Like many of New Mexico’s santeros (saint-makers), Fernando Bimonte had a fascinating tale to tell about how he discovered his vocation. Born in Uruguay to Italian-Spanish parents, Bimonte showed little inclination to follow the many artists in his family. He chose cooking school over drawing classes and, eventually, found work as a chef for an oil company executive in New Mexico. One night, when Bimonte was on his way to cater an event, his car careened off the road and flipped over several times. He was able, miraculously, to walk away unharmed from the accident. Later, in a vision-like dream of brilliant light, he felt called to quit his job and become an artist.
Bimonte kept a studio near El Santuario de Chimayo, a popular New Mexican pilgrimage site, known as “The Lourdes of America,” for the curative powers of its sand pit. Working with “found” objects and re-cycled wood, he created mixed media art, contemporary in feel but grounded in santero tradition. The frames are always an integral part of Bimonte’s wonderfully idiosyncratic retablos (panel paintings), giving them the look of three-dimensional sculptures. He was also a skilled furniture maker, creating portable shrines like The Virgin of El Cobre Altarpiece, whose hinged doors are decorated with images of the Holy Child of Atocha, St. Francis, St. Cecilia and St. Peter.
One subject Bimonte returned to time and again in his modern retablo paintings was the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus (depicted with Saints in The Holy Family Altarpiece and in the 3-D wood panel, The Holy Family) and the Christ Child, alone, seen in three traditional variations in The Holy Children sculpted box.
Bimonte took on a life-work, no less daunting than the painting of the Sistine Chapel! He set out to restore the once derelict El Santo Nino Chapel, just a short walk away from the Santuario. In just two years, this workaholic santero created more than a 100 pieces for the chapel, expressing his favorite themes. The altar shows children at play, protected by their guardian angels. Instead of decorating the side walls with traditional images of the Stations of the Cross, he created a special cycle of 14 panels, showing Christ, the Virgin Mary and the Saints, protecting, loving and nurturing children. “You can experience the suffering of Christ over in the Santuario,” explained Bimonte. “This sacred place is for children. I want it to be full of happiness and joy.”
Bimonte headed off in a striking new direction in later works like Three Crosses in a Landscape. Set in one of Bimonte's hand made frames, the mixed media piece shows three thinly-painted black crosses against a richly-layered background of yellow, red, orange, olive and brown--the colors of the weathered hills of the American Southwest. This abstract landscape brings to mind the series of cross paintings Georgia O'Keeffe made during a visit to New Mexico in 1929.