Painter of Place: The Life of Ed Sandoval

By Brian D’Ambrosio

Intuitively bound to New Mexico in terms of his focus, imagery, and tone, Ed Sandoval’s oil paintings continue to find a steady market for their inherent beauty after four decades as one of New Mexico’s most prolific and popular artists. Indeed, he has accrued – and earned – a reputation as a painter of place, one whose use of color and exploration of history invites the soul to adventure.

“My art embodies my feeling of New Mexico as a special spiritual place,” said Sandoval, 77, who was born in Nambe and now calls Taos home. “I see it as preserving the architecture, the culture, and the faith and the devotion of New Mexico. Devotion is so much a part of New Mexico, a respect for people and the land.”

Sandoval has deep roots in the state. His path to becoming an artist who is so synonymous with New Mexico was formed by a freak accident at age 6 in Nambe. One afternoon, a truck on the crest of a hill somehow popped out of park, switched gears, and crashed into Sandoval while he and his twin brother, Danny Sandoval, and cousin Joe Trujillo were counting frogs at a water pond. Though Danny was able to leap out of the way, the vehicle rolled over the other two boys. It took about eight months before Ed Sandoval was able to walk, and it would be about one full year before doctors permanently removed all of his body and leg casts.

During Sandoval’s recovery, his father, Herminio Sandoval, enrolled him in an art correspondence course. There, his creativity was unveiled, laying the foundation for a lifetime’s work.

“An artist’s style of painting is directly related to their personality,” Sandoval said. “Growing up, I always felt like I was inadequate, and the English language was hard for me (his first language being Spanish). I was thrown into a school in Los Alamos (where his father was a home builder), … and I was surrounded by kids whose parents were PhDs, and I had an inadequacy about being smart. Later, I realized that I had qualities in perception and the ability to see something and put it into my heart and soul and then project it on canvas.”

Upbringing Informs Art

Sandoval expresses his own life story through his art, which frequently pays homage to the artist’s earliest and dearest relationships. Sandoval spent as much time as he could with his maternal grandparents, including overnight stays and entire weekends together whenever possible. They lived in Nambe in a big adobe house with a tin roof, mud floors, and a wood-burning stove for cooking. They had no electricity or indoor plumbing. In the backyard, they raised farm animals and slaughtered their own beef, pork, and chicken. Rooms were borderline freezing during the winter, and if Sandoval wanted to warm up, he was told to bundle up with one of the homespun quilts that were stacked in the bedroom.

“There was always jerky drying on a line,” Sandoval said. “Grandmother was quite known as a curandera (female healer). In the kitchen on the vigas, you would see herb plants and the herb plants hanging from ceiling, used in remedies. People would come and she’d help them with some of their health problems. It was a beautiful connection.

“Grandfather was out planting and growing things and feeding animals. My grandmother would tell me stories of her childhood and memories of her parents. What a strong faith that she had – a strong faith in her heart.”

Sandoval said that his grandparents shared their material knowledge with the community and bartered and traded goods and supplies. They were also quick to help their neighbors physically when collective muscle was sought. This reciprocity between relatives, neighbors, and people in general is something Sandoval conveys by design in his paintings.

Since boyhood, Sandoval’s impressions have been heightened by the conditions of nature, the sense of the sounds and scents of the country, the first softness of spring in the air, the smell of the parched earth after rain – and he has been remarkably able to shift and reassign those perceptions and capture them on canvas.

Indeed, as a professional painter, Sandoval has often been praised by art critics and collectors for his unique ability to combine such family history and personal experience with formal art training and loads of brilliant color and texture.

Commingling past, present, and future in his art, Sandoval said that he considers his work as valuable beyond the picture, his art conveying his responsibility as a historian and a curator of traditions. In fact, Sandoval said his motivation is in large part derived from his belief in the uniqueness of the place in which he was born and lives.

“With my art I want to preserve the stories for the future,” said Sandoval, who spent many years designing and building adobe homes and later was employed as an art therapist and counselor to children with behavioral difficulties.

“I saw the old ways and I want youth to at least know what that was like – a pure way of life that had been lived, and is still lived, in northern New Mexico. I want people to know that life and appreciate it and see the beauty of it. … When I am creating a painting, I not only feel that inner feeling of being within myself, but I am able to show you the soul of my upbringing, culture, and heritage.”

Though Sandoval’s paintings may seem planned, he said that the manner in which he arrives at the final piece is something of a mystery, an act of spontaneity.

“You let the painting take you on the journey of the final outcome,” Sandoval said. “Mixing color. Developing depth perception, contrast, composition, harmony, movement, balance. All of that, it’s there at the tip of your fingers. I have no insecurity dipping into paint and mixing colors that I haven’t mixed together before, and I love the idea of mixing colors in the skies I paint that might not be customary.”

Honored to Paint El Viejito, Ancestors

Perhaps the most expressive representation in Sandoval’s art is the appearance of el viejito, the old person. Depicted on foot and aided by walking sticks, he figures in Sandoval’s ever-changing landscapes, amid the sunshine or snow and the glowing tints of the waking or waning hours in full, vivid exposure.

“I am honored to be painting the old people because I have spent so much time with them,” Sandoval said. “Their life experiences resonated in my heart, hard working people, not much money, happy, faithful, and the old man is an important trademark in my work.”

Sandoval emphasized more than once that he feels obligated to share the New Mexico that he knows, to capture the essence beneath the surface appearance of sagebrush, mountains, and light.

For example, he said that he takes great care with his Taos Pueblo-inspired paintings to respect the spirit of trust and friendship behind them. Painting the Taos Pueblo from the Native perspective, he said, has reshaped his own thinking. He said he tries to view even the smallest strokes through their history and that the Pueblo people encouraged him to distinguish his art as not only something beautiful but as a method of preservation.

“It’s painting through the history, the culture, and the people,” Sandoval said. “Leaving something for future generations is something that is important for all of us.”

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