Carlos Rael: a santero’s artistic and spiritual journey


The most unexpected roads lead to art and the discovery of one’s true vocation.

Originally published in Taos News

Carlos Rael had been a paint contractor for most of his adult life when a back injury left him bedridden and unable to go back to his trade.

“I prayed for God’s help and began to draw to pass the time, since I wasn’t used to doing nothing,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed doodling and after having enough time to devote to drawings of a spiritual nature, I realized that this was the direction that God wanted me to follow.”

He studied Spanish Colonial Carving at UNM-Taos through Disability Vocational Rehabilitation and also took classes with award-winning santero Victor Goler.

“Victor taught me many things about life and art,” Rael said. “We have remained good friends and my wife and I are godparents to his daughter Margo.”

Noticing his talent, James Cordova —Rael’s wife’s first cousin and a well known artist himself— encouraged him to apply for Spanish Market.

“The first year I wasn’t accepted because my artwork wasn’t recognized as traditional,” Rael said. “It’s a very strict market that features lots of talented artists. Fortunately, the second time I applied, in 1999, I was accepted by the Spanish Colonial Arts Society and became a member of the Spanish Market.”

That very first year he received the Spanish Market poster award. He also won “Best of Santos” in the Fall Arts Festival. In 2002 he won Best of Show and Best of Santos at the same event.

In 2010 and 2011 Rael was honored as a Taos Living Master at the Fall Arts Festival.                                                             A centuries-old process

Rael carves statues (bultos), boards (retablos) and crosses, all of them inspired by the Spanish Colonial art.

To make his pieces, he follows the same procedures used during the Spanish Colonial period. He gathers his pigments all over the New Mexico and as far north as San Luis.

“In San Luis I get a beautiful golden pigment,” he said. “I’ve also found wonderful reds in the Questa area; particularly those that come from a red oxide known as almagre. A striking beautiful carmine can be obtained from a local insect called cochineal, or cochinilla, that derives  different colors, ranging from orange to a deep purple, depending on the acidic juices I use.”

He has created, on his own, around ninety colors. There are some pigments that he buys, because he can’t obtain them anywhere, and others that he trades with fellow artists.

“We all help each other,” he said. “We are a big santero family.”

He also makes his own gesso with rabbit skin and marble dust, the way it was done in Europe from the 1100s to the 1500s.

Inspiration and la familia

Besides researching constantly and perfecting his techniques, Rael draws inspiration from nature and the rich history of northern New Mexico

“I like to walk the New Mexican landscape and take in a sense of antiquity that inspires
my work,” he said. “I think of the countless creative people that came before and the realization of how enchanting New Mexico has been to creative people.”

Rael and his wife Benita have been married forty-two years and have two daughters and three grandchildren.

“My family inspires me as well,” he said. “Benita has always supported my artistic efforts. She is a great wife! I’ve taught the santero art to my grandchild Dominic, who will be back to the Spanish Market soon.”

Image result for "carlos rael" taos
The santos and their lives

To create his artwork, Rael often reads Vidas de Santos, books about the lives of the saints. He also talks to elders, the few people in the community who are still “the experts on santos,” an ancient knowledge that he wants to preserve in his pieces.

“Some of the saints we venerate were lowly people and others were highly regarded, but they all led inspiring lives that we can learn from, even today,” he said. “We think that our hardships are terrible, but our problems are nothing as compared to those that the saints endured.”

He talks about the saints’ roles and attributes, and how they came to be identified with a particular place or a time of the year.

“San Pascual Bailon is the patron of the harvest, but he was associated with the kitchen because what the harvest yielded was used to cook,” Rael said.

Rael has made a delightful retablo that depicts San Pascual surrounded by pots and pans, with a black cat at his feet.

“Cats love to be in the kitchen,” he explains, “and they keep mice away. Besides, I once had a beloved black cat myself.”

San Ysidro Labrador is another popular saint, the subject of many bultos and retablos. People prayed to him for good weather and a bountiful crop.

“Legend had it that he spent a lot of time praying instead of plowing, so God sent him an angel to help him plow the field,” Rael said. “That is why in many images we can see an angel working close to him.”

As a santero, Rael recreates all these stories in his pieces, bringing them to life.

“I am happy that God and my own spiritual sense pushed me in the direction of santero art,” Rael said.

Rael’s artwork can be found at the Millicent Rogers Museum, the Blumenschein Home and Museum, the Taos Art Museum, and The Harwood Museum stores. They are also available in the Spanish Market.