The Carrillo Family Revisted
Story and photographs by Barbe Awalt & Paul Rhetts
Editor’s Note: In 1994, we wrote Charlie Carrillo:Tradition & Soul. Until July 2003, it has stood as the only book on a contemporary santero and frankly said it all. We were also very aware that many other artists needed the exposure in this magazine. But now enough time has passed to take another look at Charlie, Debbie, Roán, and Estrellita. A lot has happened.
The Carrillo family lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Debbie’s roots are in Abiquiú and as a result the Village has adopted Charlie and the kids consider it a second home. During Lent they all spend a great deal of time there. Charlie is an integral part of the old Abiquiú Morada and Debbie’s parents are still an active part of that community.
Charlie’s parents live in a little village south of Albuquerque called Abeytas. It is rural farmland and Ralph grows grapes, alfalfa, and vegetables. Charlie remembers running around the farm and collecting pot shards with his twin bother in their youth. Charlie’s Mom comes from the Colorado/New Mexico border. Dr. Carrillo, the elder, was a principal and a major reason why Charlie wanted to get his doctorate.
The last few years have been busy, crazy, disappointing, and exhilarating. Charlie, Debbie, and the kids continue to collect awards and honors for their art. Charlie makes bultos, retablos, gesso relief, hide paintings, and anything else that interests him. Debbie is sought after for her micaceous pottery and now teaches classes. She taught the kids to do ramilletes or traditional paper flowers. Estrellita makes retablos while Ro does bultos and retablos in addition to stone etchings whenever his busy schedule permits. Both kids have tried monoprinting when Charlie participated in Monothon. Estrellita did her own limited edition lithograph at the Tamarind Institute with Dad’s help.
Charlie is also passionately distracted by taking traditional New Mexican images and converting them to easily affordable and used items. He created a line of cotton throws and jackets, ornaments, a nativity, t-shirts, rubberstamps, clocks, notecards, and still has a million more ideas. He loves to publish books and articles. He wants to do children’s books, cookbooks, more products, but time is not on his side.
The biggest emotional roller coaster was the creation of the Santos of New Mexico store at the Traditions Festival Marketplace in Budaghers. The concept was great but the shopping center was not. The space was renovated by the Carrillos and many helpers and was the largest retail space for traditional New Mexican art in the New Mexico. Historic, contemporary, and new directions art were featured in the space along with group shows. The problem with the shopping center was that next to no one shopped there. It was poorly promoted. The Carrillos promoted their own shows and many people came for those events. But there were long, dry spells in between.
The relationship at the shopping center quickly degenerated. The independent owners of the few stores there, left. The Carrillos felt that after 9/11, tourism would fall off dramatically — and it did. They closed the store in November. But turned around immediately and renovated the studio space in their home to be more of a gallery space. What they did was successful but without more aggressive leadership at the Center the opportunities for growth were not there.
The gallery experience showed the Carrillos that there is a market for low to high end Hispanic New Mexican art but the old adage of ‘location, location, location’ is very important. They now know which artists sell well and what images are strong for consumers. They also know that having knowledgeable sales help is important to explain the traditions to customers.
The Carrillos still do a number of local shows: The Heard Spanish Market, St. John’s College Show, the Albuquerque Feria, The Grants Festival, The St. John’s Cathedral show, The Albuquerque Miniature Show, and Charlie was the poster artist for the New Mexico Arts & Crafts Festival in June. Charlie and Debbie were the driving force behind the Regalos Festival in St. Augustine, Florida. In 2001 the Carrillos asked a small group of artists to go with them to St. Augustine and start the process of making a Market there. In April 2002 the number grew to fifty artists. The Carrillos believe that the tradition can not survive without new markets and customers being exposed to the art. Santa Fe alone will not support all the traditional artists working now.
Charlie is also excited about doing research on the historic santeros. He and José Antonio Esquibel, the genealogist, have found compelling information to identify previously unknown or wrongly identified santeros.
His first book, Hispanic New Mexican Pottery, was such a success that he has hopes of doing more. The pottery book was an expansion of Charlie’s doctoral dissertation from the University of New Mexico that he received in 1996. He was read the riot act by Debbie and Father Tom Steele to complete the dissertation or forget it. It had been in the process for twelve years. But after hiding out in Albuquerque for weeks it was completed and the book soon followed. The book by LPD Press is virtually sold out — there are only about 2 dozen copies left.
Running a gallery full-time illustrated clearly to Charlie and Debbie that time is very valuable and there are a lot more interesting things that can be done with their time than standing in an empty store. But they still have hopes of opening a gallery in Santa Fe if the right space was available and the economy was more stable.
Another 1996 event in the Carrillo household was the nativity controversy — now in retrospect looking mighty silly. Charlie contracted with Midwest of Cannon Falls to make a cast of one of his original nativities and mass produce them at an affordable price. Charlie realized he was under increased pressure to do affordable pieces for many people and one of a kind bultos just couldn’t be kept at a low price. So for about $200 you got a stable, baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, a small angel and three large angels. After countless, rejected prototypes production began. The pieces were delivered to local stores sporadically, and never with enough figures to match the number of stables. Charlie complained that people wouldn’t just buy a stable — they wanted the whole set at the same time.
Quality control was also an issue. The large angels were constantly having their wings break off and eventually were discontinued. The rest of the pieces, made in the Philippines, had good and bad shipments. Midwest also did not handle the complaints by storeowners well. They eventually were sold to a Japanese firm and production stalled for a period of time. But the real problem came when a front page article in the Albuquerque Journal proclaimed that santeros were unhappy with Charlie and his mass-produced nativity. Three people in the article were quoted as being terribly upset by the nativities. One of which was Santa Fe storeowner Ed Berry who was also on the Spanish Colonial Arts Society Board of Directors.
In the article, Berry said he would never carry something like Midwest’s Carrillo nativities in his store. Today he does indeed carry them. The two other people later complained that they had been misquoted — one a Market artist and the other was Hispanic leader Concha Ortiz y Pino de Kleven. Later Concha begged Charlie to get her a nativity. The article was bogus and many complained to the Journal. The headline proclaimed that many artists were upset but that was in fact untrue. But the article did result in major publicity and there was a feeding frenzy for the nativities. To this day there is more demand than nativities. The most dependable supplier of nativities has been Susan’s Christmas Shop in Santa Fe. She gets shipments a few times a year and maintains a waiting list.
In 2001, Charlie designed his first limited edition glass Christmas ornament through LPD Press. The image of the Holy Family was the cover art for the December issue of Tradicíon Revista. The ornaments were made in Roswell, New Mexico. They were a sell-out. The ornaments were featured in an article in the Albuquerque Journal that caused a feeding frenzy. The image for the 2002 ornament was the Baby Jesus. This year’s image will be the Madonna and Child. The image will be available from LPD Press/TR starting in July/August.
Charlie wants to do more licensing of images. He thinks that the long history of major artists licensing their images for mass market items should extend to the Hispanic artists of New Mexico. There are very few examples of this. Licensing images does not demean the art but actually brings the images to new audiences. As long as the item is not portrayed as an original, Charlie has no problem so long as the item is a quality product.
So the age old question arises, why do you sell “holy art?” Isn’t it sacrilegious? Charlie answers that the art is not holy until it is blessed or until it is used for a holy purpose. Many of Charlie’s pieces have been bought for churches, chapels, and other places of worship. Then the pieces take on a “holy” purpose and Charlie believes it would be wrong to sell it then.
Charlie does irritate museum curators on a regular basis. He is constantly visiting collections and telling those in charge they have the wrong identification on pieces of New Mexican devotional art. He gets rabid when books come out with misinformation on historic santos. Those who are on the receiving end of his wrath find that he can support his statements with examples and other research information. He even was the victim of bad information. The recent Museum of Spanish Colonial Art book says that he and Jimmy Trujillo are brothers in law. Not true. Jimmy is Debbie’s uncle and Charlie has tried to eliminate the error.
What is in the future for the Carrillos? First Roán has graduated from high school and is off to college next fall; he will also have to try and jury into Spanish Market as an adult next year. Estrellita is a college graduate exploring the world of dentistry and is in Market for retablos and ramilletes. Debbie is finding time and space for her pottery and hopes that the new renovation of the studio will give her just enough space to do her work.
As for Charlie — he has a new project with Roberto Gonzales of Albuquerque. After the successful nativity, Charlie is convinced other images like a Guadalupe or Dolores would sell well. So Roberto will make a cast and do a limited edition of Charlie’s work. They even have a national distributor. Roberto has been successfully marketing his own bultos as limited edition castings.
Charlie’s most recent project is the new altar screen in the addition to Santa Maria de la Paz, his parish church in Santa Fe. The altar was blessed on March 2, 2003 by the Archbishop. The altar took almost three months. The iconography was designed by Felipe Mirabal and the wood work was done by Carrillo and Roberto Montoya, also of the Santa Maria de la Paz parish; it was painted by Charlie, Roán and Estrellita Carrillo, and Nicholas Otero.
Charlie will also be taking over Father Tom’s University of New Mexico college courses as Tom phases out his teaching load. Charlie was very active on a number of local of boards and gives talks for groups like Oasis, Elderhostel, and visiting college groups. Charlie was recently a member of the NM Arts Commission appointed by Governor Johnson. Charlie and Debbie are also a voice to be contended with at artists meetings for Spanish Market. Charlie books up very far in advance and is tired of shows trying to organize at the last minute and hope he has work to sell. There is little time for vacation in the Carrillo house but Debbie still hopes to take the family to Sea World in San Diego — she has been talking about it for years.
Since the book came out on Charlie a lot has changed but a lot has stayed the same. Charlie was awarded the Governor’s Award, the Mayor of Santa Fe’s Achievement in the Arts Award, and the Zia Award by the University of New Mexico Alumni Foundation. Just before 9/11 Charlie, Debbie, and a few other New Mexico artists were privileged to meet the First Ladies of the U.S. and Mexico at the opening of Arte Latino in Chicago. Charlie spoke when the exhibit came to Santa Fe in 2002. Both Charlie and Debbie were represented in the Ahora exhibit at the National Hispanic Art Center in Albuquerque. Charlie also had work in the inagural exhibit of the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe.
Charlie and Nick Herrera are planning for a two-man show at the Museum Cultural de Santa Fe in October of 2003 called Compadres. This is part of the promotion for the new book on Nick. Charlie has written one of the essays in the new book which is now available. Charlie is happy that Nick can follow in his footsteps.
But with all the honors, praise, awards, and new projects some things remain the same. The Carrillo house is always filled with people, noise, and chaos. Charlie and Debbie take more pleasure in the kids winning awards then when they win. Charlie will forever irritate museum curators pointing out the errors in their identifications. Charlie is always behind in filling his many commissions. And there is always a new adventure on the horizon. And as eveyone knows, the Carrillos are never dull or bored — there is too much to do.
Barbe Awalt and Paul Rhetts are the co-publishers of Tradición Revista. They have written or published over 35 books, almost 2 dozen of which deal with the Hispanic art & culture of the Southwest.
First published in Tradicion Revista, Volume 8, No. 2, Summer 2003.
Copyright 2003. May not be reproduced in any form without written permission.