Gnarled cottonwood roots, twisted aspen branches and apple tree trunk slices sit stacked in Peter Ortega’s Santa Fe yard like blocks of marble awaiting a chisel.
The Santa Fe santero has been coaxing saints from wood since he was about 7 and working with his father, the legendary carver Ben Ortega. Where others might see split trunks and crooked roots, he might spy a pair of legs, a bird or an angel’s wing.
He’s known for his San Pasquals, complete with bread loaf, feathered hat and dangling fish; his angels; and his bird-bedecked St. Francis. Their elongated faces trace the curves of the wood.
|If you go
WHAT: 23rd Annual Winter Spanish Market
WHERE: Santa Fe Community Convention Center, 201 W. Marcy St.
WHEN: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday
9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday
The artist cradled a six-foot-long root as contorted as an arthritic arm, caressing each curve as if it were the spine of a cat.
“It looks like a grapevine root,” he said. “I’m still waiting for inspiration on this. I might make a St. Michael entangled with the devil. They’ll be fighting in the sky.”
Ortega and his son Matthew will be showing their wood carvings at the Winter Spanish Market this weekend at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center.
Winner of multiple Santa Fe Spanish Market awards, named a “Legacy Artist” for the city’s 400th anniversary and given Phoenix Home & Gardens magazine’s 2011 Master of the Southwest award, Ortega is a prospector. He digs for roots and branches along the rivers and on private property, carefully examining them before each cut to make sure he maintains the integrity of the curves. People sometimes unthinkingly offer him perfectly straight timber that might serve well for kindling, but has lost any shred of artistic reincarnation.
“See, there’s an angel here,” he told a visitor, tracing the gentle curve of a cedar root.
He gathers the wood himself, still driven by fond memories of combing the Tesuque riverbed with his father and siblings.
The father of 10, Ben Ortega never thought of himself as an artist. But, in 1961, while preparing to move to California for work, he carved a little St. Francis and a Madonna. He had been working as a janitor and the caretaker of a ranch. But he had learned to use machine shop tools and cabinetmaking in the Army. Fate arrived in the form of some Santa Fe Opera fundraisers who asked him to donate to a new building auction after the original burned to the ground in 1967. The donated carvings sold immediately, prompting collectors to knock on his door asking for the artist Ben Ortega.
“He told them, ‘I’m Ben Ortega, but I’m not an artist’,” his son said. ” ‘I donated them.’ They said, ‘Can you make two more?’ ”
Two years later, the Museum of Fine Arts ( now the New Mexico Museum of Art) hosted a solo show of Ben Ortega’s work. He sold out within a couple of hours. He died 14 years ago.
Ben Ortega was a patient teacher who told his son to look at the wood to determine what it wants to become. The twists and knots double for bones and musculature.
“Look at what Mother Nature shows you first,” Pete Ortega said. “With these really twisted pieces, you get some really interesting” carvings.
It’s a lesson Pete Ortega practices daily. And he’s passing that vision to his own son, Matthew Ortega. A menagerie of painted animals scatters across the table before him. Jackrabbits, coyotes and a burro cavort in a rainbow of colors. The herd is on its way to a Phoenix gallery. Matthew started carving seriously a few years ago after working with his father from the age of 9.
“He showed me how to make cuts and the steps to take,” he explained. “Then he let me do whatever I wanted, whether it was a bird or a face or a Ninja turtle.
“Right now, it’s more like therapy for me,” he continued. “It’s a passion. Whatever I imagine, I just give it a shot.”
He’s already developing his own style, eschewing his father’s vertical faces for more detailed, rounded features.
“They look like him,” Peter Ortega said.
“I want to make a Nativity scene with baby Jesus and the animals,” Matthew said. “But that is going to take forever.”
Peter’s granddaughter Vanessa Martinez is continuing the family tradition at just 14. She attended her first Spanish Market last summer.
“Her booth was really clicking,” Peter said.
“People always ask, ‘What’s your best piece?’ ” he added. “I say probably the next one.”