New Mexico Culture

Multicultural Multiplicity

Monterey Bay California USA

Russell Sanchez, San Ildefonso, Polychrome water jar. 2018.
Photo courtesy King Galleries.

Five award-winning artists showcase the state's distinctive heritage — and unique creative pursuits.

— By Eve Tolpa

New Mexico Culture

Russell Sanchez and Arthur López, Immaculate Conception and Avanyu Jar.
Photo courtesy King Galleries.

A BRIGHTLY PAINTED CHRIST CHILD AND LAMB adorn a stone-polished clay vessel, which San Ildefonso potter Russell Sanchez built coil by coil and contemporary santero (an artist who creates religious artwork) Arthur López painted with natural pigments. Avanyu, a Pueblo symbol of cleansing, curls around the back of a dual-handled water jar formed in the traditional San Ildefonso style. A wood-carved form of the Virgin Mary tops the vessel, Immaculate Conception and Avanyu Jar. Sanchez describes the piece and the artists' broader Cross Cultures series as "bringing two cultures together to show they can co-exist."

Sanchez's words are also appropriate for New Mexico, a state where three interdependent cultures trade artistic influences: Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo. Here indigenous techniques for weaving, pottery, and basket making pass from generation to generation, as do Spanish Colonial traditions such as wood carving, tinwork, and depictions of saints. At the same time, painters and photographers from all over the country (and world) continue to be drawn to the state's stunning golden light in order to press the boundaries of contemporary creations. Each year, a half-dozen of the state's best artistic residents receive the Governor's Awards for Excellence in the Arts. Established in 1974 by Governor Bruce King and first lady Alice King, it honors individual artists and artistic organizations, spanning multiple genres while celebrating the role that the arts — both performing and visual — play in the state's culture and economy. Sanchez and four other artists have earned this honor. Their work demonstrates New Mexico's aesthetic of multiplicity, from Sanchez's pottery to the santeros like Arlene Cisneros Sena. Landscape photographer Michael Berman, painter Ed Sandoval, and contemporary artist Tony Abeyta demonstrate the breadth of the state's fine art.

New Mexico Culture

Russell Sanchez
Portrait by Will Wilson


San Ildefonso Pueblo, the birthplace and home of potter Russell Sanchez, is celebrated worldwide for its earthenware. Sanchez recounts the ancient techniques — "digging your own clay, mixing your own clay, coilbuilding, hand-sanding, slipping with natural slips" — and maintains that his work "will always be rooted in the old styles." Among the pueblo motifs he employs, two of the most well-known are Avanyu, the water serpent, and feather designs.

The San Ildefonso tradition calls for outdoor firing, an unpredictable process with a high breakage rate. While his pueblo's pots generally fall into the 6-inch range, Sanchez likes to create pieces nearly double that size. They might take two or three years — and, he says, "if it's a really large pot, you're lucky if you can get one out of four done." In pottery, as in life, disappointment is inevitable, but, says Sanchez, "you take it and you learn and grow from it."

While Sanchez keeps ancestral methods alive, he's also constantly innovating. San Ildefonso pottery is renowned for its highly polished black-on-black ware, which results from firing with manure and was famously perfected by Maria Martinez and her husband, Julian. Sanchez established a technique for creating a similar finish, one that utilizes a mica-based black slip instead. "It's become extremely popular," he says, adding that in 2016, "I reintroduced a very deep rich red slip, which hadn't been used since the 1920s."

Sanchez won't allow himself to repeat work. "My style will change drastically from one group to the next," he says. "Every now and then I will collaborate with other artists. I like to work with people who are open to new ideas." One such artist is contemporary santero Arthur López, with whom he worked on the Cross Cultures series featuring wooden carvings and paintings by López. "Along the way, the piece will change quite a bit," Sanchez says of the process. "That's part of the fun, though, letting it evolve and letting it transform itself."

During his 30-plus-year career, Sanchez's work has been shown at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, Santa Fe's Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, and the Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles, among other venues. "I truly believe art is alive, and it speaks," he says. "What I'm doing right now is letting the clay speak to me and keep pushing. There is a Tewa [the language of San Ildefonso] saying: ‘This is what I do. Take it and make it yours.'"


FROM LEFT: San Isidro Labrador, Bendito Tu Eres, Arlene Cisneros Sena.
Corrie Photography. Copyright Arlene Cisneros Sena.

New Mexico Culture

Arlene Cisneros Sena


Arlene Cisneros Sena's roots in northern New Mexico stretch back more than eight generations. "I come from a family of artists," she says. "I've been an artist all my life. I love to paint. When I came to santos, it was something where I fit, where I found peace. It's where my joy comes from."

As a santera, Sena employs age-old Spanish Colonial techniques, including making her own gesso and using natural pigments. At the same time, her style and message reflect the particularity of her own vision. Sena has very personal relationship with saints, and her work imbues them with a warmth and humanity seldom present in historical depictions of religious figures, which tend toward austerity. She is especially partial to nativity scenes, and she considers the softness of her figures' features to be a "feminine twist," noting, "Santos need to look friendly."

Her pieces are often accented with gold leaf, a rarity in the traditional method. Sena chalks up her affinity for the material to all the years she spent in Catholic school, where, "for a job well done you were rewarded with either a gold star or a holy card decorated with gold foil. I often say I was nun-raised," she adds with a laugh.

Sena's connection to her home state forms her bedrock, both in faith and creative expression. "We who live in New Mexico know that it is a unique and special place," she says, citing not only the artwork but the food, language, music, and culture. "We name our streets after saints. It's our identity. It's who we are."

She often works on large-scale projects for churches, recently completing a retablo of Our Lady of Fatima for her home church, St. Ann's, in Santa Fe. In the past, she has completed stations of the cross for various churches in Arizona and for the Bishop of Gallup's private chapel. Being able to express herself in a context so near to her heart, Sena says, is "a tremendous blessing."


Cottonwood, Michael Berman.
Photo courtesy Obscura Gallery.

New Mexico Culture

Michael Berman
Portrait courtesy Michael Berman.


"When you pass beyond language" — that's how landscape photographer Michael Berman defines the act of seeing. "With a lot of the projects, I spend maybe 10 to 15 years looking, not even taking photographs." For Berman, integral to the creation of art is "seeing what's there rather than what's in your head."

Born and raised in New York City, Berman was introduced to the Gila in southern New Mexico while attending Colorado College; later he settled in Silver City. "The reason I am in New Mexico is the Gila," he says. "It really is to me some of the last truly wild places on the planet. There still is space down here." Historically, he is in good company. New Mexico's wild spaces have been attracting photographers since the inception of the medium, and the state has played host to 20th-century luminaries such as Edward Weston, Paul Strand, and Ansel Adams.

For the last few years Berman has been exploring the wilderness along the U.S.–Mexico border. "Often borders are in the hardest or harshest places to access in a landscape," he observes. "The reality of the border is that people pay more attention to things." He aims to illuminate the landscape's subtleties, and that focus dovetails perfectly with his own creative orientation. "One of the powers of being an artist," he says, "is you can bring attention to things that are not seen."

Recently, he spent time in Mongolia. He has also explored the very remote area where New Mexico, Arizona, Sonora, and Chihuahua more or less converge. "I tend to wander," he says. "There's kind of a magic to not knowing where you are going." Berman shows his work in many formats, but he especially enjoys creating 480-plate installations that feature hundreds of small images. He compares these intricate compositions to retablos, "which connect the world to our lives," adding, "They take a crazy long time to make."

A 2008 Guggenheim Fellow with work in institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Berman photographs exclusively in black and white. Similarly, he has only ever worked in the landscape genre. "Those two things have stayed the same," he says. "Sometimes you need to do something simple to do something complex."


St. Francis, Taos, Ed Sandoval.
Photos courtesy Ed Sandoval.

New Mexico Culture

Ed Sandoval
Portrait courtesy Ed Sandoval.


Northern New Mexico's landscapes and seasonal rhythms of life inspire Ed Sandoval's oil paintings, and his impressionistic pieces capture everything from glowing autumn chamisa to parishioners exiting a snow-capped adobe church, all beneath dynamic desert skies.

Sandoval's childhood bridged two worlds. His father worked on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, where Sandoval attended school, but the family also had a ranch in Nambé. "I loved the rural world of northern New Mexico," he says, "the feeling, the faith, the energy, the culture, the diversity of people." A career in art education took him to the University of Utah, but he eventually returned, settling in Taos and opening his eponymous gallery on the plaza. There he's a wellknown presence, not only for his artwork but for his eccentricities. "I'm Salvador Dalí the second," Sandoval says, "and I'm always dressed up in different clothes, different hats, sometimes a cape. I like to ride around town on my Arabian horse with a mask dressed as Zorro."

Taos suits him. "I love country and western dancing at the Sagebrush Inn, drinking at the Taos Inn, intermingling with artists," Sandoval says. "I work every day, unless I'm riding my horse or soaking at Ojo Caliente. New Mexico is considered the Land of Enchantment," he adds. "I call it the Land of Entrapment, because once you visit here, you do not want to leave."

A handful of 19th-century French artists — Cezanne, Monet, and Degas — as well as van Gogh influence his work. "I like movement and texture and expressions of color," Sandoval says. "I've been trained to paint realistically, but that doesn't turn me on. If you want a photograph, go buy a photograph." He recently created an homage to Modigliani, painting a woman posed in an S-curve. "I turned it into a New Mexico scene, with an adobe in the background," he notes, "and in her hand she's holding a ristra."

Sandoval maintains that artists' personalities are reflected in their work, and his own style is instantly recognizable for its intricate brushstrokes and vivid palette. "Why is color so important to me? All you've got to do is go outside," he says. "The sky, the trees, the mountains — it's a total inspiration here."


Dancing Skies, Tony Abeyta.
Photo courtesy the Owings Gallery

New Mexico Culture

Tony Abeyt
Portrait courtesy Jennifer Esperanza


Tony Abeyta's work springs from his Navajo heritage while also transcending it. "I identify as Native American, and the art really emerges out of that," he says. "Everything is based in the spirit within nature, animals, ancestral ideas about who we are, though I paint whatever I want to."

His creative expression isn't limited to painting. "I do large-scale black-and-white drawings, I do modern landscapes. Other days, I work on jewelry. Some days I want to construct, so I make three-dimensional paintings or sculpture." How does Abeyta choose? "I don't always get to decide. It depends on how the muse shows up."

Abeyta does open-air research for his landscapes, but the hands-on work takes place in his Santa Fe studio. "I learned the hard way. I can control all the elements inside the studio." In any case, he says, he is not overly concerned with accuracy. "The landscapes are more emotional — how I respond to the environment."

A lot of Abeyta's pieces are created alongside music (he's partial to hip-hop and rhythm and blues), which influences everything from the colors to the dramatic shapes and lines. "My black-and-white drawings respond directly to rhythm in music," he says. Visually, Abeyta looks to American modernism and the Taos Society of Artists for inspiration, but he shies away from identifying too strongly with anything outside of his own experience, which forms the aesthetic core for his imagery.

Abeyta's art is constantly reinventing itself. "Every decade I reflect and ask, ‘What is the next chapter?' I had no idea as a young painter or artist that I'd be able to make and create art for a living, which is kind of a blessing." His work sells worldwide and can be found in institutions from the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

He divides his time between Berkeley, California, and Santa Fe, which he considers a mecca for artists. "It's kind of my creative base," Abeyta says. "We get to pick where we call home, and I think of it as here."