CORRALES – Juan Lopez spins the finest silver into Volkswagens, virgins and skulls.
This award-winning Spanish Market filigree artist lives and works in a 1965 40-foot trailer with a half-dozen goats and a mare named Goldie roaming the corral behind him.
He taught himself this intricate art form by researching books and examples in museums. He’s been soldering, flattening and twisting silver wire for 18 years.
Wearing a blue denim apron, his magnifying glasses crowning his forehead, he warns visitors about the trailer’s “questionable” floors that give way into desert sinkholes at random.
“Be careful where you step,” he said. “All I did was spread carpet over the holes.”
A half-dozen spider plants swarm the window in nest-like vines.
A refrigerator anchors the north end near a hot plate and a sink. An old metal desk sits at the southern end with a post and two upright logs doubling as tables. Lopez sleeps on a couch buttressing these cardinal directions. Ribbons and posters from past markets paper the paneled walls.
“It’s livable,” he declared.
Lopez is trying to teach himself repoussé, hammering out a copper horse head atop a bowl of hot wax.
In repoussé (the word is French for “pushed up”), the artist uses a malleable metal to shape it by hammering from the reverse side.
“Eventually, I hope to get to silver,” he said.
Pressed, he finally locates a box filled with glittering treasures: necklaces as fine as hummingbird’s nests, a doll-sized table and chair and a Santo Niño with a cape, shell and sandals spun of silver lacework. He carved the tiny face from moose antler; the hands and feet from elk. Some of the jewelry features semiprecious stones, such as amethysts or garnets. He’s made cast skulls to add to bracelets.
In 2011, his filigree Virgen de Guadalupe snared a trio of blue ribbons at the Traditional Spanish Market, including the People’s Choice, Archbishop’s and Precious Metal awards. It took him five months.
When Lopez grew interested in filigree, there was no one in New Mexico left to teach him.
He’d been working in construction, and his body was telling him it was time for a career change. He made a concho belt of mission churches using the Hopi overlay technique. But there was no Spanish Market category for that.
Lopez drove to Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art to look at old filigree. He was hooked. At first, he melted a lot of silver he was forced to sell as scrap.
“People say I’m stubborn, and I am,” he said.
It took him six months to learn the technique.
“I think he’s an expert craftsman,” said Robin Farwell Gavin, former curator at Santa Fe’s Museum of Spanish Colonial Art. “He’s really perfected the art of filigree, and he’s not afraid to experiment with it. Filigree workers are a rare thing. You don’t find many filigree works in the country because it is such precise, intricate work. And you need a really steady hand.”
Not giving up
To demonstrate, Lopez slipped a hair-thin wire through his rolling machine until it flattened. Next he attached it to a hand vise and the end of a drill to twist the wire.
“The wire goes back to being round,” he said, snipping off the results. He flattened it again, producing the ridges, then bent the results into the shape of a cross, flipping down his magnifiers.
“You need the cheaters,” he said with a grin. “Otherwise, your eyes will go out in about an hour.”
His career has been a master class woven of serendipity and inventiveness.
A few years ago, he’d been struggling mightily with soldering the hair-thin wires; too much heat would ruin the piece. He stumbled across a new tool at the expense of his poor puppy Chico, who had been walking with him in the bosque.
“Chico’s running around in the bushes and I hear this yelp,” Lopez said. “He’s got his little ears laid back. He had some porcupine quills in his nose. I grab him, put him between my legs and I yank those porcupine quills from his nose and I drop the porcupine quills.
“I stopped and I went back and I picked up those porcupine quills,” he added. “I didn’t know why.
“I had tried toothpicks with the (soldering) paste. I had tried shaping pieces of metal. You just need a little bit of that solder. I grabbed (a quill) and put it on the piece and, oh, it worked.
“Now I’ve got enough porcupine quills to last two lifetimes.”
In 2009, he created a delicate and sculptural Volkswagen Beetle from 145 feet of silver now sitting in the Museum of International Folk Art. Its doors open; the wheels turn.
“I still go to shows, and people say, ‘Hey, where’s the Volkswagen?’ ” he said.