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Broken wood carving spurs a restoration effort

SANTA FE, N.M. — The giraffe that once was intended to tower over the “Wooden Menagerie” exhibit on Santa Fe’s Museum Hill instead has its neck and head in ignoble display outside its entrance.

The 11-foot wooden construction by the Tesuque artist Felipe Archuleta (1910-1991) just has too many nicks and missing chunks to reign in its full majesty at the Museum of International Folk Art.

It needs repair and, with funding and on-staff conservator availability limited, the Museum of New Mexico is launching what’s believed to be its first crowd-funding campaign to get the work done.

“It’s a valuable experience no matter what happens,” said Shelley Thompson, marketing director, who proposed the experiment in fundraising. “Even if we don’t meet the goal, we will learn some things. It will take a series of tests to see if this is a viable fundraising solution.”

The campaign is taking place on Indiegogo, accessible through InternationalFolkArt.org/brokebackgiraffe, and the goal is $10,000. That will give a good start to the conservation work, which could cost up to $15,000, she said.

While the head and neck are on view at the museum with an appeal for help in restoring it, the remainder of the colorful yellow and brown giraffe stands among a host of other artifacts in a storage room at the museum. At its feet are sealed bags holding small bits that have broken off, along with a chunk of the hump joining the shoulder and neck, where the animal’s mane first sprouts.

“The pieces need to be fitted back together as a puzzle,” said Nicolasa Chávez, curator of Latino/Hispanic and Spanish Colonial art at the museum. She added that the giraffe probably suffered most of the damage many years ago when it was knocked about a bit during a move.

Archuleta made it in 1973, fashioning it in seven pieces so it could be transported more easily, she said. Many of its cracks and rough surfaces appear along the sawdust and glue mixture that was used to cover the joints.

A carpenter who turned to carving the animals as work began to dry up at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Archuleta started with the animals he and his neighbors would see every day, such as a burro carrying wood or an ox drawing a carreta, according to Chávez. Pigs, snakes, sheep and coyotes also were local subjects.

But then he developed an interest in exotics, animals he saw on Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom,” in National Geographic or at the Albuquerque Zoo, she said. He also took his kids and grandkids to the circus and studied the animals there, she added.

And he made recycled art before it became fashionable, Chávez noted. Not only did he stop by construction sites and check for leftover materials he could use, but he also took in stray dogs, brushed them and used the fur that came loose to decorate some of his carvings, she said.

“Other artists grew up learning their art from him,” she added of many others whose work is included in the exhibit, “Wooden Menagerie: Made in New Mexico,” which closes Feb. 15.

Museum officials know of only three other large-size giraffes made by Archuleta and all are believed to be in private hands. All the more reason, they said, to restore this one so it can return to public display.

If and when it does, its head and neck probably should be supported from the ceiling, Chávez said, to take some of the pressure. Otherwise, the weight of the head and neck would pull at the shoulder area, perhaps leading again to damage, she said.

Archuleta passed the carving tradition down to his descendants, including grandson Ron Archuleta Rodriguez, who also has carved animals in the exhibit, but with a slightly modern twist. In one, a piece of a motorcycle forms the side of an armadillo, while another shows a pig astride his own motorcycle.

Both Chávez and Thompson said one of their favorite pieces is a carving by Archuleta Rodriguez that takes revenge for all the fish eaten by bears, showing an oversize rainbow trout holding a bear in its jaws.

Part of the plan for restoring the giraffe is to include Archuleta Rodriguez in the work, since he is familiar with his grandfather’s techniques, they added.

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