Clare Cresap Villa
A Portrayal of Creativity and Community Engagement Through the Arts
A lifetime of living and loving art in all of its aspects came to fruition when Clare Cresap Villa retired to the New Mexico of her youth and began her love affair with the religious art work of the Spanish Colonial santeros. All of her past experiences with art, religion and culture seemed to converge as she began to pursue her own foray into this fascinating world so unique to present-day northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.
(The following is an interview conducted through correspondence with santera artist Clare Cresap Villa of Alcalde, New Mexico.)
“It is said that an artist sees the world in a different way from other people. I believe this to be true: the world is full of shapes and colors that delight the eye and refresh the soul. In this context I think I have always been an artist, from my early days in the Midwest to my arrival in New Mexico at the age of eight. After attending Sacred Heart School in Clovis, New Mexico, I had the opportunity to earn a degree in Fine Arts from Loretto Heights College in Denver, Colorado in 1955. Shortly after graduating, I married my high school sweetheart José Villa, and took a 25-year sabbatical from formal art to focus instead on the art of cake decorating, costume making, posters and other domestic challenges in the process of raising our eight children.
In the early 80’s while we lived in northern California, I began to renew my relationship with the art world by studying and painting in the Santa Cruz area. My studies at Cabrillo Community College in Aptos brought me into contact with several instructors who helped me hone the way I saw the world and refine the way I expressed it. Most notably were my guru Howard Ikemoto (for drawing and intaglio printmaking), Dave McGuire (color sense and plein aire watercolor painting) and Jane Gregorius (silk screen printing and serigraphy). I also picked up some skills in calligraphy which have been very useful in my endeavors as a santera.
In 1980 we acquired a century-old adobe ruin located in La Villita, New Mexico, a small community about eight miles north of Española, and began the arduous job of restoring it to livable condition. Every summer thereafter found José and me, along with various members of our progeny and their friends, working on the restoration project. In 1993, the two of us retired and moved back to New Mexico permanently.
Having a penchant for being involved in every community in which we live, José began organizing a Habitat for Humanity group and I joined the Española Valley Arts Festival board of directors (both organizations thrive to this day). I was instrumental in producing this annual festival for the next 20 years: recruiting new board members, soliciting funds and backing from local businesses, producing an annual poster, and in general insuring that the festival remained true to its original purpose of providing a high-class, low-price, user-friendly venue for local artists and artisans to begin showing their work. In testament to these efforts, several artists who began at this local festival have gone on to pursue successful careers as professional artists.
My approach to art is malleable: I like to try my hand at whatever means I think it will take to produce an idea I have in mind. The result of this adventuristic attitude is that I have paintings, serigraphs, etchings, woodwork, furniture and carvings in private and corporate collections in almost all of the states, and have earned awards in both California and New Mexico.
In the late 1990’s, when our home-restoration adventure had reached a certain degree of closure, I began to focus in on what had become my overriding love affair with the rich culture of religious art produced by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Santeros for the local northern New Mexico churches. After extensive research and observation of existing examples of their work, I set out on my own adventure in their footsteps. I began my santera career with retablos, 2-D images on wood, using the old method of rabbit-skin gesso and water-based pigments, and progressing on to bultos, 3-D images carved from local cottonwood roots and painted with the same pigments. As time went on, I began to substitute more modern base materials like acrylic and polyurethane (which are more stable and long-lasting) whenever I could without compromising the visual impact of the piece, all the while retaining the water-based pigments for the actual images.
Since I was showing my work regularly at the various art festivals, it became obvious to me that while my images were popular, they were also out of the price range of most customers, which led me to the creation of what I call “santos de la gente” (saints for the people). I made reproductions of my originals and mounted them on tin or on wood, which proved to be the beginning of a small cottage industry. I now provide these pieces to local Church-affiliated gift shops for tourists’ and locals’ collections. In this manner, my little santos take bits of New Mexico to all parts of the globe.
Around the end of the 20th century, I began studying the art of making Spanish Colonial Furniture with Daniel Tafoya, an instructor at the El Rito campus of Northern New Mexico Community College. Upon attaining some basic skills under his tutelage, I designed, built and painted an array of altars, reredos, ambo, music cabinet and baptismal font in the ancient tradition for my parish church, St. Anne’s in Alcalde.
Following the St. Anne’s church project, I had the distinct privilege in 2003 of being named Art Director for the city of Española’s Misión Art Project, which involved creating an historical museum in the San Gabriel Misión (reproduction of the first 17th- century church built in the area) on the city plaza. In this capacity I designed and painted five large reredos (12′ to 18′ wide, 24′ to 30′ tall, constructed by Daniel Tafoya) to display 30 paintings of local historic interest. I painted six of the historic missions myself and contracted with Richard Guzmán, Juanito Roybal and Michelle Ferran to paint the other 24 renderings which depict the historic development of the Española Valley from the pre-European arrival in 1598 through the Manhattan Project in the mid-1940’s. Twenty-five additional local artists added bultos, tin nichos, coats-of-arms paintings in tin frames and bancos to complete the museum’s permanent collection. The Museum was dedicated in September of 2004. For my work on this project I was awarded the Española Valley Chamber of Commerce Mayor’s Award in that same year.
In 2005, I joined a group of parishioners who had undertaken the restoration of the private chapel on the historic Los Luceros property in Los Luceros, New Mexico. My contribution was designing and executing the altars and reredos for the project, for which I received the Archbishop Sheehan Award later that year.
My next foray was creating the interior for a memorial chapel, La Capilla de Santa María de la Luz, which we had constructed on our property in thanksgiving for a number of favors received.
During the current pandemic seclusion, I have had time to root around in the corners of my workspaces, ferreting out odd pieces of collectible junk that I have not had the heart to dispose of over the decades, with the intention of bringing these treasures back to life in one manner or another. Turns out that 20 years of collecting stuff and 20 years of painting santos have come into a happy marriage, creating a new series of art in my repertoire. My other project during this troubling time was to paint a retablo of Dr. Anthony Fauci, who without a doubt fulfills the prerequisites of sainthood: loving God above all and spending his life taking care of the suffering in this world. I call this piece “San Antonio de Fauci.”
In my studio or in my wood shop, I find the peace and satisfaction of being a part of a larger fellowship of santeros dedicated to perpetuating the traditional religious art forms of the region. These are my private spaces of prayer and creation, the ‘warp thread’ of my interesting life. In creating each image of over 90 santos, I strive – with varying degrees of success – to adhere to the simplicity of style and basic color palette of the “Old Ones.” The magic of their simplistic presentation is ever elusive.