Artist and Poet Virginia Maria Romero
Written by Jessica Muncrief
Photography by Dennis Muncrief and Morgan Switzer-Mcginley
Watching someone create—whether it be a chef, an architect, or even a hobby crafter—is profoundly revealing. Artists in particular hold a deeply personal connection to their work. Having seen and admired artist Virginia Maria Romero’s vibrant retablos and acrylic paintings around town over the years, I was particularly excited when she invited Neighbors magazine in for a tour of her home studio and workshop. When she answers the door, I immediately sense her quiet nature and a peaceful, spiritual aura surrounding her. She leads me through her rustically beautiful adobe home to her studio, an add-on she and her family hand-built using traditional adobe building methods. She keeps a binder full of photos depicting their journey through the project as they formed bricks out of straw, mud, and clay; stacked them into walls, and adorned them with a loft constructed from rough-hewn wood beams and planks.
Today, the studio is bright and airy and just the right size for one artist to work unhindered. The easel where she adorns her retablos is propped on a simple, paint-splattered table next to a hinged, wooden box filled with the ochre stones, piñon sap, and other scavenged ingredients she uses to mix her own natural pigments and sealers. The high walls are decorated with pieces of her work: a wooden cross she created for her son as a graduation present, an outsized retablo piece depicting Mary flanked by a wolf, and a stunning portrait of a coyote with mesmerizing gold eyes.
I’m inspired by nature, wildlife, and really just by life in general—the whole mystery of what we’re all doing here.”
“Both of my children, Holly and Zach are ongoing, continual sources of inspiration. I’m also inspired by nature, wildlife, and really just by life in general—the whole mystery of what we’re all doing here,” she explains, adding that one of her goals is to encourage viewers of her pieces to be more in-tune with nature and thus protect it. She personally does advocacy work for Project Coyote, a national non-profit dedicated to protecting coyotes, wolves, and other predators through education.
While many of her acrylic pieces have a wildlife theme, others, like Journey to Tortugas Mountain and Crossing Over, focus on a spiritual or religious
element. Likewise, it was a spiritual journey that led Virginia into the creation of her immensely popular retablo pieces. Searching for meaning and comfort after the passing of her mother, she visited Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine in Tortugas. It was here that she felt the pull to start crafting her own versions of the religious folk art.
I ask her how long it takes to create a typical retablo piece, but she admits that she doesn’t work in a start to finish process. “Over the years, I’ve learned that I have my own rhythm. I may not do anything for a month and then I may be up halfway through the night painting. Once I get in that feeling, I just stay in it until I burn out, then I go out and walk and hike and get re-inspired.”
When she is in creation mode, the retablo process starts in the workshop adjacent to her studio where she uses carpentry saws and tools to cut, carve, and chisel pine wood panels into her desired shape. She then preps the wood by sealing it with a coat of warm gesso. Once dry, she begins her favorite part of the process: the painting. Keeping with her naturalistic spirit, Virginia uses a combination of watercolors and pigment derived from ochre clay. One of the oldest pigments known to man, ancient Native Americans used the yellow, orange, and red hues to decorate their dwellings with petroglyphs. Virginia’s ochre comes from Taos and from Pojoaque just north of Santa Fe.
Once complete, the piece gets glazed first, with a homemade piñon sap sealer and later, with a beeswax-based wax. “When my son was younger, I used to send him up in the trees to gather the piñon sap,” she remembers fondly. Virginia has since collected buckets and buckets of the piñon sap over the years.
When she isn’t painting, Virginia also expresses herself through poetry. She was mentored by the late Keith Wilson, a poet laureate at NMSU, and her works have been set to music on an album she collaborated on with Karuna R. Warren & The New World Drummers. “My poetry and art kind of inspire each other,” she says.
I end our tour by asking Virginia what she’d like people to know about her art and she points to a statement she wrote explaining her involvement with Project Coyote. She writes, “Artists have the potential to be instrumental in shifting attitudes, evoking emotion, engaging the senses, and deepening the connection to Wild Nature . . . A catalyst for meaningful change, the power of art lies in its ability to transcend and inspire and to guide us past established realities and prevailing ideologies.”
Buy it here:
1800 Avenida de Mesilla
103 Washington Ave.
Visit virginiamariaromero.com to learn more about Virginia and her art in all forms.