When Roseta Santiago walks into Santa Fe’s Sassella for lunch, all the staff know her favorite table where she meets with artists and collectors. And when I drive to her live/work studio loft, I recognize the thickly textured exterior walls that sometimes serve as a background in her contemplative oil paintings. Art and life tend to be inseparable for her.
The dark-haired, stylish Santiago, who is of Filipino-Spanish-Polish-Russian-Jewish heritage, moved to Santa Fe in 2000 to pursue fine art painting. Raised in Washington, D.C., she’d already established herself painting wildlife murals for Bass Pro Shops and designing and building restaurants in Atlanta and Miami. Her father was a chef for President Harry Truman on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. “At the end, he wrote on the menu: ‘Thanks for the five-pound weight gain — Harry,’ ” she tells me. The connection inspired her to include the Santa Fe railway logo in a painting series.
History reverberates for Santiago. “The things that inspire me are the historical artifacts, historical people,” she says. “People who have something to reveal. It’s always about the inner beauty. It’s mainly the interior of a person or thing. I can almost experience a pot being made when I paint it. I just see what the potter went through.”
Best known for her luminous still life and figurative paintings of Native peoples and artifacts portrayed with dramatic lighting, Santiago is a master at chiaroscuro. A Native American girl floating in a canoe was Santiago’s reinterpretation of John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott paintings, which were in turn inspired by “Alfred,” Lord Tennyson’s tragic 1832 poem. Her biggest influences? Vermeer and Rembrandt. “People have told me that my paintings feel real — that the people in my paintings feel real. I really work on trying to put that emotion in it,” she says.
Santiago paints most days, sometimes starting at 5 a.m., perhaps to the music of a movie score, Van Morrison, or Leonard Cohen. On her easel when I visit is a work in progress of a pensive Native man shrouded in a blanket leading his new horse through a field of chamisa and grasses. The man’s been injured in a past horseback riding accident; he’s suffered greatly but hasn’t given up. “There’s a complete story in all the paintings I do now,” Santiago points out. “There’s a major character; there’s sometimes supporting elements or characters.”
The paintings begin with a concept. She stages the composition with a model, artifacts, and costuming, and then photographs that. “I crop it and try to see in the camera what I envision in my heart about the story,” she explains. Then she paints. Reds and earth tones tend to dominate Santiago’s palette. Sometimes there is a single object in a dramatically lit setting. The artifacts — such as blankets, beaded Indian bags, Pueblo pots, an Apache water olla, and pawn jewelry — are often purchased at Rio Bravo Trading Company. The models include Native Americans and other Indigenous peoples.
Moving deeper into portraiture, Santiago finds it magical and spellbinding that she can tell the viewer through the canvas what she is thinking. Take, for example, Honoring Ancestors, from her new portrait-heavy collection, Recuerdo. It features Ty Harris, her principal model, wearing a buckskin dress as she stands at the edge of a mountain looking out onto a deep canyon. “Her hair is cut. She’s modern and she’s standing with ancient artifacts in a void. She’s holding an Acoma rattle. She’s standing on a red trade blanket,” Santiago says. “She’s a traditional girl, but she’s also a modern girl.”
This juxtaposition fascinates Santiago. “These are the interesting people that I get to talk to because they’re tied to tradition, they’re protective of it, they’re not blasphemous about it, and yet they want to move forward in the contemporary world,” Santiago says. “I feel really blessed to be in this transitional stage here in New Mexico where there’s living history going on. It isn’t like this anywhere else.”
The show Two Masters of the West: Billy Schenck and Roseta Santiago is on view July 31 – August 15 at Blue Rain Gallery in Santa Fe. There’s an artists’ reception on July 31 from 5 – 7 p.m. rosetasantiago.com
Images courtesy the artist
From our July 2020 issue.