Saints, Automobiles, and Art
By Lenore Macdonald
Many a war has been fought over sacred iconography.
Automobile design has come a long way since Henry Ford said, “A customer can have a car painted any color he wants as long as it’s black”.
Perhaps some of the more recent saints drove automobiles.
The Harwood Museum’s Santo Lowride: Norteño Car Culture and the Santo Tradition exhibition, through October 10, 2021, merges two ostensibly incompatible things, automobiles, and saints, into a culturally, intellectually, and visually stimulating exhibit exploring two of Northern New Mexico’s Hispano culturally intertwined artforms: the pictographic interpretations of saints, originating with the Spanish Conquistadors, and those modified automobiles called “lowriders”.
The exhibition title’s term Norteño refers to the New Mexico geographical area that begins just south of Santa Fe and runs to the northern border, encompassing several ancient Pueblos, Santa Fe, Espanola, Taos, the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, and other notable sites. Locals often refer to it as del Norte.
Victor Goler, Heavenly Drive, 2018, wood, gesso, watercolor, varnish. Courtesy of the artist. From the Collection of Jim Baker and Victoria Addison.
Planned to correspond with lowrider cruise season, the museum’s entire ground floor will be devoted to the Santo Lowride experience. In this exhibition, santeros (male Hispano devotional artists), santeras (female Hispano devotional artists), and famed lowrider artists cruise low ’n’ slow side-by-side to make apparent how these two art forms share subject matter and religious function, binding them across past and present peoples. Lowrider car hoods, trunks, wheel wells, upholstery, bikes and motorcycles, photographs, and videography will be on exhibit alongside 19th and 20th-century santos and contemporary devotional art.
Curator Nicole Dial-Kay says that one of the inspirations for the exhibition was the award-winning Santa Fe-based scholar Carmella Padilla and photographer Jack Parsons, authors of “Low n slow: Lowriding in New Mexico” published by the Museum of New Mexico Press.
1978 Ford Thunderbird, Owner Joseph Martinez of Fairview, NM, mural by Randy Martinez, Photograph by Jack Parsons, 1996. Courtesy of the artists
“Carmella Padilla is a wonderful scholar,” says Nicole Dial-Kay. “In her book ‘Low n slow’ she talks about how lowriders are a continuation of the unique Northern New Mexican tradition of devotional arts, not only in the religious imagery that’s painted on them, but in this idea that they are a vessel between the terrestrial world and the heavenly world.”
Dial-Kay worked with three advisers for the Santo Lowride exhibition: Carmella Padilla, Rob Vanderslice and Toby Morfin, who provided an insider view of the lowriding community of Northern New Mexico. Vanderslice emphasizes that the lowrider community of New Mexico is unique and is known for how it integrates religion into its artistic expression. This distinguishes it from the lowriding culture of California and other places.
Rob Vanderslice, From the Darkness Into the Light, 2013, painting on 1996 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. Photograph by Corey Ringo. Courtesy of the artists.
More than 30 artists are included in the Santo Lowride exhibition. They come from Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Española, Taos, and surrounding communities, from contemporary to historic times. Collectively, they represent the diverse expression of Northern New Mexico’s devotional artists, as well as the many specialty artists involved in the lowrider aesthetic tradition such as car builders, automotive painters, graffiti artists, pinstripers and upholsterers. The Santo Lowride artists include José Rafael Aragón, Patrociño Barela, Nanibah Chacon, Pedro Antonio Fresquís, Mike Giant, Victor Goler, Nicholas Herrera, Joseph Leyba a.k.a. Blast Factory, Felix Lopez, Randy Martinez, Julio Martinez, Arthur “Lowlow” Medina, Joan Medina, El Moises, Antonio Molleno, Toby Morfin, José Benito Ortega, Jack Parsons, Corey Ringo, Jerome Rocha, Cara Romero, Kate Russell, Rose B. Simpson, Bill Sisneros, Mario Sisneros, Luis Tapia, Rob Vanderslice, Benny Vigil and Patrick Vigil, and several unidentified artists of the santos tradition from the 19th and 20th century.
Cara Romero, Coyote Tales No. 1, 2017. Edition of 5, Limited Edition Archival Fine Art Photograph. Printed by the artist on Legacy Platine Papers. Courtesy of the artist.
Luis Tapia, Chima Altar, Bertram’s Cruise, 1992, carved and painted wood. Collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art. Museum purchase with funds donated by Lynn Steuer, 1992 (1993.2.1ab). © Luis Tapia. Photo by Blair Clark.
Nicholas Herrera, a beloved contemporary santos carver from El Rito whose work has been shown at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, has always worked with cars, wood, and welding. Herrera rescued a 1939 Chevy Coupe from an arroyo and painted the vehicle with religious imagery from bumper to bumper, transforming the car into his “Lowrider Shrine.” He says the car is mestizo, made of mixed parts, like himself.
Nicholas Herrera, Viva Los Low Riders, 2000, sculpture natural varnish on wood. Collection of Tia Foundation.
“When the Spanish came in, they had their fancy horses and silver. They had their horses decorated, and that’s like our lowriders now,” explains Nicholas Herrera.
Rose B. Simpson, a mixed-media artist from Santa Clara Pueblo, created “Maria,” a stunning refurbished 1985 Chevrolet El Camino. Named for famed Pueblo potter Maria Martinez, the lowrider is painted with designs inspired by traditional Tewa black on black pottery. Simpson is preparing a replica of Maria’s hood for the Harwood exhibition.
Siegfried Halus. “Lowrider Dashboard Shrine, El Rito, New Mexico”, 1997. Courtesy of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), HP.2017.38.4.
Chimayó artists Arthur “Lowlow” Medina and the late Randy Martinez are known as the originators of the uniquely New Mexican lowrider tradition of painting large religious murals on cars. Their artistic masterpieces feature saints as well as pre-Columbian imagery and New Mexico churches and altars. An iconic car painted by Martinez will be shown as part of Santo Lowride. Medina will exhibit two pieces: a custom-made lowrider bike named “El Arado” (the plow) and a painted trunk depicting a lowrider parked at the Santuario de Chimayó. Medina designs and paints cars with the assistance of his wife Joan and their daughters. Their work style is emblematic of the importance of family within lowriding culture.
Commenting on the Santo Lowride exhibition, Medina said it was very important to celebrate the history and culture of Northern New Mexico. “The way I look at it is we have to make sure we keep on watering that seed, so it does not fade away,” said Arthur “Lowlow” Medina. “And, it gives us the opportunity to show the talent that everybody has. We are blessed.”
Siegfried Halus. Nicholas Herrera, Lowrider Shrine, El Rito, New Mexico, 1997. Courtesy of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), HP.2017.38.3.
Travel Notes: Taos is a 90-minute drive from Santa Fe. As you travel, watch for the Lowriders, especially around Española, about 30 minutes north of Santa Fe. Located at 238 Ledoux Street in Taos, The Harwood Museum of Art “brings Taos arts to the world and world arts to Taos.” Call (575) 758-9826 or visit harwoodmuseum.org for more information.
© 2021 Lenore Macdonald. All rights reserved