Catering to a unique brand of tourist—the kind that makes a pilgrimage for the purportedly miraculous qualities of the dirt inside the towering Santuario—Chimayó (population 3,200) has a singular charm.
Here, the traditional flirts with the contemporary, and a healthy slew of galleries keeps the town's cultural heart pumping. One of the scene's most colorful characters is Arthur "Lowlow" Medina, who alongside wife Joan runs the folktastic Lowlow's Lowrider Art Place (Corner of Juan Medina Road and Santuario Drive, No. 25).
Paintings of virgins, angels and landscapes line the Medinas' wooden fence—surplus from the artwork on view in a gallery housed in the property's garage.
A large, round sign outside the makeshift gallery proclaims Medina a "nationally known artist." It also includes a picture of one of his custom lowrider creations—a 1976 Cadillac adorned with depictions of the Stations of the Cross—and a novelty New Mexico vanity license plate that reads "JESUS."
"Always," Medina answers when asked how long he's been a believer. "I did go through wrong things that I needed to clip off, but I've always been a man of God," he assures.
Inside his art space, samples of Medina's prolific career line the walls, packed closely down to the multiple rug-covered floor. The Holy Trinity commingles with a babe leaning on a '58 Chevy, while shadows cast from ristras hung throughout give the artwork new depth. Rancheras blaring from a busted boombox by the entrance complete the quintessential New Mexico feel.
“This is a part of history,” Medina says, pointing at one of his paintings that shows an old truck parked in front of the Santuario. “The reason that I did those is because the church has had a change,” Lowlow elaborates.
He says that up until seven years ago, parishioners celebrating special occasions, like weddings or quinceañeras, would drive their vehicles all the way down to the church entrance and snap a commemorative picture. “It was really nice,” the 49-year-old reminisces.
No more. As the church moves into modernity, change comes with it—including new handicapped-accessible parking spots that block access to the spot. “The new priest that came in started changing everything around, ¿no? ” Medina says of the current setup.
“I want people to know the old history,” he continues in the rhythmic accent you’d associate with the region. “That’s a part of the history of the church, and part of lowrider culture.”
Possessing a distinct personal stamp, his pieces are simultaneously primitive and sublime. They’re distinguished by their straightforward subjects and honest approach.
“I’ve been doing artworks since I was small—maybe, like, 5 years old,” Medina says. As a child, he would help out his grandmother, who worked at the nearby Ortega’s Weaving Shop, by drawing blanket patterns. “She used to ask me to paint a picture on the zarape,” he recalls. A lifelong affair with art was born.
“Anything that I can make into a piece of art I paint, more or less,” Medina says of his non-elitist aesthetic. “Like cars, windows, rocks, trash cans…”
That innate curiosity would lead him to trick out his first lowrider at the age of 17. Lacking formal tools, he approached the project armed with some spray paint and a paper plate and Styrofoam cup he used for contours.
He never looked back.
“They really love to see the cars, because that’s where they see the lowrider history in person,” Medina says of visitors to his shack-cum-exhibit space. Building upon that experience, he’s spent the last three years “praying for a building” that’s adequate to house his ever-growing inventory.
Should that not be part of the master plan, he says, he’ll take his act on the road and create the first-ever “Lowrider Museum on Wheels” using one or all seven of his lowriders.
Medina plans to launch the operation in tandem with a “praising workshop” and a lowrider ice cream truck, complete with snow cones and an opportunity for kids to create, exhibit and sell their own artwork inside it.
“That’s the way I got started,” the self-taught artist says, hoping the move gives the pint-sized Picassos a chance to “not grow up in the wrong ways.”
In the meantime, Medina and his family continue to sell their wares in the front yard, knowing that his righteous path will one day be rewarded.
“It’s not easy doing right things,” he says. “You just have to pray to the Lord and be a man of God. That’s the first step of everything.”