Remembering the Remarkable Brother Arturo Olivas

Nov 18, 2018 | 0 comments

Arturo Olivas died on November 18, 2017. On this first anniversary of his passing, let us celebrate his life and remember the remarkable memorial service held for him earlier this year.

I had the opportunity to meet Arturo in 2013, 18 months after he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. He was given a prognosis of six months to live. Yet, he pursued cutting edge treatments that extended his life well beyond that initial “death sentence.”

He was a bonus guest interview during the production of my TV interview series, A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die. Series producer Sean Wells, a multi-talented woman who is also an artist, introduced me to Arturo. She suggested he could provide insights about facing one’s own mortality. This conversation with Arturo turned out to be a most powerful discussion, and a highlight of the TV interview series.

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In his interview, we discussed how he was planning for his own funeral. He talked about how his faith as a secular Franciscan brother helped him ponder mortality. We laughed and shared many warm insights.

After his interview on A Good Goodbye TV, Arturo lived four more years. He and his life partner Christopher Gibson traveled, taking pilgrimages to sacred healing sites such as Lourdes in France. Arturo was an accomplished retablo artist, a religious man, an elementary school teacher, a gardener, a delightful partner, and so much more. He left a remarkable legacy of loving, learning, teaching, faith and art.

A Memorable Memorial Service

Arturo Olivas fan programOn May 27, 2018, Memorial Day weekend, hundreds of people celebrated Arturo’s life at Albuquerque’s National Hispanic Cultural Center (NHCC). Chris put together a three-hour festival that combined music, food, decorations, videos of interviews he had given, artwork, flowers, and speakers from all aspects of Arturo’s life providing stories of tribute to him.

In a tree-shaded courtyard, people sat at multiple round tables decorated with colorful serapes and paper flowers. The musical groups La Rondalla, Las Flores del Valle, and Otilio Ruiz and Chuy Martinez played upbeat songs. The music played between two tribute sessions provided by people who knew and loved Arturo. The schedule for the Life Celebration was printed on the back of a heart-shaped fan that featured a painting of Arturo toward the end of his life, holding his walking cane.

Inside one of the NHCC salons, videos of interviews he had done were projected on a screen. Attendees helped themselves to a buffet of delicious food from La Fonda Del Bosque Restaurant. People could purchase beer and wine at a cash bar. Tables were laden with a large collection of his books, toys and other personal items. Attendees were invited to take a book or item with which to remember Arturo.

Arturo Olivas Saint Francis PrayerIn addition, Sean Wells helped create a poster featuring a 2011 retablo Arturo painted, “St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata.” It featured the prayer of St. Francis framing the image. Each family was encouraged to take one poster as a remembrance of Arturo, his art, and his faith.

The Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love. For it is giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.

The Artist and His Faith

Here is a biography of Arturo as provided at the website for Arizona State University’s Hispanic Research Center.

Arturo Francisco Olivas, SFO, is a Franciscan secular brother in the Order of St Francis. He is a teacher in the public schools and a catechist in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. As a Franciscan, he strives to combine his vocation to teach and paint with his call to follow St Francis in imitating Christ. He has exhibited his work at Spanish Market since 1994. Among various distinctions for his work, Arturo received the Gerald Peters Award for Best Use of Traditional Materials and Techniques. His work has been collected by several museums including the Museum of International Folk Art, the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, the Denver Museum of Art, the Heard Museum, and the International Marian Research Library. Arturo’s work has been featured in various publications including Tradición Revista, Faces of Faith: Rostros de Fe, Faces of Market, Saints and Seasons, Santos and Saints, L.A. Inside Out, Santa Fe and Taos: Under a Coyote Moon, and Playing Cards of the Apaches. His work is available at the New Mexico History Museum gift store in Santa Fe, Hispaniae in Old Town Albuquerque, and the Faith Works in Albuquerque. Reproductions of his work may be purchased online at

Arturo’s Icon Artwork

Arturo’s artwork is featured at the website for Trinity Stores Religious Artwork & Icons. Here is a description of his work and family history from that site.

Br. Arturo Olivas, OFS paints Catholic images after the style of New Mexican religious folk artists of the 18th and 19th centuries. These images are commonly known as retablos. Early Santeros, who painted Retablos, used wooden panels and water-soluble paints colored with natural pigments and sealed their paintings with pinesap varnish. When Arturo paints his original Retablos he uses these same materials.

The iconography of the Retablos is based on a centuries old canon governing the depiction of Catholic saints. The Church relied heavily upon the standard use of symbols and motifs to help illiterate faithful in Europe and the Americas identify and learn the stories of the saints. Hence one could travel from the churches and chapels in New Mexico to those of Peru and identify the same saints rendered in distinct regional styles.

New Mexican Retablos are distinctive in the bold use of simple lines and colors. The primitive materials dictated the style and training available to artists who were generally self-taught, a distinction Arturo shares with his forebears. The tradition of New Mexican Retablo painting reached its peak during the mid-nineteenth century. Arturo’s work incorporates elements of his Spanish and Native American ancestry in order to preserve and teach the faith and customs of his forebears.

Arturo’s family originated in Spain from whence it migrated to Mexico, Texas, New Mexico and California. The Olivas family entered New Mexico in 1695 as part of the so-called reconquest of the region after the 1680 Pueblo Indian revolt which expelled the Spanish-Mexicans to El Paso. About ninety years later another branch of the Olivas family guarded the founding settlers of Los Angeles, California and was later granted the Rancho San Miguel in Ventura which still stands as a public museum.

“My family heritage strongly influences my work. In my youth my father danced the Matachines, an ancient folk dance introduced by the Spanish conquistadors, on the major feast days of the saints. My mother is descended in part from the Tarahumara people of northern Mexico and valued the folk traditions of her people. In my work I incorporate elements of my Spanish and Native American ancestry in order to preserve and teach the faith and customs of my forebears.”

Thank you, Arturo, for the many gifts you gave to everyone you met.

A Good Goodbye