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Carving Images of Devotion : Santero , Exhibiting in Fullerton, Says Works Are Both Religious Symbols and Art


FULLERTON — Charles Carrillo, a New Mexican santero, or maker of Roman Catholic devotional art, was at the Fullerton Museum Center last week discussing his work, and at one point recalled how his mother would put a plaster replica of St. Anthony in the corner whenever she lost something. Several in his audience laughed. But Hector Mendez just nodded.

"I am so familiar with that," said Mendez, a retired restaurant owner from Brea. "My mother and her sister did the very same thing after a valuable turned up missing."

Carrillo went on to tell the others that when his mother placed the saint--facing the wall, "just like he was bad boy"--it was her symbolic way of asking for divine intervention. She was telling St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost objects, to help her out or face a long wait in that lonely corner.

"To our (Catholic/Hispanic) culture, there is a saint for every need, a saint for everything," the bearded artist said. "We see them as living among us, and when we look at art (representing them), it's as if they are with us.

"When my mother put her St. Anthony in the corner, it was as if she was talking directly to him and letting him know that she was counting on him. It's our tradition, the extension of our spiritual beliefs."

Carrillo's lecture and demonstration at the center Saturday afternoon was in conjunction with a 120-piece exhibit, "Santos: Images of Penance, Images of Mercy," that continues through Sunday.

After discussing various aspects of his craft--he mixes his own paints, made from natural sources, and only uses traditional cottonwood for his carved statues--Carrillo talked at length about the nature of santos (Spanish for "holy images" or "saints") both as art and as religious symbols.

A former anthropology professor currently working on his doctorate on the history of santos, Carrillo decided in 1980 to join the Penitente brotherhood, a centuries-old lay religious order in northern New Mexico. He became a santero shortly thereafter. What started out as devotional soon became profitable when he found that his objects were sought by dealers.

He now sells paintings and statues for as much as $10,000 each. "I only sell those that haven't been blessed in some way, by either being used by someone (his mother's putting St. Anthony in the corner would bless it automatically, he said) or taken into a church. It wouldn't be right to sell a piece that's been blessed."

Carrillo said American Indians may have made some of the earliest santos, but most were crafted by Mexican and Spanish colonists. First influenced by Franciscan monks familiar with more formal medieval or Renaissance styles, santos later became more primitive, steeped in folk art traditions.

The making of santos, he said, flourished at the turn of this century. But then hand-carved and -painted objects of wood were replaced by manufactured, plaster or plastic pieces. ("Those were the ones that I knew as a boy," Carrillo said. "The carved santos were museum objects to me.") But the art form has been on the upswing over the past decade, especially in New Mexico.

The importance of santos, he said, is not only in the devotional aspects of the iconography but in the history each object can communicate to successive generations.

Mendez said his mother would talk to her small collection of saints as if they were old friends living in her home.

"It made me a little nervous when I was young," the 64-year-old said, "just because it seemed strange, but then I came (to accept) the significance of what it meant. It was how she connected with her Catholic feelings."

Cathleen Selvy of Fullerton was taken by Carrillo's story of figurines of St. Joseph being buried head-down in a back yard to protect a home. Carrillo explained that Joseph is considered the patron saint of carpenters and builders, and by placing him head-down "you make sure he knows you want him to work for you."

Selvy, 33, thought back to her own childhood. "My father is Mexican-American, and I remember how he always talked to his St. Joseph about keeping fire and burglars away," she said.

* "Santos: Images of Penance, Images of Mercy" ends Sunday at the Fullerton Museum Center, 301 N. Pomona Ave., Fullerton. Hours: noon to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday; noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission: $1 and $2 (free today from 6 p.m. till closing). Information: (714) 738-6545.

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