Nicholas Herrera


(1964–),commonly known as the El Rito Santero (a maker of religious images from the village of El Rito), has been branded an outsider artist because his wildly unconventional polychrome woodcarvings of saints and other subjects turn traditional New Mexico santero themes on their heads. Though the artist frequently expresses religioussubjects in the traditional bulto (three-dimensional religious sculpture) and retablo (religious painting on wood) forms, his works are rough, unselfconscious reflectionsof the artist’s difficult personal experiences, strong opinions on social issues, and quirky outlook on ordinary life. His irregularly carved and painted images have beencriticized as crude, but Herrera’s purposeful imperfections reveal the artist’s desire for his works to look truly handmade.Herrera was born in a lush river valley, where, as a child, he collected river rocks and wood and turned them into whimsical artworks, only to take them back to theriver and watch them float away. A rebellious teen, Herrera fought, drank, and made trouble throughout high school before dropping out in eleventh grade. The only place where Herrera did not feel like a misfit was in the village morada,the meeting-house of the Penitente brotherhood, a lay religious order that Herrera joined atage fifteen. The structure was filled with polychrome paintings and carvings of saints, including one created by his late great-uncle, who had worked as the village santero before Herrera was born. Herrera’s early interest in art was revived, and he used time away from his construction and maintenance job at Los Alamos National Laboratory to begin replicating the morada artworks. Yet even his strong spirituality was overshadowed by alcohol and drugs.In 1990 Herrera’s drinking resulted in a car accident, and a subsequent near-death experience, that changed his life dramatically. Having survived the accident,Herrera quit drinking and left his job to practice art full time. Yet even as he created intensely spiritual images of saints, using cottonwood, homemade paints and gesso,and other traditional materials, Herrera’s offbeat personality emerged in original interpretations of religious themes. Herrera’s small retablos might portray a low-rider car as a long-suffering saint, for example, while his large bultos might depict death as a skeleton armed with an automatic weapon, or a life-size Christ dripping in blood. In both forms, Herrera’s hand-adzed technique is revealed in uneven surfaces and odd facial expressions.Herrera is perhaps best known for satirical commentaries on his profound life and death experiences, as well as those of others. In Los Alamos Death Truck, Herrera uses the traditional carreta de la muerte
(death cart) image to comment upon his former employment at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The piece portrays three garish work-a-day skeletons driving a flatbed truck filled with barrels of radioactive waste. Though such images have generated their share of controversy for the artist, Herrera’s twists on tradition remain respectful to the historical origins of santero art. Nonetheless, Herrera proves that even the most sacredof images are not sacred in the hands of an outrageously original artist.

Cirillo, Dexter.
Across Frontiers: Hispanic Crafts of New Mexico.
San Francisco, 1998.Rosenak, Chuck, and Jan Rosenak.
The Saint Makers: Contemporary Santeras and Santeros.
Flagstaff, Ariz., 1998