The artist discusses his “Retablo” (2019–) works, one of which is included as a print in our September/October issue.
When I was eight, I fled the Salvadoran Civil War and came to the US on foot. As an adult, I’ve been returning to and confronting spaces along my route in hopes of healing from that traumatic experience. While traveling, I collect materials for my sculptures and hire people I’ve met along the way to make parts of my work. I often hire a retablo painter I met in Mexico City named Daniel Vilchis. Retablos are devotional or miracle paintings that Catholic Europeans brought to Latin America. Let’s say a lightning bolt hit your house, but you were able to get your family out. You might ask a local artist to make a devotional painting about the event, thanking your god of choice and asking for continued protection.
Retablo paintings have a consistent style, and Vilchis is a fourth-generation retablo painter. I send Vilchis sketches, and then we go back and forth on the details. He paints in oil on tin with text at the bottom, sometimes in English and sometimes in Spanish.
The paintings reflect on my own healing journey, especially my experience overcoming cancer. While ill, I learned a lot about plant medicine and other ancient healing practices from working with curanderos [healers], shamans, and witches. They taught me to get to the source of my trauma—being separated from my family, witnessing war and violence—in order to heal. One retablo thanks the radiation machine that killed my tumor. I’d go into this machine for thirty-minute sessions and meditate while listening to music, usually shamans singing or monks chanting. In my “Retablos,” I often include snakes, which are symbols of healing in shamanistic cultures but also part of the American symbol of medicine (⚕️): two snakes wrapped around a rod.
I’m hoping to create micro economies with the money that I receive from institutions or galleries. I hire undocumented workers or Latin American residents with certain skills to help me make my work. That’s become more important during the pandemic—the market where Vilchis sells his paintings, for example, has been closed, but I’ve stayed super busy and have been able to pay him. More recently, I’ve started to make retablo paintings that tell the healing stories of undocumented people in my community too.
—As told to Emily Watlington