The master wood carver and Santa Fe resident died from complications of diabetes at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center. He had been showing his work at Spanish Market for 45 years, his son Antonio said, claiming the same spot at the corner of Lincoln and Palace avenues.
Ortega learned to carve from his father, the legendary santero Ben Ortega of Tesuque. Art was his life, his family said. He began carving at 6. By the time he reached his 40s, he had achieved his own fame.
“He was very well known for his wood carving,” his wife Anna said, “St. Francis and the angels you see around Santa Fe.”
Ortega’s work can be seen in churches throughout Santa Fe, including Santa Maria de la Paz and the Santuario de Guadalupe. He carved St. Jude for the former and a crucifix for the latter. His work hangs in both the Smithsonian Institution and in the Museum of International Folk Art. He received commissions from both collectors and celebrities, including Estee Lauder.
“He had a passion,” Anna said. “He was very humorous. Everything he made, even his angels, were whimsical. He was the originator of the wooden angel.”
Ortega spent much of his life working in security for museums – Albuquerque’s Natural History Museum, the Palace of the Governors, the New Mexico Museum of Art and the Museum of International Folk Art.
“He worked with the Santa Fe Boys and Girls Clubs for over 20 years,” Anna said. “He was a traveling artist.”
He taught his boys wood-carving the same way his father Ben had taught him. He started with birds. He had been teaching his grandson Antonio, 10, before he died.
“First he taught me how to sand,” Antonio said. “Then he taught me how to do the eyes. After a couple of years, he taught me how to sharpen the beak.”
He coaxed the figures from aspen and cottonwood.
As his illness progressed, he lost his eyesight and was placed on dialysis.
His son Chris remembers his father’s humor. He kept both his nurses and his doctors entertained, always making jokes about his illness.
“He was like a John Belushi meets Rodney Dangerfield,” he said.
“It was his humor that carried him through all these years,” Anna said.
His son Antonio was struck by a pair of collectors who approached his old booth at last weekend’s Winter Market. They were surprised to find the santero missing.
“They had talked to him for 30 minutes,” at another market, Antonio said. “When I broke the news to them, they were teary-eyed. They were in such shock.”
“That’s the kind of impact he had on everybody.”
Santeros and santeras, the men and women who carve and paint religious images, hold a revered place in traditional Hispanic culture. Their art does not exist for art’s sake, but for cultural and religious expression.
Ortega is survived by his wife, Anna, his sons Antonio, Michael and Chris, and his daughter, Jessica. Services are pending.
A benefit account has been established at Century Bank in his honor.
Michael B. Ortega