EL RITO SANTERO: Reclaiming a life in carved wood and found objects

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Above Photo by Peter Larsen Photography

Everything changed in 1992 for Nicholas Herrera.

“I had a head-on collision with a truck that hit the side of my car, and rolled it. I would have bled to death on a rural New Mexico highway, if a tall skinny hippie with a blanket hadn’t come along,” Herrera told us. While in a coma in the hospital, Nicholas dreamed he was floating down a river, as his dead relatives called to him from the banks. That night, he chose life on this side, and then art chose him. He knew what he wanted, and what he needed to do. “Carve religious art, though I didn’t know I was going to be a Santero. You don’t plan it; it happened — which is, I guess, the best way, because when you plan things, they don’t turn out the way you want them.

Steve Chambers’s planned visit to the rural New Mexico artist’s studio  turned out to more than the Texas architect and interior designer was looking for in unique Spanish Colonial art and interiors: it was a journey into how art changes lives.

A Shaky Beginning

Before the accident on the highway that night, Nicholas walked a wild and precariously thin line to his near-death experience. He was a rebel looking for trouble, fueled by “drugs and alcohol. When I was young, the schools didn’t know what to do with me. I was put in Special Education…to play all day. On my own time, I drew and carved cars, but I didn’t realize I could be an artist.” I became a firefighter for a while, but something was missing…meaning in my life.” Nicholas later discovered he was dyslexic.

A Visit to the Herrera Studio

We visited Nicholas Herrera, one of the most prominent folk artists in the US in his hometown of El Rito, near Abiquiu, New Mexico. His ancestors came to New Mexico in 1598 with Spanish Conquistador, Juan de Oñate was an explorer and colonial governor of the province of Santa Fe de Nuevo México in the viceroyalty of New Spain. Oñate led early Spanish expeditions to the Great Plains and Lower Colorado River Valley, and encountered numerous indigenous tribes in their homelands. Oñate founded settlements in the province, now the Southwest of the United States. He also destroyed the Acoma Pueblo, which is why today Oñate is a viewed as a controversial figure in New Mexican history. Recent DNA testing of Nicholas determined that he has Native American blood mixed with Spanish.

Prominence: A National Folk Art Treasure

Now, more than twenty-five years into his career as an Outsider Folk Artist, Herrera’s work is in the hands of private collectors and in forty museums, including the Smithsonian and Museum of Folk Art in NYC. Traditional Colonial Santero practices and contemporary cultural issues inform his art, which he gives a sly satirical twist. His town’s name of El Rito translates as “the ritual,” a fitting description for the manner in which Nicholas saved himself: a one-day-at-a-time ritual of creating whimsical sacred art by the hands of a self-described “half artist, half reformed outlaw.”

Nicholas still wonders at the path his life has taken, as he walks us through his El Rito studio grounds picking peaches, plums, and cherries. We ate fruit and talked with him about the impulse to create in order to stay alive. We remarked that many men live life as an unexamined drive-through. Nicholas’s life is an endless search for revelation and self-discovery. We are all the wiser and more fortunate that he chose to share a unique interpretation of his life through art. From his view this, and his walk with God, make him a complete man.

Nicholas Herrera is represented exclusively by Evoke Contemporary in Santa Fe, NM. For more information about this artist, contact Katherine Erickson.

Photography credit, unless otherwise noted, by Stephanie M. Chambers

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