SANTA FE, N.M. — Visitors to Santa Fe and residents alike have showed their love for a series of seven archangels carved in old cottonwood trunks along the river downtown – and so have families of rats, ants and a host of other wood-loving bugs.
The damage caused by those latter critters, along with water and weather, have gutted, cracked and peeled José Lucero’s angels. Felled by a saw, they now lie scattered and stacked at both sides of the driveway at his east side home, with one standing guard next to a bookcase in his living room.
But the heavenly carvings will soar back to the Santa Fe River Park, along Alameda Street, as soon as Lucero rehabilitates and restores his creations, with a few precautions added to protect them in the future.
“It’s a really intense project, but it’s a beautiful project,” he said Monday. “I keep adding love … so good comes out and touches” those who view it.
It’s been on hold for a bit as Lucero has concentrated on finishing work for this weekend’s Spanish Market, which will be followed by a break bass-fishing in North Carolina. Then he’ll devote full time with hopes of finishing the large wood sculptures by the end of August, he said.
Lucero carved the archangels at the park in 2005 using dead tree trunks left standing after the rest of the dying trees were cut down. Since then, the trunks have been sprayed with water by sprinklers that keep the riverside park green and, as well, have sucked up water through the interior of the trunks – more than anyone ever expected, Lucero said.
Three already had been cut down by mid-March, when the remainder were felled for restoration. The day it happened, the sculptures were so wet that some were embedded with ice, he said.
“It took a month and a half to finally dry them up completely,” Lucero said. And the drying led to cracking of the wood, which he is filling with an expandable foam.
“They rotted from the inside out,” he added, showing where the entire bottom of the trunk will have to be cut off in some cases.
“Ants and bugs were living in each one. One was really bad – a family of rats had moved in,” Lucero said. The rats huddled in the trunk while it was trucked to his yard, he said, then began escaping when the sculptures were unloaded.
So drying the moist wood wasn’t the only preliminary chore. “We had to apply bug spray to start killing all the ants and termites,” he continued, adding that his brother Felipé has been helping with the work.
Then the rot had to be cleared out and stopped. That happened with the help of a visitor from Maine, someone who stopped and chatted with the brothers a few years ago when they were working on the sculptures in the park, Lucero said. Experienced with boats, the man talked about wood rot and said he had a secret recipe of how to battle it.
The man walked away, but then came back and decided to share his secret – one Lucero said he used to help solve the rotting in the angels.
The city is paying Lucero $10,000 for the restoration, but one has to wonder if the sculptures should have been created differently in the first place to avoid the problems that developed.
“Retrospectively, we would have done things differently,” said Debra Garcia y Griego, director of the Santa Fe Arts Commission. “These were the first trees we did carve. We didn’t expect (the damage) would progress as rapidly as it did.”
Concrete bases this time
After he fills the cracks, sands down and repaints the carvings, Lucero said he will apply a sealant – he’s tested a few different products over the years – to protect the works from the sun and rain. And, most important, the angels will be attached by interior rods to a concrete base, with an epoxy barrier to protect them from moisture working its way up the interior.
A Santa Fe native, with Spanish and Indian blood, Lucero still lives on the property where he was raised. “We grew up as kids rampaging all over these mountains,” he said. Little did he know, when he was crumbling soil to cover himself with red and yellow ochers that he would use the same materials to create colors for his paints.
Brown hues come from walnut shells he collects from underneath an old tree on the way to Española, while he’s scraped some green from a vein revealed in a construction project near Placitas, Lucero said. But a good, bright green he gets from a commercially prepared product, he added.
People call him the “Picasso santero,” Lucero said, pointing to retablos he recently painted with features slightly askew in a manner reminiscent of the famous cubist. He said his work with the archangels – he’s still finishing a retablo of the seven that he plans to enter for a Spanish Market prize – was inspired by a Mexico City etching from the early 1700s.
“They represent all aspects of our lives,” Lucero said of the archangels, pointing to San Barachial, for example, as representing forests and all the greenery in the world, while Jehudiel represents the celestial realms, but also reminds us “how precious Mother Earth is to us,” Lucero said.
“It’s a pleasure to have the sculpture garden here for a little bit,” he said, looking at the wooden angels around him. But, he added, he’s also looking forward to the “beautiful feeling” and smiles that the archangels will bring to others when they are installed once again along the Santa Fe River.