The Sunderland Gallery in the Cultural Center of Saint Cecilia Cathedral is currently featuring Las Familias Artisticas Lopez y Lopez – Artists of Northern New Mexico through March 30, 2012. Religious art from Europe and Mexico, brought by Spanish Franciscan Friars to Northern New Mexico in the17th Century, began a legacy of devotional work which continues to this day. Two Northern New Mexican families, the Ramon Jose Lopez family and the Felix Lopez family create holy objects in this tradition.

The Sunderland Gallery, the official venue of the Cathedral Arts Project is the right place for featuring works with a spiritual or meditative quality. The project’s mission statement, “To promote the performing and visual arts which uplift and challenge the human spirit,” was reflected in this past year’s exhibitions. Deborah Murphy’s landscapes, Dennis Wattier’s hand turned wood bowls, Dan Boylan’s portraits, and the quilts of Kansas Art Quilters represented the versatility of viewing experience available at the Sunderland.

This current exhibition presents a variety of santos (holy objects] in the form of paintings, sculpture and silver work encompassing a variety of techniques as well, all at the service of communicating a spiritual message.

The Lopez families are displaying painted carvings and painted panels. The carved figure and luminous color of “Santo Tomas de Aquino con Nicho” by Felix Lopez infuses the depth of this saint’s likeness. “Reading about the history of a particular saint is part of the research,” Lopez said. “It allows you to give birth to something that didn’t exist before. You put the idea mentally in your mind, start to carve, it begins to emerge.”

“Our Lady of Guadalupe” comes to life through the undulating movement of the carving by Joseph Lopez. “The process is many things; meditative, labor intensive, therapeutic and meaningful,” Lopez added.  “Working with your hands can be stimulating and wonderful; to start with a piece of wood and work it, you’re in touch with something very special. It’s not just the carving. It’s also the priming of the piece with the gesso, the painting of the piece and then the varnishing and waxing. All these stages, from beginning to end, are meaningful.”

The classic tempera painting technique of gradually developing light and form is beautifully demonstrated in “Jesus and Mary, Hearts United in Devotion” by Krissa Lopez. “We gather the natural pigments ourselves,” her father, Feliz Lopez said. “I realized 200 years ago people didn’t have access to paint stores. I researched pigments from plants and the ground. New Mexico has a lot of yellows, greens, and browns. Blue was traditionally created using indigo. We grind the natural pigment with a mortar and pestle to create a paste and then add water or egg yolk, or different gums. That’s why the painting we do has the soft tone of Nature.”

Ramon and Nancy Lopez, along with their children Leon, Lily, Bo, and Miller, are displaying a variety of forms including embellished icons, and etched silver. “Don’t Drink and Drive” is the centerpiece of the exhibition. Conceived by Ramon Lopez, the piece incorporates his work along with that of two of his children. The four large skeletal figures and two skeletal oxen demonstrate an impressive mastery of wood carving.

The addition of natural elements such as hair, help the piece clearly communicate its message. The more time spent looking at this work, the greater the reward. “The piece was inspired by an article about multiple DWI’s Ramon Lopez read in the newspaper,” said Richard Finnell, assistant to Brother William Woeger, the founder of Cathedral Arts Project. Finnell helped Brother Woeger deliver the show to Omaha from New Mexico and met the families.

“The worst offender listed in the article had been a childhood friend of Ramon Lopez,” he said. “Both families are deeply religious. They have such humility. They are called and driven to do this work. They’re unbelievably great people.”

The “Embellished Icons” of Nancy Lopez incorporate, among other things, found objects with vintage beads and images. The nine icons offer a rich variety of color and texture. Her “Let Go, Let God,” utilizes a subtle play of muted color.

Another work by Ramon Lopez “San Ysidro con Anda” was originally commissioned by St. Cecilia’s for their Spanish Colonial Gallery located behind the sanctuary of the church. Carved from pine and painted with natural pigments, the figures are dressed in period costume utilizing leather and silver components. Several examples of etched and hammered silver by Lopez are also on display.

“The Flood” (four in a series of forty) oil paintings by Miller Lopez employ a particular type of light reminiscent of illustrations by William Blake. These paintings offer an alternative historical reference to most of the other work in the exhibit.

The iconography and dedication of purpose found in this exhibition is a rare opportunity to surrender to the mystery inspired religious art can create. “We want to bring joy and happiness to other people,” Felix Lopez said. “It helps make people’s lives better.”

“Las Familias Artisticas Lopez y Lopez – Artists of Northern New Mexicocontinues through March 30, 2012 at the Sunderland Gallery in the Cultural Center of Saint Cecilia Cathedral, 3900 Webster Street, 402-558-3100,

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