Art Characters

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Welcome to the third round of Art Characters, an original Land Water People Time annual series that profiles a handful of Northern New Mexico’s most notable and colorful artists.   

In this beautiful state that we call home or visit in quest of its many enchantments, culture, community and creativity are fed by ancient connections to the land itself. There has always been a wealth of the creatively gifted here, and this year’s lineup of featured talents — working in mediums that couldn’t be more diverse, from wood carving to clay sculpture, photography to flamenco — is no exception. Each artist’s curriculum vitae has been illuminated by the common experience of place and by the muses who also reside in the mountains, valleys, plains and mesas of our region. 

Nicholas Herrera, santero

When Nicholas Herrera was a child, he spent many summer afternoons exploring the riverbanks of El Rito with his mother. Together they walked through the tall, fragrant grasses that lined the edges of the dancing water. She gathered plants and flowers to make healing teas and tonics, and pointed out sources from which to harvest natural pigments. He collected pieces of driftwood that held particular appeal in shape or texture and carved them into animal figures or into tiny boats to toss into the currents.

Even then, Herrera’s inherited gift for art making, and for working with whatever abounds, was evident. “Both of my parents were creative,” said Herrera in a recent interview. “My dad was a furniture maker before he started working at Los Alamos [National Laboratory], and my mom painted. She used whatever she found. She painted on old pieces of wood; she even used red chile for paint. Maybe that’s where I get it … I can use whatever I find for something. Mica for the eyes, dry boards and branches for the carts, old oil cans, engine parts, rusted picks and shovels for the choppers. I use whatever’s around.” Clearly, those early explorations nourished Herrera’s aptitude for transforming the simplest of nature’s offerings and the discards of an ever-consuming culture into politically and socially weighted artworks that press commentary on “the big issues.” 

Herrera’s work, while well-trained on important matters of the here and now, also draws heavily from the centuries-old traditions of his 15-generation New Mexican heritage and from his strong spiritual connection to his Catholic faith. His individual works — always provocative and often controversial — range from small santos and altarpieces to large-scale carretas de muerto (carts driven by Death figures) and colorful, detail-rich dioramas. With objects and characters that some may find out of place in the genre of religion-inspired art, Herrera’s autobiographic, sociopolitical, art-manifested narrative is translated by a variety of unusual subjects: Rainbow People busing into the summer solstice, high on free love; Los Alamos “death trucks” loaded with barrels of radioactive waste, trolling their lethal cargo to some secret site; corrupt authorities banking cash-stuffed briefcases in exchange for looking the other way; Jesus and the devil cavorting in cameo to contribute to the discourse. Alcoholism, drug addiction and other “hard realities” are also of topic in Herrera’s work, for which he can add “ethnohistorian” to an already impressive résumé.           

Of course, such bold expression is rarely met without some voice of opposition, especially where religious iconography is concerned. Herrera appreciates “where they’re coming from” but is unapologetic about his up-close-and-personal examination of the human condition — spiritual and otherwise — and the temptations and shortcomings that shadow its brightest points: greed, hypocrisy, irresponsible stewardship of the environment. “When I put Jesus in the back of a cop car, with the devil holding a briefcase full of money … a lot of people really tripped out on that one,” says the artist. “They said it was sacrilege, but I think what we’re doing to the planet is more sacrilege than what I’m trying to say through my art.” 

Among those who have welcomed Herrera’s message: the American Folk Art Museum, New York City; the Autry Museum of the American West, Los Angeles; and the Terra Foundation of American Art, Paris. Other close listeners include the National Folk Art Society of America, headquartered in Richmond, Virginia, and the New Mexico Governor’s Arts Committee, from which he received a National Award of Distinction in 2006 and an Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2016.

Herrera is represented by Evoke Contemporary in Santa Fe. He can be reached at nicholasdelacruze@gmail.com.

Nicholas Herrera’s life as an artist, his abundant sense of humor, and his love of his pastoral roots and care for the acequia system that literally feeds his family’s century-old property in El Rito has recently been documented in a lovely 18-minute film titled Recuerdo: Nicholas Herrera Land, Water, Art. The film is part of a series produced by a nonprofit group called The Wisdom Archive dedicated to preserving traditional cultures around the world through films posted for free viewing on YouTube. 

So far, eight movies have been released from Emmy-award winning filmmakers Scott Andrews and Christopher Beaver. In addition to Recuerdo, other films focusing on New Mexico subjects include Monica Sosaya: Maestra de Tradicion (12 minutes), Cipriano Vigil: Musico de la Gente (38 minutes), Eurgencio Lopez: Ranchero y Santero (4 minutes), Rita Padilla Haufmann: Traditional Wool Preparation and Natural Pigment Dying (16 minutes) and An Intimate Afternoon of Music with Antonia Apodaca and Cipriano Vigil (38 minutes). See the films on YouTube or at www.thewisdomarchive.com.

Rose B. Simpson, ceramicist/multimedia

Born into a family of many gifted artists, Rose Bean Simpson grew up surrounded by creative people. Her mother, celebrated Santa Clara Pueblo sculptor Roxanne Swentzell, certainly lent influence to the young artist’s creative persuasions, as did Simpson’s uncle Michael Naranjo, also a world-renowned sculptor, and her father, Patrick Simpson, who works in wood and metal.

“I do my clay work in my uncle’s old, round, adobe studio,” beams Simpson. “The light in the morning is superb, and the door goes right outside to a table, so I can sit in the sun or in the shade of the grapes I planted and drink tea if I need a break. If I’m trying to overcome a block, I have a conversation with my mama. She’s an inspirational genius. She always reminds me of what’s important.” 

Numerous aunts and cousins have also been in the creative picture. But Simpson recognized early on a need to diverge from the main thoroughfare, and she forged her own path into new artistic territory. It was a sharply navigated left turn, which led the artist to travel unfamiliar but well-destined roads. 

Though she is best known for her large-scale clay works, Simpson has long forded the limitations of genre-specific art. Fashion, installation, metalwork, music, performance art — all are in her repertoire. Even automotive science has a number on the wheel. Good thing Simpson has no fear of falling short of the mark on any of her spins. “I had to learn to deconstruct the construct of what I thought was failure,” she says. “Loving what I think is a ‘fail’ helps me to honor my growth. Now I see that what has blessed me the most has come from difficulty.” 

Simpson’s body of work thus far has explored “many ways to deconstruct gender- and culture-based stereotypes and social ideologies.” No doubt the artist’s trajectory will continue to gain momentum as she travels new roads in pursuit of her creative visions. She hopes “that I will be remembered as someone brave. Someone who didn’t cave.” 

Simpson holds degrees from the Institute of American Indian Arts and the Rhode Island School of Design. Her work has been collected by the Clay Art Center of Port Chester, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts Boston; and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, among others. She serves on the board of directors of Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute and the New Mexico School for the Arts.

Simpson is represented by Santa Fe’s Chiaroscuro Contemporary Art Gallery. Contact her at indinrose@gmail.com.

Chris Dahl-Bredine, aerial photographer

From an altitude of 15,000 feet, things on earth look a bit different. Canyons and cliffs take on new dimensions; clouds push and pull through winds unseen from a closer-to-the-ground perspective; mountains and their tree lines become exclamation points on the land. This high up, light intensifies, moves more quickly into and out of shadow; riverbeds below snake on for days, some churning deep, dark-green currents, others winding out flat across vast stretches of hot, sparkling sand in the summer and autumn or rippling over freshly fallen snow when the season changes.  

Usually reserved for our feathered and flighted friends, these are views that most of us are likely to see only in our mind’s eye or in books and magazines. But they are views that Taos photographer Chris Dahl-Bredine knows well and revisits often. “One of the missions I hope to accomplish through photography is to bring awareness about all the beauty that surrounds us,” says the artist. “Look at this, the snowmelt off these peaks. Connect to it,” he continues. “We’ve got to preserve this, save this beauty!”

Dahl-Bredine’s dream “became a reality” with his decision to learn to fly. Slicing through the high-desert air aboard a powered ultralight hang glider, he uses a gyrostabilizer to keep his camera steady as the shutter captures both familiar, instantly recognizable landmarks, and scenes that take on otherworldly appearances. Illustrative titles include Pueblo Bonito, Sedona Spiers, Steep Slope in Glacier Park, Taos Mountain at Sunset, Purple Dawn, Sand Shadows, Sea of Sand and Winter Marshland.

Born in Chicago, Dahl-Bredine moved at age 2 to Wisconsin. There, his parents ran an organic farm for several years before relocating the family to New Mexico. The artist remained in Silver City until finally settling in Taos nearly 30 years ago. From his vantage point there, surrounded by some of nature’s most inspiring geology, he has composed a rare body of work that is arguably the only one of its kind in the world. Many images collectively “document changes in the land over time,” and none can be reproduced in any exactness, as their existence is wholly dependent upon constantly morphing elements: air temperature, light, precipitation, wind speed and direction. “For me, it’s really about watching the weather,” explains the artist. “I wait and watch. When I see everything lining up, that’s when I get inspired. Timing is everything.”                

Other inspiration comes from fellow photographer of places and things on high, California-based world adventurer Chris Burkard, and from Dahl-Bredine’s young daughter, who has brought a new sense of urgency to the artist’s creative journey: “Now that I’m the father of Alaia, the future of the planet is more important to me than ever. I see so much love for life in her. She inspires me to do even more.” 

Dahl-Bredine is represented by Fine Art New Mexico. For details, visit skiflytaos@gmail.com.

Emmy Grimm, bailaora

Known simply as La Emi in ever-widening circles, Emmy Grimm of Chamisal, New Mexico, has emerged as flamenco’s next heiress apparent. Both stage and senses ignite when the curtains part for this brightest of still-rising stars, whose signature dance style recalls the grand flair of flamenco’s golden age (1869-1910) starlets. 

Grimm’s passion for dancing arrived early. At age 4 she was studying with Maria Benitez’s Institute for Spanish Arts (ISA). By 10 she was enrolled in the institute’s youth company, Flamenco’s Next Generation. By 12 she was teaching in Northern New Mexico public school systems. Just three years later, students at Moving Arts Española and ISA were also fortunate to learn flamenco under her direction.       

Among her benefactors Grimm includes the great Carmela Greco, with whom she studied during an extended apprenticeship in Greco’s native Madrid, Spain. It was a journey that led Grimm to an even greater appreciation for flamenco, in both step and story. “I learned so much from her,” she says of her mentor. “She didn’t only teach me about dancing flamenco; she taught me how to live flamenco, how to tell my own story through flamenco.” Flamenco luminaries including Juana Amaya, José Galván and Rocio Alcaide Ruiz also shared their expertise with the young dancer.   

Though originally performed without guitar accompaniment, flamenco has evolved over time to include the three main components that define it today: canté (singing), toque (guitar) and baile (dance). Jaleos(vocalizations), palmas (hand clapping) and pitos (finger snapping) remain as original elements of timing, rhythm and percussion. As Grimm pulls together all these elements to create one cohesive expression, she is pushed to contain an explosive but well-controlled burn. This is where restraint is key, where boundaries and parameters must be navigated within the structure of the ancient Andalusian songs of flamenco. As the distance between form and fever narrows, the fire of the dance must be directed, tempered so as not to subsume the dancer. Grimm knows just where the mercury begins to expand.           

“Baile!” “Dale!” “Hassa!” These are but a few of the jaleos Grimm regards as integral to her performance. When offered by her godfather, cantaor Vicenté Griego, the words are “energizing and uplifting” and add even more spark to an already pyretic performance. With each announcement of heel to floor, with every clap of castanet, swirl of skirt and flash of fan, La Emi reaffirms the passions and principles of flamenco. Fire and fortitude were never better paired. ¡Asi se baila! (That’s dancing!)

Translating the profoundly emotional expressions of canté jondo or canté hondo (deeply moving flamenco singing) will undoubtedly keep Grimm moving far into the future. “For me, it’s more about el camino,” she says. “It’s more about the road, the journey, than the destination. I hope I never reach the destination. I want to keep learning for as long as I can.”  

In 2012 Grimm was the recipient of the Melissa Engstrom Youth Artist Award, the Santa Fe mayor’s annual award for excellence in the arts. She has performed with Carmela Greco Seminario de Flamenco y Danza Espan͂ol and at Teatro Alameda Festival Flamenco, both in Madrid, Spain, and she leads a company in Santa Fe called EmiArteFlamenco.

Grimm can be reached at emiarteflamenco.com.

Vicente Griego, cantaor

“Make sure you write canté not canto” begins my interview with 12th-generation New Mexican cantaor(flamenco singer) Vicenté Griego, who was raised in Dixon and Embudo. “Canto is for wealthy aristocrats,” continues the lesson. “Canté is la voz de la gente, la voz de la tierra: the voice of the people.” With such an important distinction resting on one little vowel, it is a most welcome clarification.  

Though Griego was drawn to the vocal arts in his early youth, it was the trumpet that occupied his first musical endeavors. “It strengthened my lungs, and that helped me develop my vocal abilities,” he concedes. “But there’s nowhere to hide behind the truth of the trumpet. If you’re bad, there’s no hiding from that.” Realizing that his truth was not bound to brass, Griego began pursuing his passion for singing and moved closer toward the flames of flamenco.     

It was a well-chosen direction, which led Griego straight into the deep of the art form. Dedicated study ensued as he committed to refining his natural talent for canté flamenco (flamenco singing) and the role of a cantaor. In the early 1990s, he began touring with the José Greco II Flamenco Dance Company, namesake of Spain’s beloved family of flamenco masters, which also includes one of Spain’s most celebrated bailaoras (flamenco dancers), living legend Carmela Greco. “It’s the family that gave me my start in flamenco touring,” acknowledges Griego, his voice still betraying emotion more than two decades later. 

During Griego’s engagement with the company, he enjoyed mentorship with world-renowned can͂o rotosinger Alfonso Gabarri (“El Veneno”), widely considered one of the greatest voices in the history of flamenco singing. Scholarship at the National Institute of Flamenco in Albuquerque was also part of Griego’s formal education, and he drew great inspiration from the work of yet another Gypsy master, the legendary José Monge Cruz (“Camarón de la Isla”). All of this conspired to create a new verse in Griego’s life song, and “El Cartucho” was personified and took center stage.    

It is difficult to put into words the experience of witnessing one of Griego’s spiritually infused performances; much comes to register on a purely emotional level. There is a strong sense of traveling far into the self, then pushing back through the black sounds that resonate from the most ancient depths of the soul. “That’s duende!” exclaims Griego. “That’s the Holy Spirit!” “Duende,” as Spanish poet Federico García Lorca wrote, “is the fiery spirit behind what makes great performance stir the emotions.” Sitting just a few feet from the power of Griego’s voice, there can be no apology for submitting to the spirit. 

When asked to reflect on his seemingly divine gift for canté flamenco, Griego is quick to recognize both the grace and grit required for the job. “It’s definitely a God-given gift,” he agrees. “But I showed up a lot.”

Griego holds the distinction of being the only American-born professional cantaor working today. He performs regularly with EmiArteFlamenco in Santa Fe and at the National Institute of Flamenco in Albuquerque. His five-member, heavy-on-the-rumba flamenco ensemble, ReVóZo, tours both nationally and internationally year-round.

He can be reached at vicente@vicentegriego.com.

Santa Fe-based freelance writer RoseMary Diaz believes “there’s no such thing as an artist without character.” Working with this year’s selection of creative visionaries “reaffirmed what I have long-known: Character is the very soul of great art.”

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