James Córdova, A Santero Pushing The Tradition
Story and photos by Don Toomey

It is somewhat unusual to talk to a young santero and have him lucidly describe for you where he has come from, how and why he has arrived at this particular point, and define for you, in the clearest manner, where he is going with his art career. Such is the grasp and understanding of James Córdova's personal ambitions that he is able to define his career goals so well.

James Córdova was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His parents are native born New Mexicans. His mother from a small village in northern New Mexico called Questa, and his father from the closeby village of San Cristobal. The family has not done any archival research as to their New Mexican roots, but his paternal grandfather has put together a verbal history that traces the family back for at least six generations. His mother's paternal grandfather had originally settled in Pojoaque and later moved to Questa. The family has both Spanish and French origins, and as James says, "I believe we also have Pueblo Indian roots too. I have been told that my great-great grandmother was from Picuris Pueblo." James was raised in a family with an older brother and sister. As to being raised in a traditional Hispanic Catholic family setting where Spanish was spoken, James said, "I would say that being brought up in the late 70s and early 80s my upbringing was as traditional as that particular time period allowed. We were raised as Catholics, and Church, family, and culture were important elements. I spoke Spanglish; I could not speak Spanish. My parents spoke Spanish to one another, but English to the children. We could understand Spanish, in part, but were unable to communicate in Spanish." James laments this fact and notes this was particularly frustrating when he visited his grandparents and attempted to communicate with them. He says, "When I visited with my extended family I almost felt like an outsider, since I had to use my parents as interpreters. I believe I lost part of my culture, and I feel deprived that I did not get to know my grandparents more fully." Over the years James has made a conscious effort to learn Spanish, so that now he is able to communicate with native speakers.
Questioned if there was anyone in the family practicing traditional crafts or art, James replied that his brother Lawrence began painting retablos almost two years ago, and in 1998 was accepted into Spanish Market. In 1999 he was juried and accepted into Market for bultos. He added that his father also paints retablos, but not on a regular basis, and that his mother has tried her hand doing colcha.

James did his primary and secondary education in Santa Fe, and is a 1992 graduate from Santa Fe High School. He is presently attending Tulane University in New Orleans, where he is majoring in art history leading to a second masters degree. He earned his bachelors degree from New Mexico State University at Las Cruces, and received his first masters degree from Seton Hall University in New Jersey. He began his course of study at Tulane in the Fall of 1998, and is very pleased with his department since it has some of the top scholars in both Precolumbian art and Spanish Colonial art. As to his future plans, he says, "I am aware that I have the skills as an artist to engage in it as a full-time professional, but I choose not to do this. Mainly because I am attracted to the scholarly aspect of the art world." He plans to pursue a Ph.D. program in art history either at Tulane or the University of Chicago. He is attempting to diversify his skills so that when he finishes his doctorate he will have several options to pursue.

When James was queried as to how he became serious about creating devotional art he replied, "Being brought up a Catholic, and exposed to religious art had a decided early influence on me." He elaborated, noting that some of his earliest memories are of his father painting retablos, landscapes, and family portraits. "So of course, as a young child I wanted to grow up to be exactly like him. I would attempt to imitate what he was doing, and that developed and continued with me, and fostered in me the desire to do drawings of religious imagery." In 1988 one of his friends, Gilbert Quintana, took a course in retablo painting with Charlie Carrillo at the Museum of International Folk Art. He informed James he was going to be showing his retablos in the youth category of Spanish Market and asked James to stop by and see him. James says, "At that point I had not even heard of Spanish Market, and really did not know much about retablos. Nonetheless I went to Market and was very attracted to his art, but I was perhaps more impressed with all of the other religious art that was being shown. The fact that I was already interested in the artform helped to excite my interest."

At that point James' father mentioned that he was friendly with a Santa Fe santero, Rubén Montoya, and reminded James that Rubén had created the altarscreen at the family parish of St. John the Baptist. That very day James went to the church to look more closely at the altarscreen, and even made sketches from it. Later his father cut him some pine panels and knowing nothing about the procedures he painted an image of San Antonio directly onto the pine board. This was in 1988 and James was fourteen years old.
From then on things happened rather quickly. He continued painting retablos, mainly on his own, and he says, "That first year I looked at a lot of historical paintings in books, and continued to work on my painting skills." He then applied to become a participant in the youth category of Spanish Market for 1989. That year his booth was situated adjacent to santero José Ramón López. James says, "Ramón befriended me and began to give me tips, such as what gesso was and how I should use it, and just general good all around advice. He suggested I go to the Museum of International Folk Art and spend time studying their collections. I followed his sage advice and things began to snowball from that point on. In 1991 I attended a workshop at the Museum of International Folk Art on traditional methods, given by Ramón López and Charlie Carrillo. Here I was exposed to the usage of natural pigments. I felt that I was ready to move away from using watercolors and follow the more traditional methodology. This was also the time I began to carve bultos."

When James was questioned if he found that both painting and carving came easily to him, he replied, "I have been doing this for about eleven years, and there is always a challenge involved. Initially, the challenge was how do I do this? How do I make it look the way I want it to? Now the challenges are somewhat different. Presently, it is more how do I make the images mean what I want them to mean? I don't prefer doing retablos over bultos; each represents a different challenge." His painting medium is water-based pigments, noting, "I am not so much of a purist anymore. At one point I was, and I wanted to do everything in the traditional manner. However I do believe this is a good starting point for all artists."
A year after James began painting retablos he thought if he was going to become a santero he needed to learn how to carve bultos. To this end his father advised him to talk to santero Rubén Montoya, and inquire if Rubén would be willing to teach him carving. James spoke to Rubén, and he agreed to take James under his wing. Reflecting on this time, James said, "In a way it was almost like serving an apprenticeship, but perhaps in a more informal manner than that label implies. When I watched Rubén carve it was an education in itself. This 'apprenticeship' lasted for several months. I would go to his home several times a week, and we would not necessarily carve together. We would talk, look at various images and discuss them. One day he took me into his backyard shop and said 'watch carefully, this is how I carve! He took his knife out and made several different angled cuts into a piece of wood. He made cuts of various angles to get the overall shape he was striving for, and he just kept on doing this until he got the desired shape. I said to him okay, and I went home, and following his instructions, produced a few relief pieces." From then on I just continued on my own creating bultos, and developing both my conceptual and carving techniques as I went along."

James was asked if he felt that the time he spent creating devotional art was a time for personal spiritual meditation? He responded, "It is a time of meditation for me, but creating santos is not just a spiritual act for me, it involves different parts of my mind, and I just sort of let my mind wander. It's a great time to recall memories; a quiet time during which I can have a dialogue with myself. For me, creating devotional art is a very spontaneous thing, it's not something I have to struggle with, but it is something in which I do feel guided."
In 1989 James Córdova applied to be in the adult Spanish Market. For the jurying process he submitted a retablo of Christ Carrying the Cross and a bulto of San Isidro. He noted the judging process was very informal at that time. "I took my pieces to the Spanish Colonial Arts Society office and left them there for a week. When I picked them up they said, 'No problems, you have been accepted!' There was some positive feedback, but I had already spent two years in the youth category and had won a few awards, so I was not what you would call a freshman. However, I do believe that the best critical feedback comes from your fellow artists and patrons. James most enjoys the sense of camaraderie and community that the event engenders. He says, "As a graduate student I am away from New Mexico most of the year, so Market becomes a time for me to become reacquainted with most of my artist friends. Really, Spanish Market is like a homecoming for me." On the down side, he finds that he personally seems to get more tired during the event than when he was a teenager. "It is a long two days. You deal with people constantly, and the weather can be pretty uncooperative." He says the whole thing brings about a case of stimulation overload. "So much descends upon you from all sides, that you undergo adrenaline overload!"

When we discussed the long line of historic New Mexico santeros and their impact and inspiration on his devotional art, James said, "You know, I cannot point to one particular historic santero and say he has been my inspiration. This is because each has a body of work, some of which is better than others, and I tend to selectively draw from all of them."
"During the time of our great historic santeros, I find there are several that tie for me. One of those is Molleno. I am drawn to his work because I enjoy seeing the progression of his style, the use of color, and the change of his imagery as he moved away from the influence of the Laguna Santero to his own sort of calligraphic style. I also like the work of the Truchas Master because it is so varied and interesting to observe, specifically because it is so asymmetrical. When you look at works by Molleno, the Laguna Santero, or the Aragons everything is very symmetrical. I believe people are readily drawn to objects that are symmetrical. Recently, I have had a chance to admire the works of Santero Bernardo Miera y Pacheco while I worked as an intern at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Here, they have two of his columns that were originally in the Zuni Pueblo Church, and they are spectacular just to look at, and not so much for their style, but in what they attempted to accomplish. It was his juxtapositioning of the artwork of the borderlands, which was New Mexico, compared to the more metropolitan Mexican area. That is the sort of thing that draws my interest; interpretation and variation on a theme."

Of contemporary santeros whose work has most impressed James Córdova, he said, "It is the art of Luis Tapia and Nicholas Hererra. I like their works because they are pushing the art in new directions. In directions that I hope to explore in the future. I am personally drawn to their overall style, that to me, emphasizes the contemporary aspects of identity and culture, and the interaction between different people. I believe that Tapia and Hererra have done a good job in creating a bridge to build upon. I am not about to follow their paths so much; my thrust will be somewhat different. Both of them have come from a real grassroot level, that is politically oriented. My approach will be somewhat different. Afterall, I did not grow up in the 60s when the Chicano movement was so prevalent. Mine was a different experience, but I am very attuned to their ideas of cultural identity and awareness. I am also coming from more of an academic background, and that will create a different set of happenings."

Awards and recognition have come early to santero James Córdova. As a participant in the youth category of Spanish Market he was the recipient of a number of ribbons for his retablos. His first year as an adult participant, he won the Bienvenidos Award for artwork showing exceptional promise by a first time exhibitor for a bulto of San Francisco. The next year he won the Hispanic Heritage Award for in-depth research, for his large bulto of San Francisco enclosed within a nicho, in addition to receiving a First Place for one of his retablos. A year later he received the SCAS Purchase Award, for an exceptional piece to be added to the Society's permanent art collection, for his Holy Trinity. In 1998, James received a First Place in retablos for his magnificent altar screen "Altar Anima Hispanica," which also garnered the Archbishop's Award, for a piece of art that portrays a religious theme in a traditional New Mexican style. Then at the close of 1998 James was honored by the city of Santa Fe with the Mayor's Award, given to recognize an emerging artist. 1998 was a very good year as far as awards to James Córdova were concerned.

Since James is a full-time graduate student very few galleries offer any of his works for sale. In the past he has sold pieces from the Montez Gallery in Santa Fe, and at the Potrero Trading Post in Chimayó. Only recently, he was able to place two retablos at Good Hands Gallery in Santa Fe, owned by his good friend Ramón López. Serious gallery affiliation will have to wait until James finishes his schooling.

As a santero James Córdova hopes that his devotional art will inform people where we as New Mexican artists are coming from. "I want to emphasize the overall traditions, and the directions we are presently taking them. I am personally striving to push the tradition in new directions, and that is my prime focus as a santero."

When finally questioned if there was a grand project that he hoped to complete in the near future he replied, "If you had asked me that three years ago I would have said I wanted to create a grand altarscreen; but I have already done that. My present grand challenge is to push the santero art tradition a little bit more."
Don Toomey is staff writer for Tradición Revista.

First published in Tradicion Revista, Volume 5, No. 2, Summer 2000.
Copyright 2000. May not be reproduced in any form without written permission.