James Cordova in his studio preparing for the Cuatro artist program at the Denver Art Museum in May 2017

James Córdova is Final Artist of Cuatro[4]: A Series of Artist Interactions

On View Beginning May 6

Our fourth and last artist of the Cuatro[4]: A Series of Artist Interactions is art history professor and santero (someone who makes religious images), James Córdova. For his project, James is creating a triptych in the santero tradition that explores images of the conquest and paintings that came out of the Spanish Colonial period in Mexico. His piece, San Hipólito y las secuelas de la conquista, will offer an in-depth look at how the mixing of indigenous and European cultures came together to create a new visual vocabulary.

James Cordova Cuatro santero
San Hipólito y las secuelas de la conquista. © James Cordova.

The DAM Cuatro[4] team popped into James Córdova’s studio for a sneak peek of his piece and a quick Q&A session. Between “saint-carving” and pigment-making, James also managed to answer a few questions. (View the slideshow of photos of him at work in his studio and of the finished piece below.)

Cuatro[4] Team (CT): How did growing up in New Mexico influence you as an artist? What made you decide to become a santero?

James Córdova (JC): A grade school friend of mine, Gilbert Quintana, had taken a workshop with a master santero, Charlie Carrillo, in Santa Fe, to learn to make retablo (images for above or behind altars). Gilbert told me that later that summer he would be exhibiting in the Spanish market his retablos. I had my parents take me and I visited Gilbert and I saw his retablos. I was really taken by the work of some of the master santeros and so that planted the seed. And then growing up in a very traditional Catholic, Hispanic family, my mind was already attuned to this.

CT: Can you talk to us about your process, especially as it relates to pigment- making. Why it important to you to stay true to the santero tradition of creating your own pigment?

JC: A lot of the pigments that I’m using like cochineal and indigo were used in the pre-Columbian times by indigenous artists but they continue to be used in colonial times by indigenous and Europeans and mestizo artists around the world. I like making my own pigment. There’s something about cochineal that I can manipulate in a way… I like how it goes on to the gesso. There’s something about it that is different when you make it yourself than when it is store-bought.

CT: What is the significance of some of the cross-cultural symbols depicted in your piece?

JC: Flowers, feathers, and butterflies had similar symbolic value to indigenous people before the European conquest. We know that the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican indigenous groups believed that privileged individuals became butterflies and birds and they lived in this flowery world in the afterlife, which sounds a lot like the Christian afterlife. So these symbols had correspondence in the indigenous world and in the Euro-Christian world and they became blended in the colonial period to create these beautiful images of crowned nuns, wearing these spectacular crowns that you don’t see anywhere else in the world.

James’s piece is on view on level 4 of the North Building.

James Cordova in his studio preparing for the Cuatro artist program at the Denver Art Museum in May 2017

James Córdova carving a sculpture of San Hipólito from a block of wood.

James Cordova in his studio preparing for the Cuatro artist program at the Denver Art Museum in May 2017

Close view of Córdova's carving process.

James Cordova in his studio preparing for the Cuatro artist program at the Denver Art Museum in May 2017

The artist taps the chisel with a mallet to carve the wood sculpture.

James Cordova in his studio preparing for the Cuatro artist program at the Denver Art Museum in May 2017

Córdova's San Hipólito sculpture in progress.

James Cordova in his studio preparing for the Cuatro artist program at the Denver Art Museum in May 2017

Detail view of a completed sculpture by Córdova.

James Cordova in his studio preparing for the Cuatro artist program at the Denver Art Museum in May 2017

Córdova is creating a triptych in the santero tradition. A sculpture of San Hipólito will be in the center panel and paintings of crowned-nuns will be on the wings.

James Cordova in his studio preparing for the Cuatro artist program at the Denver Art Museum in May 2017

Córdova grinding cochineal for paint pigment.

James Cordova in his studio preparing for the Cuatro artist program at the Denver Art Museum in May 2017

Closer view of Córdova grinding cochineal for paint pigment.

James Cordova in his studio preparing for the Cuatro artist program at the Denver Art Museum in May 2017

Córdova in process of painting the triptych.

James Cordova in his studio preparing for the Cuatro artist program at the Denver Art Museum in May 2017

Córdova's triptych will also include early colonial indigenous motifs found in mural paintings in Mexico.

San Hipólito y las secuelas de la conquista. © James Cordova.

detail from James Cordova's santero artwork

San Hipólito y las secuelas de la conquista (detail). ©James Cordova

detail from James Cordova's santero artwork

San Hipólito y las secuelas de la conquista. © James Cordova

detail from James Cordova's santero artwork

San Hipólito y las secuelas de la conquista (detail). © James Cordova.

Marina Florian is the special projects assistant for studio and artist programs at the Denver Art Museum. Marina has been at the DAM since 2014 and her favorite work at the DAM is Gustave Doré’s The Family of Street Acrobats: the Injured Child.