By Buffy Gilfoil
Ronn Miera leads a double life. Working the night shift at a Kmart distribution center, the burly 30-year-old hauls and stacks bulky cardboard boxes. On his own time, he trades his forklift for folk art tools as he practices the same delicate craft a distant relative did in the 1700s.
In his basement studio, Miera works with wood and other common materials as he meticulously carves and paints images of Roman Catholic holy figures called santos. Miera’s calling might not be remarkable in New Mexico where a distinctive folk Catholicism evolved, but the Brighton resident is one of about 20 santeros, the names for those who create santos, who practice their craft in Colorado.
“Colorado is catching on,” said Boulder santera (female saint-maker) Catherine Robles-Shaw. The people she meets at shows are surprised she lives in Boulder, especially those she meets at the Santa Fe Spanish Market, held the last weekend of July. “It’s pretty much a shock to them because they don’t expect anybody (who creates santos) to be from here,” she said. “They think you have to be from New Mexico – as if nobody has gotten into the car and moved.”
Carlos Santistevan has sold his work at the Spanish Market since 1975, which qualifies him as the dean of Denver santeros.
Santistevan has lived in the Five Points area his entire life. He began carving toys with his mother’s paring knife when he was about 6, then crafted “santos in metal” as he learned auto body work in high school.
Santistevan has a varied background that includes opening a gallery to display Chicano art. He now works as executive director of the People of Color Consortium against AIDS. Through the gallery, Santistevan learned about early santero Pedro Antonio Fresquis.
“That was my fraternal grandmother’s name,” said Santistevan, who concluded he was related. “That started me on my quest to learn more about colonial New Mexico artwork because I finally had a root I could identify with.”
In addition to santos, Santistevan creates metal sculptures and multimedia pieces. Each artifact is unique and some take weeks to plan. Lately, for example, he has been working on a three-section retablo –- paintings on panels – that will show Christ’s scourging at the pillar, crucifixion and entombment.
All three of Santistevan’s children have exhibited that artwork at his table at the Spanish Market and two — Carlitos, 20, and Brigida, 17 – continue to make santos.
Robles-Shaw, 45, feels her work is a calling that allows her to repay a community that has helped her in hard times. “I feel it’s just a gift that’s been given to me,” she said.
Born in Denver, Robles-Shaw spent about five years of her childhood in the San Luis Valley. She remembers going to church on Wednesdays, Saturdays (“confession day”) and Sundays. In school art was a favorite class.
Before finishing her senior year at West High School, she dropped out to marry and start a family.
Her first child was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. She split up with her husband and cared for her daughter, who was in and out of hospitals frequently before she died in 1984 at the age of 17.
During her daughter’s illness, Robles-Shaw did as many a good New Mexican Catholic would: She prayed hard and sought help, particularly at the Sanctuary of Chimayo, a sacred site in New Mexico often associated with healing.
“Everybody tries to find a cure, and I was one of those,” she said. She also learned to appreciate her own strength of character and the generosity of others. She then met and married Michael Shaw.
Robles-Shaw made her first santo in 1991 at Michael’s urging. She was accepted into the Spanish Market in 1995 and decided to work at the craft full time just before the 1996 market.
“I thought if I could do it (make santos) full-time, I’d probably be a better painter,” she said. She now creates mainly retablos and altar screens that are distinguished by fine-lined drawing, extensive detailing and soft, rich colors.
Retablos by Robles-Shaw’s daughter, Roxanne Show, took two awards in the youth division last summer at the Spanish Market. But like most teens, Roxanne isn’t sure what direction she’ll take as she gets older.
“She has to jury when she turns 18,” Robles-Shaw said, referring to the highly competitive process for exhibiting at the Spanish Market. “That’s when it’s yea or nay.”
The santeros tradition began in New Mexico when that state was the frontier fringe – first of Spain, then Mexico and finally the United States. “Spanish New Mexico,” a two-volume series published last fall by the Spanish Colonial Arts Society and the Museum of New Mexico Press, chronicles the santeros tradition in the state. It shows a 1780 retablo by Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, one of the first and the one Ronn Miera calls his “seventh great-grandfather.”
Until the 1900s, artisans produced retablos, bultos (statues), elaborate altar screens and crucifixes. In the late 1800s, however, the train had arrived, bringing to New Mexico the mass-produced goods of the Industrial Revolution and ultimately an end to the classic era of the santero tradition.
In the 1920s, a romantic revival began with the formation of the Spanish Colonial Arts Society, which now holds two annual markets in Santa Fe, the Spanish Market and the smaller Winter Market the first weekend of December. They attract scores of santeros and other artisans, along with thousands of potential buyers.
New Mexico remains the wellspring of the santeros tradition in the West. From Albuquerque to Taos County, churches, museums and galleries seem full of icons, both old and new. In the past year alone, Alice and Larry Frank, author of “New Kingdom of the Saints,” entered into an agreement with the University of New Mexico for public display their collection, one of the largest private collections of New Mexican religious art; Santa Maria de la Paz opened its doors on the southern outskirts of Santa Fe, unveiling what New Mexico Magazine called “the largest collection of newly created Spanish Colonial style folk art in the country”; and new Stations of the Cross by Marie Romero Cash were blessed on Ash Wednesday at St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe.
Miera’s roots in the santeros tradition come directly from New Mexico. His father moved to Colorado from Taos before Ronn’s birth. Miera began making santos during the winter of 1993 when he was in charge of decorations for his parish church. Also around that time, he received intensive training in the art and culture of the Catholic Church when he served as a docent for the Treasures of the Vatican exhibit at the Colorado History Museum.
Even though Miera hated art class at Brighton High School, he is like a sponge as he seeks ideas for his own work from fellow santeros and other artists.
Distinguished by an unusually cheerful, bright palette, the style of his santos is constantly evolving as Miera experiments with different techniques, learning from his failures as well as his successes. Lately he has been inspired to try natural materials that approximate those used by santeros of the classic era.
To make gesso, he mixes gypsum with glue that he melts in a double boiler. The glue “smells awful. It’s made from the rotting hides and hoofs of cows,” he said.
Miera is among the santeros who believe that their role is not just that of artist but evangelist as well. He feels the Colorado santeros, compared to those of New Mexico, have less pressure to produce santos that have broad commercial appeal. “Maybe (the santeros’ work) is a little more sacred here,” he said.