NEA Arts Magazine

Charles M. Carrillo

Santero (Carver and painter of sacred figures) Santa Fe, New Mexico

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Nuestra Señora del Pueblito de Queretaro (Our Lady of the Village of Queretaro) bulto by Charles M. Carrillo

Nuestra Señora del Pueblito de Queretaro (Our Lady of the Village of Queretaro) bulto by Charles M. Carrillo. Collection of Paul Rhetts and Barbe Awalt. Photo by Ron Behrmann.  Courtesy of www.nmsantos.com

A trained archaeologist, Charlie Carrillo developed his interest in santeros during a research project in the late 1970s. He explained, "As I read through documents I was fascinated with all the references to santos....I decided one day to paint an image of [Santa Rosa de Lima] based on a historic picture I had seen of her from New Mexico." In 1980, Carrillo made his first appearance as a santero at New Mexicos Spanish Market, a biannual traditional crafts market.

Carrillo's work is in the permanent collections of museums, including the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, DC, the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, and the Denver Museum of Art. His honors include the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Spanish Market and the Museum of International Folk Arts Hispanic Heritage Award.

In this excerpt from an NEA interview, Carrillo spoke about what it takes to be a master artist, the traditional techniques of santeros, and why he remains compelled by his craft.

NEA: What special skills do you think santeros need?

CHARLES CARRILLO: You need the desire to understand traditions. 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. 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.

NEA: Are the techniques being used today different from the past?

CARRILLO: I've been the one pushing for the re-introduction of traditional pigments and other traditional elements. Twenty-five years ago at the Spanish 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.

Charles M. Carrillo shows his work during the 2006 NEA National Heritage Fellows concert

Charles M. Carrillo shows his work during the 2006 NEA National Heritage Fellows concert.  Photo by Tom Pich.

NEA: Why do you continue to be so invested in this work?

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.