At just 39, Albuquerque santero Vicente Telles has already created work that hangs in two museums.
Last month, the Denver Art Museum bought his retablo (devotional painting) of “La Malinche” (2018). The piece currently hangs in the Albuquerque Museum in “Traitor, Survivor, Icon: The Legacy of La Malinche,” a traveling show from Denver.
In 2021, the Albuquerque Museum bought his collaborative corner altarpiece with Santa Clara Pueblo tile artist Jason Garcia. The tablets flip to show Telles’ version of La Malinche, a key, if controversial, figure in the conquest of the Aztecs.
Telles will show his work at Santa Fe’s 70th Annual Traditional Spanish Market happening Saturday, July 30, and Sunday, July 31.
In 1926, the Spanish Colonial Arts Society launched the market for Hispanic artists to show and sell their traditional handmade objects. The market did not operate during and after World War II until 1965, when Traditional Spanish Market was revived as an annual event on the Santa Fe Plaza along with Indian Market.
Since then, it has swollen into the oldest and largest juried art show and sale of its kind. Approximately 200 adult and youth artists compete for prizes in 18 categories. Visitors can find retablos, bultos, jewelry, leather work, ceramics, embroidery, tin work, hide painting, iron work, textiles and more.
Telles will be bringing about 25 retablos to the market.
“A handful of them will speak to the woes women are going through now, like the overturning of Roe v. Wade,” he said.
No stranger to controversial subject matter, such as border issues, Telles also a created St. Antoninus.
“He’s the pro-choice Catholic saint,” Telles said.
He also added St. Thecla to honor of the strength of women.
“They’re not as overtly political as some I’ve done, but it’s for the strength these poor women are going through,” he added. “Faith is learning to constantly ask questions. And don’t judge.”
He’ll also be showing his works on paper at Axle Contemporary’s mobile art van, along with his co-conspirator Garcia, concurrently with Spanish Market.
Telles’ work draws on the imagery of the classic New Mexican santeros, adding a contemporary touch to the iconography. San Ysidro, the patron saint of farmers and gardeners, usually carries a hoe.
“How do I put it in a form that makes sense to me and makes sense to someone else?” he asked.
Telles created a portrait series pairing the blue Morrell lard can with images of pueblo, Hispanic and Mexican families. The can crowns the counters of many New Mexican kitchens for its use in making tortillas and bizcochitos.
Telles began making art after he dropped out of the University of New Mexico (to his family’s chagrin) and began working in a Los Angeles metal wall art company. Ironically, it was a UNM professor who told him about the santeros. There were none in his family.
“I had a lot of time on my hands, so I started painting,” he said. “I wasn’t very good. I saw the soul in these old pictures and I kept going.”
He began researching retablos, learning about the saints and their attributes, as well as the artists.
For awhile, he toggled between California and New Mexico before returning permanently in 2014.
“I don’t think I still know that I’m an artist,” he said. “If I don’t do it for awhile, I start to feel funky; there’s something just missing.”
Telles uses natural pigments in his work. He once gathered and ground them himself, but time restraints made him more practical and he now buys them locally.
“When I’m in nature, I geek out looking at the ground and the rocks,” he said.
New Mexico santero Charles Carrillo is a major influence.
“We just mostly talked history and the stories,” Telles said. “He instilled a lot of thinking about this work in a more critical way; how they informed the villages they were a part of. He’s not content with repeating the same thing. He’s always trying to find his niche. The art form can become quite rigid. How do I become a chapter in a book instead of a footnote?”
The critical role of the santeros in New Mexico history drives his passion.
“The artists back then were one of the first abstract artists,” he said. “There’s Indigenous influence in this work that needs to be recognized more. They exchanged pigments and knowledge.”
Post-Spanish Market, Telles is organizing an exhibition of 60 Southwestern artists in shows across four Albuquerque galleries: Exhibit 208, the South Broadway Cultural Center, Tortuga Gallery and El Chante: Casa de Cultura on Aug. 5.
Telles has won numerous awards at Spanish Market and the New Mexico State Fair. His work hangs in the National Hispanic Cultural Center, Albuquerque’s Holy Family Catholic Church, St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Dallas, Texas and at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Salt Lake City, Utah.