With the release of the book Borderless: The Art of Luis Tapia earlier this year, sculptor Tapia celebrates a career spanning more than four decades and, in the process, creates a retrospective anyone should be proud of. A massive and stunning overview of Tapia's life's work as a sculptor/wood carver that not only showcases great talent (such as the above self-portrait from 1995), it's a staggering example of a prolific artist who never seems short on ideas. Lowrider culture, religious iconography, Northern New Mexico lifestyle and beyond are dissected and represented—not bad for a guy who was once asked to leave Spanish Market. Tapia signs copies of the book at 2 pm this Sunday at the Museum of International Folk Art (706 Camino Lejo, 476-1200) during the third annual Museum Hill Community Day, and we think you should be there. Meet Luis Tapia—your new hero.
What comes after a huge book like this? Does it feel like a new chapter, so to speak?
It's amazing to see. It's my entire life, other than the sex. It's 45 years. It's 216 pages. It's remarkable to see that. I've been working on these pieces for 45 years, give or take a day here and there, and all of a sudden ... these aren't all the pieces I've done, but to see the core of these works come together in one unit. ... I don't like talking about my work a lot. I like to leave it up to the viewer. I like the viewer to do it. I don't have a lot of the answers myself. I can't write it down, I'm not a guy who can get up on a stage and make all these explanations, but I can do it with my hands.
Your wife (historian/author Carmella Padilla) told me you prefer to be called "sculptor" over "santero." Can you explain the difference?
This goes back to the historical aspects of my work. I started doing traditional work, which was santero work—the making of religious objects, especially in the style of Northern New Mexico. But as time developed and I started to expand my work little by little, eventually I didn't do the traditional work anymore. It's unfair for me to call myself a santero when there are 300 at [Spanish Market] every year who are santeros. Mine doesn't resemble theirs; I prefer the title sculptor because it gives me freedom in what I do.
In the 1970s, you were asked to leave Spanish Market for not being "traditional enough." Was this a bad thing? A good thing?
That was the best thing that ever happened to me. At the time I didn't think so, because I had two kids on the ground and was sculpting full-time, and it was very difficult in those days. Spanish Market was the only alternative Hispanic artists had—a lot of the galleries didn't want to carry santos. It was pretty scary, but I started going to markets all around the country instead. I started exhibiting my work more outside the state than in; I wasn't even known in New Mexico anymore.