by Barbe Awalt and Paul Rhetts
Trade Paper: ISBN 1-890689-13-0; $39.95 (soft)
Trade Cloth: ISBN 1-890689-05-x; $49.95 (hard)
2003, 128 pp; 424 color and b/w photographs
FINALIST IN ARTS CATEGORY, FOREWORD MAGAZINE 2003 BOOK OF THE YEAR
2003 SOUTHWEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR/TUCSON
2004 DIY BOOK AWARD
The book has been written by Barbe Awalt and Paul Rhetts of Albuquerque with photos by John T. Denne of Llano Largo. There are essays by Dr. Charles Carrillo, author and santero; Cathy Wright, Director of the Taylor Museum; and Chuck Rosenak, author and collector.
Barbe Awalt and Paul Rhetts are the publishers of Tradición Revista magazine, which focuses on the Hispanic art and culture of the American Southwest, and have published seven books on Hispanic art and culture. They have also curated a exhibit on New Mexican santos - "Our Saints Among Us" - that is travelling to museums and arts center throughout the country through 2002. They are the authors of Charlie Carrillo: Tradition & Soul and Our Saints Among Us, co-editors of Seeds of Struggle - Harvest of Faith, and co-authors of The Regis Santos: Thirty Years of Collecting.
NEW MEXICO MAGAZINE
Many a saint started as a notorious sinner -- Saint Augustine is only one example that comes to mind. And the tradition of the santero, or the artist who produces carved or wooden saints, is also a spiritual one. That is, a santero usually has a spiritual as well as aesthetic purpose to his or her work. Therefore, the story of a journey from bad boy to santero is a compelling one -- exemplified by the life of Nicholas Herrera. Herrera comes from El Rito, and is one of the most original santeros working today. As carver and painter, some of his work is squarely in the northern New Mexico tradition – St. Francis stands among flowering trees, the Holy Family makes its way on the Flight to Egypt. But unusual, personal and contemporary touches are everywhere -- San Miguel Archangel slay “dragons” composed of symbols of addiction, such as beer cans; a figure of death rides not just in a traditional cart but also on a motorcycle.
Among the most fascinating work portrayed here is that which responds to current events. Lady Liberty, with torch upraised, is treated like the traditional figure of a saint. Sept. 11 brought forth an outpouring of work – Santa Barbara, who traditionally protects against fire, is seen holding the Twin Towers in memory of the firefighters and all who died. A witty grouping portrays the Clintons -- along with Monica Lewinsky.
In terms of personal iconography, Herrera works a lot with cars, bikes and trucks. Noah’s Ark is portrayed as a truck carrying a wide load, while in another piece a policeman has pulled aside a vehicle emblazoned in flames and is having the driver walk the line. This book combines biography and criticism, but most importantly it brings Herrera’s vivid work to a wider audience. -- Miriam Sagan, New Mexico Magazine, December 2003
Nicholas Herrera is a versatile santero from El Rito. He does contemporary themes, including political and social commentary, scenes of village and family life, as well as the traditional subjects of retablos and bultos. The book contains over 400 examples of Herrera's art including many of his black and white drawings. His work reflects his unique style as well as his heritage and background. One very evident fact is his special sense of humor. The book includes essays by Charlie Carrillo, Cathy Wright, and Chuck Rosenak. Awalt and Rhetts document Herrera's personal life as well as his artistic progress. The illustrations are in full color. The majority of the photographs were taken by John T. Denne. There is a bibliography and an index. -- Marcia Muth, Enchantment, November 2003
The man who wears his heart in his art
Describing art as “traditional” can mean strict expectation of detail and origin, a predictable orientation of materials and intent, or a faithful reiteration of existing examples. Only by using the most fundamental meaning of tradition taken from the Latin to “hand over, deliver, entrust” can Nick Herrera’s art be considered traditional.
The man called El Rito Santero has taken up the family calling of a carver (his great-uncle was José Inés Herrera, El Santero de la Muerte), delivers biting social commentary and Chaucerian irony while drawing on religious faith practiced as an hermano de los Penitentes. Living in the same small village in Northern New Mexico in which he grew up, Herrera breathes life into his figures by combining expected traditional elements (primary colors, rough, so-called primitive wood carving) with unexpected modern devices — Pasando por el Rancho (2001), a muerte seated on a red tractor; El Padre, El Hijo y Espiritú Santo (2002), three heads with joined bodies and hundreds of hearts wrenched open, impaled, bound with wire — the book could only have been called Visiones de mi Corazón/Visions of My Heart.
Introductory essays — “The Village Artist” by Cathy L. Wright, chief curator and director of the Taylor Museum; and “The El Rito Santero” by Chuck Rosenak, author and collector—an epilogue by Dr. Charles M. Carrillo, author and santero, and text by Barbe Awalt and Paul Rhetts provide able commentary for the exceptional wealth of color photographs, 357 irresistible images in a 128-page book.
The body of the book is divided into a personal history and artist’s journey called “Milestones” while the second part, “The Art,” is divided again to consider various themes and media. Contemporary art or folk art? Clearly, Herrera has moved beyond clichéd expectations of traditional Hispanic art. The chapter “Spanish Market -- Don’t Folk With Me” is outspoken and heartfelt. Choosing to explore his unique vision, acknowledging that this vision comes from listening to his heart, Nick Herrera has created a “take-no-prisoners” body of work — from achingly beautiful altar screens to bleakly evocative monoprints, from thick carved hearts you can literally put your hand through to detailed paintings of village life, from death carts and crucifixions to the restored 1939 coupe that went to the Folk Art Museum with a skeleton in it — Herrera’s passion for life and the life around him is contagious. While professional critics are trying to figure him out and where he might fit in the “santero tradition,” there is a real possibility that these Visions of the Heart, religious or rowdy, are tradition come alive for those who know what it like to grow up in Northern New Mexico. -- Barbara Riley, Santa Fe New Mexican, July 27, 2003
This is a book with precious illustrations especially of his work and a content worth learning. -- Lizette Collado, El Hispano News, August 15, 2003
The collaborative effort of Barbe Awalt and Paul Rhetts, Nicholas Herrera: Visions Of My Heart is a remarkable art history and biography of Nicholas Herrera, an Hispanic sculptor and folk artist possessed with a unique vision that encompasses god, political perceptions, and the stirring of emotion within the human breast. Vibrant full-color photographs by John T. Denne of Herrera's masterworks enhanced the thoughtful commentary essays of Cathy L. Wright, Chuck Rosenak, and Charles M. Carillo which along with the main text and individual captions, combine for an truly memorable introduction to a unique artist in terms of his life and his work. -- Midwest Book Reviews, July 2003
Collectors take note: Paul Rhetts and Barbe Awalt have co-authored several lush art books profiling regional art of the Southwest. The latest is Nicholas Herrera: Visions of My Heart (LPD Press), an appreciation of an outsider artist poised for international fame. -- Bucknell World, January 2004
The title Visions of My Heart suits this inspired book about New Mexico santero Nicholas Herrera, whose artistic range demonstrates a vision that draws from his unfathomable heart, ingenious mind, deft hands and a sense of his own abilities. Barbe Awalt and Paul Rhetts have produced another outstanding addition to their expanding list of books and other works about the art and artists of Northern New Mexico.
Nicholas (Nick) Herrera is called El Santero de El Rito after the northern New Mexico village where he was born, grew up and continues to live and work. He carries on the family tradition of woodcarving, following his great-uncle José Inéz Herrera, who also was a respected santero. Beginning his artistic endeavors by creating retablos (two-dimensional images) and bultos (three-dimensional figures) of santos, or saints, Nick Herrera has expanded upon that tradition by creating an array of artwork raging from traditional to modern, from sorrowful to whimsical and humorous. Over 400 pieces of his work are presented in Visiones de mi Corazón including santos, crucifixes, muertes (images of Death), diablos (devils), sculptures and other imagery of hearts, pictorials painted on canvas, retablos, black-and-white drawings and altar screens. His work speaks for itself, stirring both the heart and the imagination.
Biographical sketches and anecdotes providing insightful views of Herrera are found in the foreword by Cathy L. Wright, Director of Taylor Museum of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, as well as in the prologue by Chuck Rosenak, New Mexico author-collector and text by Awalt and Rhetts. There is no “glossing-over” of difficult times he has faced. After surviving a near-fatal automobile accident, Herrera feels he is living on borrowed time. This books shows that he is making excellent use of that time and is committed to using it to do what he wants to do, without letting outside pressures or constraints deter him.
Many photographs of Herrera, his activities, family, and friends were taken by photographer John T. Denne, who has been documenting the artist’s life and work for over a decade. The text on every page devoted to his art is accompanied by stunning photographs in vivid color and sharp detail. Awalt, Rhetts and others also contributed photos.
Charles M. (Charlie) Carrillo, noted New Mexico santero, wrote the book’s epilogue. Older than Herrera, Carrillo has been a long-time friend and mentor, observing his growth from a restless young man to “a respected artist with a growing international reputation.”
The pages of Nicholas Herrera: Visiones de mi Corazón, Visions of My Heart clearly exhibit the professional planning and execution that went into its production. Final pages comprise a bibliography listing published sources about Herrera and his work, collections containing his art and his exhibitions and shows. Photo credits and an index are also included. All who are interested in the art and artists of New Mexico will want to add this book to their collections. -- Phyllis Morgan, SouthWest BookViews, Autumn 2003
Here is the story of Nicholas Herrera and his exquisite hand carved and painted art that expresses his love for his culture. He is a traditional and visionary artist that pushes the boundaries. His work is often in museums and galleries throughout the country. I highly recommend this book. It is so rich in history, culture, and folk art. It is especially a wonderful teaching tool for young people on how one man's life turns around through his art. People consider him one of the leading artists of his generation. Teachers will find this man's life, photographs and art a wonderful conduit to encourage students to explore how they can develop their talents as they mature. Anyone who visits New Mexico should read this book. They will discover a greater appreciation for New Mexico and this style of art. -- Mary Smith, Reviewers Consortium
In effect, this book by Barbe Awalt and Paul Rhetts is a virtual catalog tour of the life, family traditions, and artistic works of Nicholas Herrera. In her essay entitled “The Village Artist,” Cathy Wright captures Herrera’s character with succinct prose. She writes: “I have always been impressed with Nick’s abilities and experience as a folk artist—not just as a New Mexican santero, but also as an artist of experience and vision, who has a unique and personal way of manifesting his art in a traditional folk art form. As with most visionary folk artists, Nick records his own social and political perceptions in a way that confronts the viewer; the art is meant to ‘shake one up,’ make one come out of his or her complacent, safe space. One can almost feel and see Nick’s experience first-hand. His art is evocative, shocking, and blunt; at once spiritual, humorous, satirical, and sometimes sad. There are few among us who can make such a recent and direct connection with their history.” Wonderfully illustrated with colorful examples of Herrera’s artwork and collection (painting, sketches, tinwork, and carving, for example), this book is recommended to art historians and the general reader. -- Colonial Latin American Historical Review, Fall 2002
Must Read! -- Today's Books, May 2004
Today's Books rated this book in the top 10 percent of new book published and distributed in the U.S.
Nicholas Herrera: Visions of the Heart, published by LPD Press, reads as a cleaned-up version of the life of visionary carver and santero [maker of figures of the saints] Nicholas Herrera. Chronologically arranged and divided into thematic periods, the book shows the influences that make Herrera unique among New Mexican santeros and a favorite of both contemporary and outsider collectors.
The authors describe the artist's idyllic childhood in El Rito, a small town in New Mexico. Herrera is part of a large Spanish-Indian family that has a long, rich and varied history in the area. Although the book downplays his family's meager means, it does detail the artist's temperament; his lifetime of carving, drawing and creating; his youth spent freely enjoying the outdoors; and later, some hell-raising and playing heavy-metal rock. Herrera's close bond with his most avid supporter -- his mother, Celia -- and a lifelong commitment to family, history and the church are portrayed. These details help to explain some of the contradictions among traditions that make Herrera's work often eclectic and, even epic in scope.
Though spare on the actual details of the artist's past struggles with drinking and drugs -- which are documented so well in his work -- the book does recount the automobile accident that left Herrera comatose and eventually determined the course of the rest of his life. According to Herrera, he was visited on his deathbed by Santa Muerte and was ordered to return from this near-death experience. After this, he felt compelled to express through his art the tenuousness of life, the tensions of pain and pleasure, the injustices humans inflict upon each other and the host of saints and angels watching over us.
The book includes hundreds of photographs that document much of Herrera's work during the last 20 years. The illustrated retablos [paintings of saints], bultos [carvings of saints], drawings and secular sculptures tell a story all their own. Santos and vatos -- the sacred and the profane -- bear the same style and often share the same space. For example, the victim of a drive-by shooting lies in his coffin, the lid opened to reveal Jesus on the cross. In another work, an imploring Jesus, his arms outstretched, stands in front of the Twin Towers, both impaled by burning airplanes. Another depicts a figure standing in the foreground of a Wal-Mart that is next to a golf course. Two workers dig a traditional acqueia, searching for water in the parched earth. This is a commentary of the injustice of affluence versus poverty. Whereas the artist's palette and methods are traditional, his subject matter and fierce social commentaries are essential elements of his contemporary vision. Nicholas Herrera: Visions of the Heart is a must-have book for anyone interested in vernacular, contemporary or visionary folk art, especially that of the American Southwest. The book reveals Herrera's art for what it is -- boundary-crossing work that shows the artist to be different from the typical New Mexican santero. Nicholas Herrera is both a traditional santero and a contemporary artist expressing contemporary ideas and problems in more modern ways. -- Hank Lee, Folk Art Messenger, Folk Art Society, Spring 2004
Collectors take note: Paul Rhetts and Barbe Awalt have co-authored several lush art books profiling regional art of the Southwest. The latest is Nicholas Herrera: Visions of My Heart (LPD Press), an appreciation of an outsider artist poised for international fame.
Jane Erskine, editor of Book News of Portland says: "A beautifully illustrated volume on the life and work of contemporary New Mexico folk artist Nick Herrera (b. 1964). It traces his life trajectory, friends and family, influences, patrons, galleries and exhibits and is abundantly color illustrated to show his retablos and bultos, santos and crucifixes, altars, popular art, and more." June 2003
Another reviewer noted:Nicholas Herrera is known as the santero (saint) of El Rito, NM. This contemporary Hispanic artist had produced a wealth of treasures but there was no written record of his labors. No more. Barbe Awalt '76 and Paul Rhetts have chronicled more than 400 pieces of Herrera's art including retablos, bultos, political commentary, cartoons, village scenes and satires in Nicholas Herrera: Visiones de mi Corazon.
The book includes essays by Cathy Wright, director of the Taylor Museum, Chuck Rosenak, author and collector, and Charlie Carrillo, Herrera's teacher and subject of the first book by Awalt and Rhetts.
When the authors moved to New Mexico 13 years ago, they soon discovered the world of Hispanic devotional art. As "virtually nothing had been written on it," Awalt says, they began searching for its meaning.
The pair became so frustrated at the lack of information that in 1994 they wrote Tradition & Soul, a book on the Hispanic art of Carrillo.
Two years later they began publishing Tradicion Revista, the only regular magazine that covers the art and culture of the Hispanic Southwest. In addition to books on Herrera and Carrillo, they wrote other Hispanic art texts -- Our Saints Among Us, co-edited Seeds of Struggle/Harvest of Faith, and co-authored The Regis Santos: Thirty Years of Collecting. They have also curated an exhibit on New Mexican santos -- "Our Saints Among Us" -- that travelled to U.S. museums and arts centers until 2002.
Their newest book focused on Herrera because "we were looking for an artist who had a story and had depth," Awalt recalls. Herrera's tale included a life-threatening accident in 1990 that helped save him from drugs and booze. But it left his memory clouded about whom had collected his work."There were many days when I interviewed Nick and we would talk with his freinds who were out of prison or recovering their lives," Awalt says.
Herrera's work is half religious-traditional art and half political satire and commentary. Awalt explains, "Nick does political satire on what he sees and hears. He has a piece on Bill Clinton and Monica called 'I'll Be Home Late Hillary,' and a piece on skater Nancy Kerrigan." Moved by 9/11, Herrera produced a number of pieces of St. Christopher or Christ protecting the children of New York City. -- Ginny Cook, Towson University Alumni Magazine, Towson, Summer 2003