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Santero enjoys journey in art

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The patron saint of gardeners straddles a bug-eyed praying mantis like some hybrid cowboy knight.

St. Michael steers a jumbo truck over a prone and crushed devil. Santo Niño perches on a dashboard beneath a pair of dangling dice.

Arthur López skews the traditions of Spanish colonial art with a scathing sense of satire and whimsy. This year, the Santa Fe santero scored a $50,000 grant from the Chicago-based nonprofit United States Artists. The win puts López in some heady company. Previous recipients have included the legendary jazz saxman Wayne Shorter (Miles Davis, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock and Joni Mitchell) and Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight,” “If Beale Street Could Talk”).

USA spokeswoman Shannon Lee said, “Arthur is a master at his woodworking craft and exemplifies the unique characteristics of the traditional arts field, which our panel has articulated as the continuity and evolution of preservation of a tradition and/or cultural heritage.”

Somewhat surprisingly, López didn’t grow up in an artistic home, although he’ll cop to a great-uncle who worked in New York for the predecessor comic strip to “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”

Both his parents were supportive. His father showed off his son’s drawings to his friends.

But the santero never thought he’d make a living as an artist.

The two-story Santa Fe home he shares with his wife, Bernadette, resembles an art museum packed with the bultos, retablos and crosses he bought or traded with friends. A backyard studio serves as his carving shed; a former porch/greenhouse houses his painting desk. He uses only watercolor or his own natural pigments, creating his own gesso from a mixture of rabbit hide glue and marble dust.

He credits his first art teacher, Santa Fe High School’s Gary Myers, with showing him how to see.

“If I was frustrated, he’d just say, ‘The best thing to do is to do 1,000 pieces, not the same piece 1,000 times,’ ” López said.

López attended Eastern New Mexico University for two years, taking second place for his first art competition. He studied design in Tempe, Ariz., and then returned to Santa Fe and worked for a real estate weekly. He commuted to Albuquerque as an assistant art director. He nearly moved to New York to take a similar position for Macy’s catalog when his father developed throat cancer.

López returned to the family’s Santa Fe home and cared for his father until he died three months later.

“After he died, I just had this passion to want to paint retablos,” López said. “I had this powerful desire to draw and paint. I had never done sculpture.

“I saw the 3-D figures and I was so taken. They were so artistic and beautiful.”

He researched local libraries and museums, asking Spanish Market artists for advice. He went to El Rancho de Las Golondrinas to watch the wool dyers work with natural pigments. He picked up his first piece of wood, a dead piece of aspen, in Hyde Park and began carving a figure of the Virgin Mary. The resulting unpainted piece still sits on his night table.

López juried into his first Traditional Spanish Market the first time he entered, in 1998. The Museum of International Folk Art bought a piece within six months. He calls his style “contemporary traditional.”

“I learned all the basics and moved on from there,” López said. “I never wanted to be known as a follower. I’ve always been attracted to people and things that make me laugh. Even as an altar boy, I was so afraid of looking at the crucifixes because they were so bloody.”

A 5-foot-long crucified Christ encased in a glass box serves as his coffee table.

Sometimes, he’ll unwittingly step into controversy. He once crafted a bulto of a priest confessing to an altar boy amid the turmoil of the abusive-priest scandals. He titled it “Forgive me son.” Some of his Catholic friends were offended.

“I was so mad and appalled by it,” he said. “It was during the (2002) Cardinal Law scandal in Boston.” Bernard Law resigned amid accusations of a cover-up by The Boston Globe.

A visit to López’s backyard studio reveals unpainted carvings of the Holy Family and a snail he calls “Low and Slow.”

“It’s going to have a lowrider,” he said. “The snail is going to be metallic red with pinstriping.”

He’s already carved it a sombrero.

He learned he’d been nominated for the award about a year ago, then forgot about it until he got the phone call.

“Honestly, I cried,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw the names. It’s great company, to be sure.

“We have a kid at UNM and one who will be there in a year. I’m definitely not going to put it on red at the casino.”