The soft strains of classical music in his studio may seem a discordant backdrop for the artist garbed in jeans and a well-worn AC/DC T-shirt, but santero Leonardo Salazar assures you that is not the case.
“I was brought up to believe that great music and art are the things that make humanity what it is,” Salazar said. “Every Sunday morning my father would put on PBS and we’d listen to the Boston Pops [Orchestra], Arthur Fiedler and all the classical greats – whatever was on that day.
“It also helps with the development of the cognitive mind, you know,” he added with a wink as he turned back to the 6-foot-long red cedar branch that was beginning to come to life under the chisel in his talented hands.
When he is not busy in his workshop Salazar takes his pickup truck into the mountains and, with a chainsaw at the ready, he scours the area for branches and stumps that catch his eye. The yard behind his Taos studio is stockpiled with the resulting tumble of salvaged wood that stretches almost the length of his property; yet he is keenly aware of that which is in his vast collection. When he is ready to carve, he said a piece of the wood will speak to him. “Then the piece unfolds itself in front of my eyes.
“I always use red cedar for my carvings,” Salazar noted, and with one look at his work it is easy to see why. Once the monochromatic gray bark has been stripped away, exquisite striations of creamy blond and rustic tones are revealed and become as much of the story’s intrinsic dialogue as does the precise chiseling and forming. Long-limbed and sinewy figures emerge: meditative faces in repose; slender and elegant hands held just so.
Often what materializes as he works is the image of Moses.
“In this piece Moses is receiving the Ten Commandments,” said Salazar, but others in varying sizes depict a santo with tiny sparrow-like birds resting on a shoulder, or clasped hands reverently holding a cross. Regardless, the likenesses are both fastidious and celestial in their execution.
The Salazar family can trace its roots back through many generations in Taos, and its santero roots for three of them. The artform itself is centuries old and seems to have grown most deliberately in Northern New Mexico and southern Colorado where striking examples abound in the small village churches throughout the region.
Salazar’s father Leonardo G. Salazar – a student of the famed Patrocino Barela who is credited with this Hispano craft revival in the 1930s – saw his work placed in a number of acclaimed national and international museums, including the Smithsonian, the West Berlin Museum of Art and Santa Fe’s International Museum of Folk Art and Museum of Spanish Colonial Art.
And now, like his father before him, Salazar has achieved wide acclaim as a saint maker.
“I started carving with my father when I was 6 years old,” Salazar recalled. “My brothers and I would go with him to Spanish Market in Santa Fe every year,” an event in which the elder participated for 46 years and which earned him the festival’s 1990 Masters Award for Lifetime Achievement. (Salazar’s brother, Michael, was the “real artist among my siblings and me,” Leo said, but who was tragically killed at a young age in a motorcycle accident.)
It’s unlikely that Salazar would have pursued a different path in adulthood.
“I grew up around many of the famous artists in town and those I met through Forest Fenn’s gallery, who represented my dad,” he recalled. After high school, he enrolled with a full scholarship to the College of Santa Fe and continued studies at the University of New Mexico.
“When Michael died I left for California, but since I’ve been back, this is what I have been doing. It’s what my dad taught me and it’s what I love.”
Santero art reflects for him those lessons from his youth and overreaches the classical music and appreciation of fine art that were ubiquitous to the household. It also embraces his spirituality and desire to be of service, of helping others and sharing blessings.
“My father passed in 1991, but my mother Lydia is here to remind us of all we’ve been taught,” Salazar concluded. And so the legacy of his family and the preservation of its traditions will continue to live on.
Leonardo Salazar’s work is currently on display at Mesa’s Edge, 107 North Plaza, Suite A, in the heart of the Taos historic district. Call (575) 758-3455 or see mesasedgetaos.com.