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At Home with His Destiny

Santero Ramón López’s art and home are works in progress

BY TERESA ZAMORA | PHOTOS BY JENNIFER ESPERANZA

It was 1975 when Ramón José López and Nance, his bride of a month, began building their adobe home in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. López had not yet embarked on his path as a santero, a path that was to bring him international acclaim and deep spiritual satisfaction. A jeweler at the time, his priority was to create a home where he could work at his craft and raise a family.

Left: The outdoor chapel showcases some of López’s finest work. ABOVE: López’s studio houses a collection of hand tools used to fashion his creations in wood. Right: The home’s indoor chapel includes a handmade prayer book, altar, and reredo.

“Two of Ramón’s nephews came to help us. We had no water, no electricity—but, overnight, we had two sons,” chuckles Nance as she recalls building the secluded home that has been at the center of the couple’s lives for 30 years. As the family grew, the house also grew, eventually becoming the casual retreat it is today: sprawling yet cozy, a place where time seems to stand still. A greenhouse with a serene cactus garden extends the length of the home, a fountain whispers, and the magenta bougainvillea the couple planted when their first child was born spills petals like small hearts.

It was here in the family sanctuary that López first connected with the traditions of his ancestors, who had come to this land 400 years before, guided by faith and grit. Propelled by a desire to participate in the annual Spanish Market, López shifted his focus from jewelry to the time-honored art forms of the santero: bultos (wood carvings), retablos (paintings on wood), and reredos (altar screens).

Left: Ramón and Nance López. Middle: A family photo adorning the handmade altar commemorates López’s NEA award. Right: Upstairs rooms can be accessed from the living room via a ladder.

“My grandfather died two years before I was born, but the fact that he was a santero was a great inspiration for me. I began by using his old hand tools—his adz, planes, and knives,” López says with reverence. His heritage has clearly inspired him: López feels the divine energy flow through him as he carves the sacred images. He has in turn passed on his knowledge of the traditional arts that give his life meaning to son León, 28, daughter Lily, 26, and twins Bo and Miller, 20—all artists in their own right.

López has become a perennial Spanish Market winner, and his work has been sold to collectors around the world. It’s exhibited in institutions such as the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the Heard Museum in Phoenix, and Santa Fe’s own International Museum of Folk Art and Museum of Spanish Colonial Arts. But his most precious collection is housed in the family chapel he began building 18 years ago.

“For years I’d get up in the dark at 4 a.m. to start work,” he recalls. ”One night, early on, I climbed up on the roof and saw that the light from inside formed a cross that hovered over the chapel like a blessing.”

From the Summer/Fall 2005 isssue

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