.
So, to answer your original question: it started out as archaeology and ended up a vocation.
NEA: Are the techniques being used today different from the past?
MR. CARRILLO: In my case, it's no different. I can honestly say I'm the guy, along with maybe two other people, who has re-invented the wheel here. I've been the one pushing for the re-introduction of traditional pigments and other traditional elements. As I said, twenty-five years ago at Market very few people were using natural pigments, natural homemade varnishes, natural production methods of hand daubing the wood, or using cottonwood root for carving, and so on. Now it's the norm, the standard. I've been the leader trying to force people to learn how to make pigments, how to make varnishes, how to make gesso and to use the tools that were traditionally used to produce the pieces. I always tell people that if we're grounded in the tradition then we can explain how we do things differently if we use modern equipment. You have a basis to explain the differences. If you don't know what they were doing historically then you can't defend what you do.
You know, I found a new color, a beautiful yellow, on the way home the other day when my wife and I were traveling through a very remote part of New Mexico. It was in the middle of a rain storm, but I had to stop on the side of the road. I happened to have a plastic cup from a convenience store and filled it full of the pigment. The first thing I did when I got home that night was go to my studio and grind it up. I was using it about ten minutes ago.
I'm constantly looking for colors. Not only am I trying to discover new natural pigments from earth and rocks and different things in New Mexico, but I also do the research that goes along with it. I found a blue a couple of years ago that nobody had ever known existed. It turned out to be an imported blue. I found that out by doing research using a lab-- I'm lucky, the Los Alamos National Laboratory is only 35 miles from here. I have friends who can do spectrographic analyses for me and figure out what these things are.
NEA: I understand you do a lot of work with young people to pass along the tradition.
MR. CARRILLO: I work with the Artists-in-Residence Program for the State of New Mexico and go to schools all over the state talking about santos and giving workshops. At one point I figured out I had seen over 17,000 young students. More than three-quarters of the santeros at the Spanish Market now either have either been my students, worked with me, or have taken classes from me. That's where my life has been. My life has been promoting the tradition.
NEA: Why is it so important for you to share this tradition with so many school children and mentor so many saint makers?
MR. CARRILLO: Even if the kids never do artwork, I truly believe that they get an appreciation for the culture and the traditions. The saints were made for one purpose and one purpose only: to tell stories. We see them as artwork nowadays, but historically they were made to tell stories to pass along values and morals and religious philosophies. I think it's important that kids of different faiths, different backgrounds –- whether they're Jewish or Buddhist or Muslim or even Protestant -- get an appreciation for the longevity of the tradition in New Mexico, and get an understanding of a people's culture and tradition. Everything in New Mexican-Hispanic culture was based in Catholicism. It's such an integral part of our culture that to understand New Mexico Hispanics is to understand Catholics. To understand Catholics is to understand their values, their religious sentiments, the way they lived their lives. Everything in their daily lives was couched in terms of their religion. To learn about this helps people understand the history of New Mexico in a very profound way. You know, you can teach history without talking about religion, but the whole time you're talking religion.
NEA: What special skills do you think saint makers need? What advice do you have for young santeros?
MR. CARRILLO: Exactly what I was just saying: you need the desire to understand traditions. Not necessarily to become a great artist -- some of the santeros in the past weren't great artists. The artwork is sometimes very crude. But they had a deep feeling for what they were trying to impart with their images.
I have an 18 year-old student who's doing great work. What I'm trying to impart to her is not how to paint, but how to think in terms of being a New Mexican Hispanic, to know our culture and its values, and to see how all that's expressed not just in the artwork but in our language, our sayings, our cosmology, our way of life.
This is not just about art, it's about a people's philosophy. It's about a people's way of life, a people's outlook on life. The santos express not only the hopes and dreams of people, but also the sadness. We need our saints for the good things in life and the tragedies. The total package. And in New Mexico there's a saint for everything.
Another key thing I tell students is that a traditional artist in this modern world first needs to be a good student. You've got to enroll in a community college or university, get some kind of secondary education. If you're lucky enough, you'll make a living doing this. But you need to have something to fall back on and that's a good education. That's what got me where I am. Like I tell people: I didn't just wake up one day and decide to be a santero. I was working as an archeologist and became fascinated with my culture.
NEA: What special characteristics of your artwork might cause someone to say, 'Oh, I recognize that as Charlie's work'?
MR. CARRILLO: I've been told that my male saints look like me. I don't see it, but other people do. I can say same thing about all the other santeros -- the faces in their work look like their own. This is not by design -- it's just the face we know the best. It's the face we see every morning when we look in the mirror and it's the face we understand the best. When I look at the work of every santero or santera [female saint maker] I see them in their work. I see their faces and it's uncanny. I think that's the one thing we can claim happens to all of us.
NEA: What are the challenges these days to carrying on the tradition?
MR. CARRILLO: New Mexico is one of the poorest states in the country. Because of the economy, it's tempting for young New Mexicans to go to school out-of-state and get a better job somewhere else. When they leave, they lose their language. They begin to lose their culture. Before you know it, it's gone. This scares me.
Another disturbing thing is that some of the necessary traditional resources are becoming scarce. I make retablos, icon-like pieces with flat images of saints painted on large pine boards. But pine is becoming so rare that I'm having difficulty getting wood to produce work for the Market this year. Even the furniture makers are having a difficult time finding pine. There are many factors contributing to the shortage: the deforestation of our national forests over the last 100 years, saw mills closing for environmental reasons, economic factors. There are other kinds of wood available -- mahoganies and oaks -- but they're not the traditional materials. It's scary to think that in my lifetime a plentiful resource is no longer commonly available.
NEA: Why do you continue to be so invested in this work?
MR. CARRILLO: It's a passion. I look forward every morning to getting up and doing what I do. Not just the making, but the research, too. I love to find new historic images that inspire me to do new things. I love to teach. Teaching about the santos and New Mexico history is a passion. It's not just about making money. It's about doing what I love to do. I tell people that even if I made a lot less money doing this, I would still do it. It's kind of insane, the way I'm driven to do it. But what can I say? I love to do it. It's a lifestyle, not a job.
People ask me, "Don't you ever get tired of what you're doing?" How could I get tired of doing what I love?