TIO CELSO

by Carmella Padilla

Other Stories by Carmella Padilla

The photograph is faded and fuzzy. An elderly man of small stature, his hair and beard a shaggy gray, sits upright in a slatted wooden chair. In his knotty right hand, he clutches a cane carved to curl into the shape of a horse's head. His brown eyes sink like shadows between high cheekbones and bushy brows. And a gentle, jolly smile emerges from his lips.

Celso Gallegos was 73 in 1937 when he he sat outside his adobe house in Agua Fria to have the provocative portrait snapped. His engaging looks alone would have been enough to inspire a photographer to record his likeness for the generations to come, but Gallegos was no ordinary man. A santero, or maker of sacred images, he was renowned for the religious wood carvings he created with a pocket knife. He lived as a farmer yet he left behind a legacy that, while still little-known today, places him among New Mexico's greatest artists.

"I knew the man," Melinda Romero Pike, a lifelong Agua Fria resident, proudly recalls. "I remember seeing him there in his little woodshed, deep in meditation, carving in the cool of the morning."

Romero Pike was 16 when her great-uncle, her "Tio Celso," died at 79. She still remembers his funeral: the bells of San Isidro church cried a mournful toll as people gathered at the graveyard to grieve his death. The affair was small, but the loss was monumental. "Tio Celso was born during the Civil War and he died during World War II," Romero Pike says. "He lived during a time when life was very hard."

A local history buff who has traced her family lineage back six generations, Romero Pike has pieced together a rough history of a man whose talent reached beyond New Mexico's still-isolated borders into mainstream art centers like Chicago and New York. At home in Agua Fria, however, no one considered Celso a great artist. He was just a sweet neighbor who prayed many hours a day and carved in his spare time.

"He was a poor little man living in a poor little village, but there was something in him that was beyond all that," she says. "Compared to some other artists of his time, he's not recognized. He's like the forgotten santero."

Celso's story begins and ends in the tiny agricultural village of Agua Fria, six miles west of Santa Fe. Celso was born in 1864, the fifth and youngest child of Jose Jacinto Gallegos and Florentina Dominguez Gallegos. Like his two brothers and two sisters, Celso was brought up to be close to the land. Above all, he was taught to be close to God.

Somewhere between 1835 and 1850, Celso's father and an uncle donated a plot of land on which to build a village church. Local legend has it that Celso's father tossed his hat in four opposite directions to determine the church boundaries. Exactly when the adobe Church of San Isidro was completed is unknown, but like most churches then, it quickly became the community's spiritual and social hub.

For Celso's family, who lived next door, the church was a source of pride. His father volunteered as sacristano, or caretaker, while his mother assumed the role of resador, or reader of prayers. The resador preserved traditional Hispanic prayers and hymns, attending baptisms, wakes and funerals to lead the faithful in prayer and song.

Celso's siblings eventually married and settled upon the stretch of family land. Shortly before the turn of the century, Celso, a carpenter, married, too. In his worn wedding picture, Celso stands seriously in an ill-fitting suit, his intense brown eyes the focal point upon his contemplative face. His wife, Adelaida Montoya Gallegos, died shortly after their one daughter was born. Celso never remarried. The baby was raised by a relative.

Before Celso's parents died, they passed their titles of sacristano and resador down to him. Celso soon gained respect throughout the region as a highly spiritual man. "Santa Fe knew Celso by virtue of his prayer," Romero Pike says. "He was requested to attend wakes all over Santa Fe and surrounding villages because he knew the most beautiful prayers and hymns by heart. He directed many souls to heaven."

Family legend has it that Celso started carving after inheriting an eighteenth-century wood carving that his great-great-grandfather was believed to have made. As he did in prayer, Celso poured his entire spirit into his art. Though crude, Celso's santos (saints) expressed his deep religious devotion and appeared throughout the church as personal offerings of faith. Celso gave other works to relatives and friends.

Celso was a prolific artist: Besides religious sculptures, he carved cemetery markers, chests, and walking canes. His front yard was inhabited by an array of horses, birds and other whimsical creations. In one corner of the yard, Celso posted a sign: La Curiosidad, it said, Curio Shop. "He probably had one of the first galleries in Santa Fe for all we know," Romero Pike jokes.

Celso's first public exhibition was in 1926, when the first Spanish Market was held in downtown Santa Fe. By 1931, a local newspaper article proclaimed Celso "one of the best known and beloved of the native craftsmen, and one of the most skilled." The exposure, plus the respect of local Anglo art patrons, brought Celso recognition among Hispanic art aficionados beyond New Mexico. In January, 1932, his work was featured in a prestigious exhibit of American folk art in Chicago. By the late 1930s, collectors from New York and elsewhere were driving to Agua Fria to purchase the work of the San Isidro Santero, as Celso was known.

Celso carved until he could no longer hold a knife in his arthritic hands. When he died on April 6, 1943, his artistry had been acclaimed in exhibitions and publications nationwide. But at his funeral the next day, Romero Pike says, Celso was remembered not for his art, but for his faith.

"Unbeknownst to most of his own people was the fact that he was a pioneer santero of renowned fame," she says. "Celso went to his grave serving his community and his church. He died a very poor, humble man."

Perhaps Celso's greatest gift to his community was the collection of his work left in the village church. But sometime during the 1960s, Romero Pike says, a new clergyman discarded the work during a church restoration project. The church graveyard where Celso was buried was bulldozed clear of the wooden markers that marked his and other graves.

"It's like in the Bible: Celso came into his own and his own received him not," she says. "This church was loaded with Celso's work, but they got rid of it and replaced it with all that shiny Plaster of Paris stuff coming out of New York. What they didn't know was that Celso was once famous in New York."

Indeed, today, the Church of San Isidro bears no hand-carved memories of Celso. His house, which was sold years ago, still sits next door; instead of his curio shop sign, a "Do Not Park in Driveway" sign is posted out front. With hundreds of cars zooming through Agua Fria daily, Celso's quiet village is no more.

Thanks to the museums and others who had the foresight to collect Celso's carvings, however, many of his remaining artworks have now become models for modern santeros and other artists as well. And thanks to Romero Pike's ongoing research into her Tio's life, Celso's legacy has survived. But if Romero Pike had one wish for her own lifetime, it would be this: to see a plaque with Celso's name set into the stone along the Museum of Fine Arts' "Walk of Fame" in downtown Santa Fe. She wants him to finally have a place of honor next to the likes of Tommy Maccaione, Georgia O'Keeffe, and others who made Santa Fe the art center it is today.

"We must always perpetuate the memory of Celso because we can't afford to forget him," she says. "I haven't forgotten him. After all, blood is thicker than water."

Santa Fe writer Carmella Padilla is the author of "The Chile Chronicles," published in 1998 by the University of New Mexico Press.

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