Artist Studio | Roseta Santiago

Interview by Bonnie Gangelhoff, Photos by Eric Swanson

Describe your studio. The key word for my studio is that it’s fertile. I have been collecting things since I first dreamed of being an artist. If you can look at something, and it tells you a story, then there are a lot of stories going on here. I have everything from a Zuni clown to a contemporary piece of pottery—simple stoneware. I have sets of Moroccan teapots, lamps, tapestries, and bowls. I am hoping to get to Morocco this year. I’m fascinated with their ancient ways. The colors are glorious in their artifacts.

Roseta Santiago at her studio.

When did you start collecting art and artifacts? I got my first western artifact in 1999 at the Rio Bravo Trading Company in Santa Fe. I purchased a large Apache water olla from the owner, Randy Rodriquez. He asked me what I was doing with it, and I told him I was in Santa Fe to become a painter. About seven years later, Randy remembered the first day he met me, and how he just looked at me like I was crazy to tackle the art scene in Santa Fe. We have both learned a lot about perseverance. And I continue to buy all my western chaps, pots, and textiles at Rio Bravo.

How do your surroundings in Santa Fe influence your work?
I came to Santa Fe because it was so intriguing—everyone seemed to be talking about it. It’s so full of the romantic history of cowboys and Indians. The romance was the attraction for me when I moved here in 2000 from Atlanta. Everyone talks about the light, but for me it’s the stories about the past, and they are in every single pot in my studio.

Why still lifes? When I can find interesting objects, I think still lifes are provocative. I will never do “pretty” still lifes. Pretty to me is not interesting.

Where do you find the models for your figurative pieces?
I could be standing in line somewhere or stop someone in the middle of the street and say, “I have to paint you.” I’m a fairly normal-looking person, so I don’t freak them out. But I’m turned down 50 percent of the time.

Can you share an example? Recently I was standing in a line at an Indian restaurant, and I saw this man with all these dreadlocks that were put up in a column and then spread out like a tree on top of his head. Everyone was staring at him. I thought, “Alright, he has to let me paint him.” He turned out to be an artist and he said yes. The painting is at Blue Rain Gallery in Scottsdale.

What impresses you about other artists’ works?
What I look for in paintings are the things artists reveal about themselves. I like to analyze what I am looking at it. With living artists, I like to see that they are experimenting. I love to look at Forrest Moses’ work. He doesn’t just slap paint on the surface. I asked him about his process, and he talked a lot about wabi sabi—that ancient Japanese term for beauty and deterioration. It’s what I look for in my artifacts, too—ones that aren’t perfect. The more wear and tear there is, the more evidence of aging. I look for that in faces, too. That’s beauty.

What is your pet peeve?
A lot of artists say to me, “How come I’m not selling and you are? How come things fall in your lap?” I’m speechless. I work more than most people. My journey is to search for answers and to work at it. You have to be open to opportunities.

If you studio was on fire, what is the one thing you would you save? I would walk out with nothing. I wouldn’t take my work, because I know one of the important things about doing art is letting go of it.

Describe yourself in one word. Relentless.

What drives you to succeed? It depends on your definition of success. The ability to get up and paint everyday is enough success for me. It’s not about fame and fortune but just about the freedom to paint what you want to paint.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? One day Ned Jacob, a master painter who gives me lots of advice, said to me, “Paint well enough so you cannot be denied.” To me that is the best kind of goal. Let your work speak for you.

Complete this sentence: People would be surprised to learn that… I am a complete loner. I am out at shows, and I love meeting people, but I enjoy my own company. Also, my dad was the White House chef to President Harry Truman. He had a third-grade education and was in the Navy for 35 years. To me he was the driving force behind me wanting to realize my dreams. He was an inspiration. He had six kids, and we all have this strong work ethic.

What is the one place people will never find you? Behind a desk in an accounting office.

When you are not painting, what do you enjoy doing?
I reserve this time to do research, look at paintings, get to know my family better, and allow time for fine dining and going to the movies.

When people come to visit, where do you like to take them? One of my friends owns Jambo, a little African cafÈ. It’s been the hottest spot for a year and wins all the top awards. And if I really want to go all out, we would go to the Inn of the Anasazi.

Blue Rain Gallery, Santa Fe, NM, and Scottsdale, AZ; Watts Fine Art, Zionsville, IN;

Upcoming Shows
Solo show, Blue Rain Gallery, August.
Art of the New West, Watts Fine Art, August 27-September 17.
Quest for the West Art Show and Sale, Eiteljorg Museum, September 11-October 9. 

Featured in “My World” in April 2011.