Carlos José Otero’s New Mexican reach extends as deeply as the green pigment he gathers from the Placitas hillsides.
Otero is one of more than 200 artists who will flock to the Santa Fe Plaza in the 67th Annual Traditional Spanish Market on July 28-29. Visitors can see wood carvings, tinwork, colcha embroidery, hide painting, bultos, retablos, straw appliqué, furniture, weavings, jewelry, filigree, pottery and iron work.
Winner of the 2018 Masters Award for Lifetime Achievement, the Los Lunas-born santero carves bultos and retablos with the ease of a born sculptor.
Award-winners must have given back to the community as a teacher, artist and promoter of New Mexico’s Spanish traditions, be included in private and museum collections and be a Spanish Market award-winner.
The winner of four Best of Show awards, the self-taught Otero is a poet, musician and self-taught genealogist who directs the music program at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Peralta with his wife Vickie.
Books about the saints scatter across the coffee table beneath sweeping window views of the city and bosque in his Albuquerque living room. The histories of the saints and of the Spanish people spill from his lips like tumbling rosary beads.
“These are real people who contributed to the betterment of society throughout the ages,” he says of the saints. “We draw from that to do our work.”
Otero carves his figures using traditional cottonwood. He gathers, grinds and mixes his own pigments from the New Mexico landscape.
To create his paintbox, he sifts the dirt before immersing it in a gallon of water. After he shakes it, the color rises while the sediment falls. A second shake and all of the color descends. He blends the results with gum harvested from a peach or a cherry tree and it turns into paint. Old medicine bottles and spice containers double as paint jars.
To prepare his wooden canvas, he makes his own gesso from desert gypsum and rabbit hide glue. Piñon tree sap becomes varnish. He mixes it with 100 percent grain alcohol
“I tried tequila; it didn’t work,” he said.
Ask how much time he spends on a single piece and he shrugs.
“I’m not one to stick with one piece because I get sidetracked,” he said, explaining he hopscotches among his incomplete work.
He’s known for his earthy palette and meticulous carvings. He’s paid artistic homage to the Holy Family, the many Blessed Mothers, both Santo Niños (Atocha and Prague), San Ysidro, St. Francis and many more.
“My style is more folky,” he said, “less linear.”
He modeled his San Ysidro plow after a vintage version in the Palace of the Governors. His doves symbolize the Holy Spirit.
Both he and Vickie were raised Catholic.
“In my lifetime, I can say I missed church five times,” he said.
At lease one of those occurred in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive of 1967-68. Agent Orange gave him the cancer he’s battled for four years.
“There’s no remission from this,” he said. “The only thing is to keep the tumors at bay.”
Completely self-taught, Otero learned traditional techniques from books. He once carved Adam and Eve from upside down cottonwood roots. In his version, Adam lifts Eve to the apple tree.
“I wanted to implicate Adam,” he said.
“This is not just art for art’s sake,” he continued, “it transcends the visual into the spirituality. Every fiesta was around the happenings in the church in celebration of these saints.”
He juried into Spanish Market on his first try in 1996, when there were 80 artists competing for three openings. Each year, he and Vickie lead the procession from the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis de Assisi to the Plaza.
“The work is what really keeps me going,” he said. “Retirement to me is doing what you love.”