The Village Artist
by Cathy Wright
Editors' Note: The following is an excerpt from the newly released book Nicholas Herrera: Visiones de mi Corazón, published by LPD Press, July 2003. The book is written by Barbe Awalt and Paul Rhetts and contains three special essays, one of which is by Cathy Wright.
As we entered the new millennium, many of us reflected back on the incredible changes of the past 100 or so years. We are still reeling. Museums have changed, too, expanding the definitions and blurring the boundaries of what is considered art. While at one time folk arts were labeled "anonymous," through the twentieth century with progress in communications and travel, we have now come to know personally the people who produce folk art. Folk art is now accepted in fine-art museums on its own merits. Where once it was relegated to specialized art galleries and museums, now it is a viable reflection of our art history and culture. And, indeed, even though the majority of santeros are not formally trained, their obvious talents impinge on the category of "fine arts," refined not only in execution but also in concept. What makes folk art contemporary is its connection to our lives now. Nicholas Herrera's work has crossed over from religious iconography to the outsider, visionary folk art style typical of American folk art of the early 20th century, which reflects the social, economic, and political history of its makers.
I have always been impressed with Nick's abilities and experience as a folk artist - not just as a New Mexican santero, but also as an artist of experience and vision, who has a unique and personal way of manifesting his art in a traditional folk art form. As with most visionary folk artists, Nick records his own social and political perceptions in a way that confronts the viewer; the art is meant to "shake one up," make one come out of his or her complacent, safe space. One can almost feel and see Nick's experience first-hand. His art is evocative, shocking, and blunt; at once spiritual, humorous, satirical, and sometimes sad. There are few among us who can make such a recent and direct connection with their history.
As a museum curator working for many years in the American Southwest studying the historic and contemporary Hispano arts, and in getting to know the artists, one thing that has impressed me most is the degree that santeros are willing to help each other find their own artistic path and to give back to their community. Nicholas Herrera is no exception. From teaching small children how to make retablos to galvanizing a group of artists to create a new altar screen for a renovated church, Nicholas has developed his craft fully. His inherent talent and natural need to create reveal a deep connection to his past. His close friendship with other notable santeros has not influenced his unique style and sense of humor. His work remains distinctive, influenced only by their enthusiasm and support.
Nicholas is still truly a New Mexican "village" artist, residing in the community he grew up in, living on his family's land in close proximity to the people and places he is part of. But Nick is of the present, too. While carrying on a family tradition of making religious images, his work also comments on society today, sometimes making himself a part of it. In expanding his repertoire to include carvings besides santos, he has made a connection with an historic past, as well as illuminated us (and other Hispanos) to his place in today's world, whether it be riding a motorcycle, fixing up a low rider, making art about today's social ills (such as the group of skeletons gambling in Casi-no or Los Alamos Death Truck), or taking care of a young daughter. We are always preparing for his blunt statements and outrageous behavior, and we are always pleased at his delightful sense of play and deep feelings for his family and friends.
Cathy Wright is the Chief Curator and Taylor Museum Director at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Colorado Springs, Colorado
Copyright 2003. May not be reproduced in any form without written permission.