SANTA FE – A woodworker’s rosy calluses rise from the knuckles of Ivan Dimitrov’s hands like talismans.
A boxwood ring circles his left ring finger, its finely carved ears and hair rising upward, emerald eyes winking in the light.
“I made myself like a werewolf,” Dimitrov said.
The Bulgarian-born wood carver wanted to become a painter, but fate and poverty pushed him toward the trees. Dimitrov will be selling his intricate artwork at next weekend’s 16th annual International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe.
As of 2018, the International Folk Art Market produced more than $31 million in artist earnings. Many come from developing countries where the daily income averages less than $3.10 a day.
The gathering will lure more than 150 artists from 50 countries to Santa Fe’s Milner Plaza atop Museum Hill in the world’s largest folk art festival. This year’s crop includes 45 first-time artists, including those never before represented here: Australia, Iraq and Bulgaria.
“I came here with one quarter in my pocket,” Dimitrov said.
Impassioned stories about the miseries of living in a harsh Communist state burst from him like sparks. Neighbor spied on neighbor; he couldn’t trust anyone. Those who played the Communist game of spying and bribing rose to power. The rest were consigned to abject poverty.
Dimitrov grew up in a family of 13 in two small rooms, where they lined up “like bullets on the floor” to sleep.
Refusing to become a member of the Communist Party cost him a higher education. He wanted to paint, but couldn’t afford the supplies, so he looked to the surrounding woods.
A career born of cutting fine lines onto wooden surfaces started with a violin. Dimitrov used a tiny screwdriver to carve the instrument for his girlfriend, adding a “beautiful flower” as decoration. A friend showed it to the village wood carver. The carver said he would teach Dimitrov the craft if he agreed to work for free.
When the National Academy of Arts in Sofia awarded Dimitrov first place in woodworking, he finally received the education he sought. In 1984, Paris’ École Boulle gave him a research grant. The fine arts school is known for producing master wood carvers and furniture makers.
Today Dimitrov’s three-dimensional panels and columns swirl with twining vines, butterflies, blooming tulips and daisies, blackbirds, doves, roosters and grapes. Mythological creatures emerge from some panels; Bulgarian women in traditional ceremonial dress bloom from others. He may spend a month or more on a single piece.
“When I saw this work, its artistry is so raw,” market placement committee member and author Carmella Padilla said. “It’s spectacular; I was stunned.”
With lyrical titles like “Spring Songs” and “Sunrise,” the elegant panels reveal both natural and abstracted designs in meticulously rendered detail.
“I’m not a genius, but with carving, patience is a sign of genius,” Dimitrov said.
His journey to America began when a Harvard University law professor spotted his work in Bulgaria during a thaw in Cold War relations under Mikhail Gorbachev.
“He said, ‘Do not think negatively of Americans. They will hold out a hand to help you’.”
Then the roommate of a Bulgarian expat invited Dimitrov to Tucson, Ariz.
“I landed at JFK with five huge baggages as if I was going to war,” he said.
Soon a Scottsdale gallery began showing his work. Designers offered commissions. Then the gallery owner hired him to come to Santa Fe in 1996.
“God builds the nest for the blind baby birds,” Dimitrov said.
He began teaching woodworking at Santa Fe Community College in 2002. His classes are always full.
Today he works in his single-car garage across a long wooden bench littered with more than 700 tools. A maze of chisels, mallets and screwdrivers beckon his hands. An uncut piece of wood lies on top; its surface covered in pencil designs.
Basswood is one of his favorites.
“It blooms an exquisite flower from which all over Europe they make tea,” Dimitrov said. “It’s very obedient; doesn’t crack and it’s very soft.”
He says he’s very happy here.
“Everybody says welcome in America,” he said. “Nobody says to me offensive words.”
Dimitrov’s work hangs in the La Fonda, in Santa Fe’s Holy Trinity Orthodox Church and the Hilton Hotel. His St. Francis reigns over Gen. Franklin Miles State Park in Santa Fe, originating from a dead tree with upraised arms.