Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Roseta Santiago evolved from dangling from a 60-foot Bass Pro Shop mural to painting lyrical evocations of the Southwest.
The self-taught artist worked as a graphic designer creating restaurant logos and menus in the Atlanta area and designed Miami nightclubs before chasing her dreams to Santa Fe.
Today, her work has been exhibited at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis, as well as Denver’s Coors Western Show and the Settlers West Miniatures Show in Tucson. She is represented by Santa Fe’s Blue Rain Gallery.
Santiago painted indigenous wildlife for 30 Bass Pro Shops, soared on scissor lifts, eventually designing and building restaurants across the U.S., Puerto Rico and Costa Rica.
“I was baptized by fire,” she said. “I know I got my work ethic from my father,” she added. “He was a chef for Harry Truman. He joined the Navy (illegally) at 15.”
As a little girl, she had always loved to draw. But when she became the divorced single mother of a 2-year-old, financial obligations sidetracked her dreams.
In 2000, she began researching Santa Fe. Many artists would be intimidated by uprooting to an area packed with 200 galleries and some 3,000 artists.
“I said, ‘That’s perfect for me’,” Santiago said. “I don’t look at competition. I will do 100% of what I can do. I’m still evolving.”
Her work ranges from sensitive Native American portraits to homages to artists such as Oscar Berninghaus and Martin Hennings of Taos Society of Artists fame.
She learned to paint with oils by copying the masters. John Singer Sergent, Rembrandt and Vermeer taught her how to evoke light.
An epiphany flooded her when she realized she wanted to give the viewer a dramatic focal point to look at so that they would grasp what she was trying to express.
Santiago knew she had accomplished that goal as she watched two 12-year-olds running around her first gallery. Her portrait of a Chinese scholar sitting with a pile of books riveted them.
“When they came to the painting, they came to a screeching stop,” she said. “I thought, ‘That’s exactly what I want people to do.’ ”
In “Honoring the Ancestors,” she placed her young Navajo model before the craggy grandeur of the Grand Canyon.
“She resonates when you get a Navajo blanket on her,” Santiago said. “Something happens; it’s magic. She is traditional, but she’s also contemporary. She’s a Native activist.”
Her tribute to Berninghaus features two figures with a trio of horses set to a Taos Mountain background.
“They are still doing the same things,” Santiago said. “They are still living history.”
“Journey of the Heart” shows a Native American model rowing a canoe in a nod to her favorite painting at London’s Tate Modern.
The Tate’s “The Lady of Shalott” by J.W. Waterhouse is an 1888 tribute to a poem by Tennyson.
Imprisoned in a tower, she weaves a tapestry until she spots Sir Lancelot’s face in a mirror. She flees the tower and floats down a river in a canoe in search of Camelot, where she dies.
“I almost fell on the floor because of the emotion,” Santiago said. “I was there like for two hours. I promised myself that I would paint that painting.
“That was 40 years ago. The whole point of that is surrendering to what you love. It’s an homage to Waterhouse and to my life.”