Cada mente es un mundo
A Day in the World of Luis Tapia

Interview by Edward Hayes

On November 15, 2016, I travel to Santa Fe to spend a day with Luis Tapia as he prepares for an exhibition of twenty-five sculptures, Luis Tapia: Cada mente es un mundo, to be held at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California, from June 10 to September 3, 2017. Luis picks me up at the home of Stuart Ashman, executive director of Santa Fe’s Center for Contemporary Arts, who first introduced us. We head out in the artist’s Ford F-150 for a daylong drive and conversation as easy, enlightening, and meandering as the New Mexico landscape. Luis explains that the title for his upcoming exhibition is an old New Mexican dicho (saying), “Cada mente es en mundo,” or “Every mind is its own world.” Before the day is over, our talks will traverse the complex world of Luis’s New Mexican Hispano heritage, his political commitment rooted in Chicanismo, and his creative process and technique.

First stop: El Comal, a traditional New Mexican strip mall café on busy Cerrillos Road, where most of the staff and many patrons know the artist as a regular. Here I have the pleasure of tasting my first blue corn enchiladas with a side of crunchy chicharrones and hearing Luis’s story for the first time. As we are getting to know each other, a patron asks if Luis is available to teach art at a nearby community center. Our conversation on pause, I get a sense of his humility and approachability. Luis kindly declines the invitation, and we get on with coffee and conversation.   

EDWARD HAYES: Tell me a bit about where you grew up.

LUIS TAPIA: I’m a Santa Feo, man. I’m a true blood Santa Feo. [Feo, meaning “ugly,” is Luis’s humorously self-deprecating play on Santa Fean, the common term for a Santa Fe resident.] I was born in Santa Fe in 1950, in an area called Agua Fría, which in those days was the village of Agua Fría. Today the village is incorporated into Santa Fe, so it’s just a street now. I was born with chickens and goats and cows in the backyard, a very rural area, and spent most of my life in Santa Fe, through grade school and high school. I went to college for a year at Las Cruces at New Mexico State University but didn’t last there very long. I spent more time in Juárez [then a college party destination just over the Mexican border] than I did in school [laughs]. That was my life until my twenties.

HAYES: What changed in your twenties?

TAPIA: We’re talking late sixties, early seventies . . . and that’s when all the Chicanismo really came to life. Cesár Chávez was doing his marches [in California]; Reies [López] Tijerina was doing his marches in New Mexico. So I got involved in all that and started thinking one day, you know, there I was on the streets chanting “íViva la raza!, íViva la raza!” And I come to realize that I really didn’t know anything about mi raza . . . even though I was living the life of mi raza. So I started to research my own culture. And that’s when I fell upon the santero tradition, and music, and that’s how it all began.

I mean, who was I? I was calling myself, at that time, Spanish American, but what did that mean? It was confusing for me because I didn’t really have the knowledge. I think . . . the thing that brought me to where I am now is finding out, getting that knowledge, and then doing something with that knowledge. And even today, my work comes from a Hispanic and Chicano background and logic, but all the issues I deal with in my work are everybody’s issues. I mean, if I’m doing a piece that deals with gangs, there are gangs in every culture.

HAYES:  What does the term Chicano mean to you, in New Mexico?

TAPIA: Many people here don’t understand the terminology of being called a Chicano. They’ve always been called Spanish because of the historical background of New Mexico. Being an isolated area, where the Spaniards came and retained a lot of their culture . . . even though there is a mezcla [mixture] with the Native Americans . . . they tried to keep their roots in the Spanish line. When we grew up, we called ourselves Spanish American. And then as I grew older and educated myself to the historical aspects of what happened here . . . the Mexican flag flew over New Mexico for twenty-five years . . . I realized we’re so mezclados, man.

So Chicano is the right term for sure, for me anyway. . . . It’s a political statement and also a generational one. . . . But there are still a lot of people that consider themselves Spanish American. And the art is starting to change. The younger generation is pushing through and is not identifying as Chicano. In some ways, it seems like Chicanismo is dying. It’s dying with me and people like me—Magu and Luis Jiménez and other artists that have passed on.

HAYES: You are hinting at an end of an era, but there is renewed interest in Chicano art and Chicano studies. At least in southern California, 2017 is turning out to be the year of the Los Four Chicano art collective: LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum of Art] is organizing a Carlos Almaraz retrospective. At MOLAA [Museum of Latin American Art] we are organizing a Frank Romero retrospective. A Gilbert “Magu” Luján survey is being held at UC–Irvine, and Beto de la Rocha’s work will be included in several of these exhibitions. I understand you are also honoring Magu in a painting. What was your relationship with Magu?

TAPIA: We were very close. We met during the [1987] Hispanic Art in the United States exhibition, and we bonded immediately. In Hispanic, we would travel to the different venues, so in New York and Houston and L.A. I would meet up with Magu and Luis Jiménez, Rudy Fernandez, and others. Then they brought Hispanic to Santa Fe, so I told him, “Stay with me, man.” So he did, him and [wife] Marty and the kids, and he just fell in love with New Mexico.

He was one of those people that’s like booze. The more you get, the more you need, no? And then before you know it, “Andas bien borracho con Magu,” you know! He was a very intoxicating kind of guy. I introduced him to many of the santeros here, and they were very intrigued by him. I think he felt at home here and didn’t realize what was here. He hung out here for a long time. He even discovered he had relatives here!

And then I would visit him in L.A. Then I got a commission in Santa Margarita [California] for a church, so I decided to go. Magu was living on Hollywood [Boulevard], and he said, “Come work out of my studio.” I went over and stayed with him for a year. We were tight. He loved arguing, and we would get into it all the time, but it was all good, you know?

HAYES: What did Magu connect with in your work?

TAPIA: He liked the connection to the historical and how I was carrying the historical pieces out. . . . He liked that a lot. Then of course I started to do a lot of social commentary, which he loved.

Talk of Magu, who savored countless comidas at El Comal with Luis, trails as our breakfast ticket arrives. We drip honey over our fresh sopaipillas, drain our water glasses, say our good-byes, and head out to Luis’s truck. We drive another ten miles southwest to his chapel-like studio garage in La Ciéneguilla to see new works in progress for the Cada mente es un mundo exhibition.

HAYES: Looking at your studio, you have a poster of Homies [plastic cholo figurines] pinned to the wall and other images from popular culture, like Mexican calendar art. Tell me about your source material. 

TAPIA: I was doing something similar before the Homie toy culture came out, but I was calling them Josés y Marías. If you look at my early work, from the early nineties, I took José y María, which means Joseph and Mary [the biblical couple], and I put them on the streets. So they became this gang guy with his chava with big hair, tattooed. You know, they’re portraits.

HAYES: What about the backyard scenes, like that poster on the wall of one of your clothesline sculptures [Northern New Mexico Clothesline (Two Weeks of Laundry)]?

TAPIA: My mom washed our clothes in a tub, and we’d go hang them on the clothesline. Even at a young age, I realized you could tell the history of a family by just looking at their clothesline . . . if they had fancy sheets or whatever. Somehow that came back to me as I hung clothes out to dry one day because my dryer went out. To this day I have this clothesline at my house. Haven’t used it since then, but I started thinking how that was telling a story, because I used to wear these T-shirts with imagery, and it came to me that that was my portrait. I had T-shirts with Guadalupanas, with Catrinas, with Budweiser on them, so that’s what I incorporated. And as a joke, just one pair of chones. Hopefully nobody believes I have just one pair!

HAYES: Is there something particular about your northern New Mexican culture that you identify with, beyond the santero influence?

TAPIA: There is a real strong spiritual connection, maybe even more so than in any other Latino community. I guess because we’re such a small area and sort of socially . . . how do I put it? . . . socially isolated . . . that the religion really stuck close. So there is this really strong spiritual aspect to northern New Mexico, especially in the Latino and Chicano culture, that I think comes out in my work. And there is a unity, maybe not so much today as there used to be when I was growing up, but we always stuck together because most of these places were ranchos, so you had to take care of your neighbor, and your neighbor took care of you, and if somebody needed help, we all came out to help. Today, very seldom do you see that happening, so that’s a part of it too.

Growing up on a rancho, it’s all still imbedded in me, to this day. I still chop my wood for heat for the house every year. I’ve been doing it since I was a child. So I still keep a lot of our tradition of daily living within myself, and I think that tradition comes through in my work.

HAYES: There’s an undeniable connection here. You are a sculptor making wood carvings, and you’ve been chopping wood all your life.

TAPIA: Yeah, it’s kind of sad sometimes because there is a piece of wood there that you could probably carve, and you need it for heat!

HAYES: I notice, in the work you are creating here for the exhibition, the homage to Magu [Cruising Hollywood: Homage to Magu]. There is a radio carved into the center of the dash. It makes we wonder if music is a part of your work at all? What kind of music do you listen to?

TAPIA: Oh yeah, I have the radio on all day, a variety of types of music. I like the Chicano music a lot. They have a program on Saturdays that plays on KUNM, the University [of New Mexico] station. I like everything. You know, I’m a sixties guy. But I like the Americana music more than anything anymore. . . . Something I wish I would have caught onto when I was younger was music. Learned something about it, right? But I never did.

HAYES: This carving also has a good amount of two-dimensional painting, perhaps more painting than carving. How did you develop both skills?

TAPIA: Well, I don’t consider myself a painter, to be honest with you, man. I mean, it’s a very difficult thing for me to do. I am dyslexic, and so sculpting really works well for me because of that three-dimensional contact. Then, when we get into the painting skills, I work really hard. Obviously, I paint my sculptures, but I shy from two-dimensional painting.

I call myself a sculptor primarily. I think it’s the choice of other people to decide whether you are an artist or not, and everybody has an idea about what an artist should be, right? But I think that if you have that specific [artistic] talent, that you can do any medium you want so long as you learn to control the medium.

With that, Luis turns off the lights and locks up the shop. We hop back into his Ford, wind down a few back roads, and before I know it, we are headed south on Interstate 25 to Albuquerque. Luis informs me that we are going to the National Hispanic Cultural Center to view a major sculpture recently purchased with State of New Mexico public art funds for the permanent collection of the center’s art museum.

HAYES: What are we going to see now?

TAPIA: We’re going to show you the Cadillac, A Slice of American Pie. I think you’ll enjoy it. It took me about a year to make, and it’s an actual ’63 Cadillac. It was kind of crazy, because I always thought that somehow I wanted to bring lowrider imagery into the household. I do wood carvings of cars, but I wanted something that was more full scale.

So I was sitting one day with a welder friend of mine, Bill Van De Valde, having a couple of beers, and I asked Bill what he thought about cutting a car in half. I guess he’d had a few too many, and he started thinking, “I could do that!” So we went to take a look at a ’63 Cadillac four-door out in a junkyard . . . and it was trashed, man. I ended up buying the car without realizing it was over seventeen and a half feet long! It took about a whole year to complete the project by the time we cut it down and did the bodywork, and we had to rebuild the frame because it rolls. And then I had to do the mural painting. A year into the project, it was one of those things like, “Whose idea was this?”

HAYES: You had made wooden cars before?

TAPIA: Yes, I had made a few Cadillacs out of wood, and they were pretty popular, right, and they were fun to do. I’m sort of a car guy myself, and I was really intrigued by the lowrider theme, especially in New Mexico, because they use a lot of religious iconography on the cars. Historically, that’s right in line with when the Spaniards came. They had images of the Virgin Mary on the conchas [silver adornments] on the horses and the decorative parts on their saddles. So it’s translating that tradition from one moving object to another, right? One hundred years later, we’re doing the same thing, decorating our rides.

HAYES: Other Chicano artists have made lowriders out of wood, such as Frank Romero or Magu. How are yours different?

TAPIA: I think mine are more realistic. I really try to make the car look like a real car. If it’s a ’63 Cadillac, it looks like a ’63 Cadillac, but with New Mexican details. With Frank or Magu, they change up the car. You get the image, but you don’t specifically get the model or make.

HAYES: What’s your process?

TAPIA: My cars are made in a traditional method. You have the wood, and you prime it with gesso, which also fills in the cracks. You know, with a lot of my work, especially if you look closely, I’m not shy about leaving marks behind. I don’t sand everything so it’s totally cherried out. I like leaving chisel marks, or grass marks, because that gives the viewer the idea that this thing is actually handmade. It’s not from a mold. Texture is really important to me. I love adding extra texture, even though you can’t tell from a distance. It’s something you experience closer to the work. It gives the work more depth.

HAYES: When did figures come into your work?

TAPIA: I was self-taught, right, so everything was trial and error. There was nobody to show me how to do the traditional santos. I knew they were carved, and then I found out they were gessoed, and being . . . in the learning process, I stuck pretty close to the tradition of religious art and just dealing with santos. I didn’t last there very long. The transition almost started immediately because I started getting more involved with the color. Back then, the religious pieces were more muted, or completely unpainted, and I started to brighten up my color. And then I got tired of doing Saint Francis over and over again. Man, how many Guadalupanas can you make in one year?

So I started to think of other images and how to change those images, but I still stayed within the realm of religious art. I did Noah’s Ark, which was a big step out of that [traditional] world, because that was never done. Then I started doing research on other saints not done by northern New Mexico historical artists. I started doing those saints because that presented more of a challenge. Then, after years of development, and as I would research the saints, I found that all the stories or subjects of these images have social commentary involved.

HAYES: For example?

TAPIA: The Passion of Christ was a whole political movement. Although we celebrate it as a religious experience, it was a political movida. So I started to incorporate today’s political and social issues and feelings into the work. If you look at my work today, there is a lot of reference to religion, especially Christianity. And in the tradition of the santos, there are religious figures, but I always place them in a contemporary environment or give them some kind of contemporary commentary or iconography. I haven’t done straight-up religious work in a long, long time.

HAYES: In what other ways have you changed or expanded tradition? Are you still using the same kind of wood that historic santos were made from?

TAPIA: No, I used to use New Mexico aspen and cottonwood, make my own paints and all that sort of stuff, but I stopped doing that. I like this wood that I’m using now. It’s a soft wood, but it has a lot of strength, and I can manipulate it a lot easier than other woods. And I can trust it more, because sometimes when you collect aspen, you have to make sure it’s totally dry by the time you start painting. If you don’t, it’s going to crack.

It’s the same issue with paints. I’m using acrylic paints. I like the brilliance of commercial paints. Some people have made a big deal out of that. But I say sometimes it’s better to go to the store. I think that if there had been a paint store around in Spanish colonial New Mexico, the early santeros would have agreed.

We wrap up the day at Tapia’s home south of Santa Fe. It’s situated, perhaps not so coincidentally, on a historic rancho that is more than three hundred years old. We turn onto a dirt road, and suddenly, like a scene from one of Luis’s classic “dashboard altar” sculptures, a valley landscape fills the windshield.   

HAYES: Look at this view! Where are we now?

TAPIA: This is La Ciénega. I’ve been here for nearly thirty years. You hit this valley, and it’s all ciénegas. It’s all marshland. See all the willows, and there are natural ponds. And look, there’s that tree I was telling you about earlier that still has yellow leaves. It’s a cottonwood, and like this home, it’s probably about two hundred years old.

So here we are. Carmella’s home. “¡Bienvenido!”

The massive cottonwood towers over the front yard as we pull into the drive. Just beyond, I see the clothesline that Luis referred to earlier in the day. Instead of Luis’s chones, a mop and a bird feeder hang from the line. We step out of the truck, and I marvel at the front porch of the old adobe home. It’s covered, floor to ceiling, with a perfectly sculptural stack of firewood, collected and cut by Luis for the winter ahead. I see three vintage cars parked in the front yard.

TAPIA: This is my car collection: a ’53 Studebaker Champion, sea-foam green; a ’64 Falcon convertible; and a ’51 Chevy stand delivery wagon. Carmella calls it my Chicano apartment complex!

HAYES: Are these cars that will be made into sculptures?

TAPIA: No, these are supposed to run! Let’s say they are the projects I haven’t gotten to yet.