ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A carousel of critters from alligators to trout showcase the skill and whimsy of New Mexico wood carvers.
“The Wooden Menagerie: Made in New Mexico” now in the Museum of International Folk Art’s Hispanic Heritage Wing has 107 works by 25 artists. Most of the carvers are from northern New Mexico.
These are not the cuddly creatures of children’s books and stuffed toys. Some artists added sharp teeth, claws and talons to the multicolored beasts.
The rich tradition of Hispanic wood carving ranges far from the stereotypical yowling coyote and log-tied burro. These artists carved both domestic and wild animals from across the globe using cottonwood, elm and house paint, sometimes pairing them with animal fur, broomstick manes and glass marble eyes.
The exhibition highlights the historic roots of New Mexican wood carvers, including early-20th-century examples of animals by Cordova’s José Dolores López and Celso Gallegos of Agua Fria Village. During the Works Progress Administration period of the 1930s, federal programs trained and employed traditional New Mexican craftsmen. In 1935 New York’s Museum of Modern Art exhibited Patrociño Barela’s expressionistic carvings. By the ’60s, artists carefully aimed the tradition at the tourist trade, focusing on carved burros burdened with chopped wood and oxen-drawn carts.
World-renowned sculptor Felipe Archuleta began carving at the age of 54 because he needed the extra money, the museum’s guest curator Andrew John Cecil said. A former carpenter born in Santa Cruz, he knew how to work with wood. He started by making burros and carts for the tourist trade, then quickly expanded his repertoire. Forty-eight of his pieces helm the exhibition.
Archuleta’s son Leroy took him to the Rio Grande Zoo in Albuquerque, where he could see the giraffes, lions and ostriches of his African dreams, absorbing their shapes and movements.
“He is definitely the sun around which the other artists circle,” Cecil said.
Archuleta led a workshop of carvers in the 1970s. By the ’80s, collectors clamored for his menagerie of both domestic and exotic creatures, who trotted to museum exhibits in New York, Paris and Tokyo.
He covered a saddle back gorilla with a mixture of Elmer’s glue and sawdust to fill in the joints and mold the rounded curves of the muscles.
“Oftentimes, the claws would be cut from inner tubes,” Cecil said.
“Some of them are ferocious,” he added. “Some of them have attitude.”
Some approach the size of carousel horses; Archuleta painted a cheetah with glowing yellow road paint.
Dolores Lopéz created “The Musicians,” a ring of carved cats playing the fiddle, banjo and guitar circling a round table. A European influence surfaces via the snowflake anchoring the table’s center.
Lopéz began carving when his son was drafted into World War I, Cecil said. In despair, he carved his own cross to mark his own grave. His son survived, coming home with northern European influences, such as the lace-like motif his father added to his sculpture.
Lopéz granddaughter Gloria Lopéz Córdova has continued the family tradition of chip carving through animals and saints. The Spanish Colonial Arts Society recognized her contributions in 2009 with a Masters Award for lifetime achievement.
Jim Davila’s Technicolor rattlesnakes invaded pop culture when Jack Nicholson posed on the cover of Rolling Stone holding one in his arms.
Davila’s work traveled from Los Angeles to Chicago and New York.
“He couldn’t make these things fast enough,” Cecil said.
Santero Arthur Lopez added humor to his creations. His St. Francis steers a Vespa with his Siberian husky Frosty riding shotgun. “Diego and Frida” depicts the famed Mexican artists as dogs, complete with Frida’s unibrow.
“Every culture has expressed animals,” Cecil said. “We’re looking at at least 30,000 years in world culture. There’s always been this very strong connection between human beings and animals.”