At age 44, Mike Vargas quit his job as a supermarket manager to pursue a dream he had postponed because of family responsibilities. He got a Fine Arts degree from Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico, found work in a graphics studio—and discovered his true calling in life: saint-making.
Vargas now has his own gallery in the Old County Courthouse in the bustling heart of the trendy art center, Taos, New Mexico. He has garnered several “best of show” prizes in local art fairs and Spanish Markets, and even held a one-man exhibition of holy images, called “Santos on Paper,” at the town’s prestigious Harwood Museum. Not bad for a middle-aged, late-comer to the arts scene.
Although the quiet, unassuming Vargas is reluctant to join the computer age, he is no traditionalist in the way he uses printing techniques or oil paint on handmade paper to expand the bounds ofsantero(saint-maker) art. Yet, for all his experiments with mixed media, Vargas comes closer than any modern New Mexican sacred artist in capturing the severely simple lines, coloring, brushwork—the real spirit—of 18th-19th century masters like Pedro Antonio Fresquis, Molleno, and Jose Aragon.
When he was growing up, Mike says, an uncle who was a penitente used to store art work from his morada in the family's back bedroom. The young Vargas was both frightened and fascinated by these holy images of the suffering Christ. It is, certainly, a recurring theme in his art-making.
While working in the print studio, Vargas became skilled in making monotypes, single prints made from drawings on an inked surface. In more recent works like the two altar screens in my collection, Vargas has turned to a brighter color palette, rendering his holy subjects in a stylized, elongated manner, recalling El Greco. This is one saint-maker to watch.