Wednesday, April 4, 2012

George Lopez, The Miraculous Santo Carver from Cordova New Mexico

 George Lopez b.1900-d.1993 
In 1990 the Smithsonian and National Geographic joined together to create a "Masters of Traditional Arts" award for the great 'folk artists' of the USA. Mr. George Lopez was selected as one of the first to be singled out for this honor. The award is much like that of the selection in Japan of Living National Treasures, a worthy idea, thank you Japan for allowing this country to do something similar to honor our elders.
My first meeting with Mr. Lopez was in 1991 during a car ride out site seeing on the High Road from Taos to Santa Fe. Traveling through the secluded mountain villages stopping to take pictures of the old Mission Churches along the way. The trip can take over 6 hours just from all the stops you'll want to make along the way, get out of the car and explore. Cordova is a hidden jewel just off the main road, down a steep road into one of the 2 entrances into the village, just north of the Santurio de Chimayo. One of the entrances leads you right to the Lopez/Ortiz family complex just follow the welcoming signs and hope you aren't there when a bus load of visitors has arrived before you, (they'll probably have snatched up all the best pieces)! The room you are invited into is filled with carvings of Saints, along with some other specialty animal carvings. At times inventory can be low, and at other times there is lots to choose from at a great range of prices from $20.-$1,000. if not more! Whether or not you become enamored of these carvings and must have one, you are greeted with great warmth by either Sabanita or her husband, who both continue to carve to this day and can be found at the annual Spanish Market in Santa Fe. 
In the early 90's you may have even gotten to meet Mr. Lopez himself, on one particular day I arrived and had been gathering cottonwood branches to practice carving. At the time I had begun carving fish decoys and song birds and asked for some pointers. George sat with me on the bench out front and began to carve, as I watched, he encouraged me to begin which I did. He saw that I'd sharpened my pocket knife correctly and that it was old and well used. His knives were more slivers of blades from years of carving and sharpening, no exacto knives used here. Every now and then he'd glance over to see what I was doing. Probably figuring out whether or not I was worth spending any time with at all. He'd occasionally demonstrate a carving technique and check my progress, he'd show me a trick or two and we'd continue. Very little was spoken, just 2 people sitting in the sunshine enjoying each others company and carving. At some point his wife Silvianita brought us both some lemonade, it was one of the great days in my life.
Today I have the good fortune of repairing his carvings, sometimes one will get dropped or a child plays with it and breaks it, or the cat chews on the soft cottonwood. Below I have some examples of pieces I've repaired.
 The Guadalupe image here has rays some sharp tipped and some with round balls of light which are more typical of Jose Delores Lopez carvings, yet I believe George learned a great deal from his father and emulated his dad's work as he developed his own style. Very unusual and not typical of Cordova carvers work is that this piece had been painted white, with a type of gesso. The piece had also at one time been removed from the base.
 Typically used by early Santero painters of Retablos and carvers of Bultos, this Holy Card image of Our  Lady of Guadalupe. The term "Our Lady" is quite often used for all depictions of the Virgin Mary.

The back, too is very typical of Jose Delores Lopez, again George is learning at this early point in time of ca. 1940.
 My repair work included re-carving/re-placing 8 of the missing rays. I also cleaned up and stabilized the paint which is thick and chipping in paces. Many collectors would not give this carving much thought and would de-value it based on the addition of the white paint. Yet referring to the book "The Wood Carvers of Cordova, New Mexico, Social Dimensions of an Artistic Revival" by Charles L. Briggs 1980 University of Tennessee and Albuquerque Press, it is noted that at one point Jose Delores did indeed paint his Bulto carvings upon a selling trip to Colorado. Unpainted carvings to this day are very much under-appreciated, most collectors want something with color, not raw wood. With Cordova carvings 2 types of wood are used, Aspen for it's clarity of grain and blonde coloration and Cedar for the lovely dark accent gained from it's use. At first I had thought the carving was probably painted by a shopkeeper hoping to make a quicker sale or by the family that owned it, but now I believe that George himself painted it, to make this more sale-able.
 Here's a photo of George Lopez with a very similarly shaped carving.
 Evidence that George was carving rays with points and balls of light at the tips is shown in this early photograph. Note the Crucifixion of Christ on the Cross on the wall in the background, almost identical to the one below, except for the 'spear' tip at the top.
 Due to the two different woods used here, Cedar for the Cross and Aspen for the Christo figure, these woods dry and shrink at different rates, often times causing the figure to pop off the Cross. I've said before that Christ would indeed have wanted to get off that Cross if he could have, yet he stayed and sacrificed his life here on earth for us all. On this carving I replaced 2 of the wooden 'Nails' of cedar which had been lost and re-attached the figure onto the Cross. When I do this type of work I take the entire piece with me into the San Francisco de Asis Church here and light a candle with a prayer to allow me to re-attach the figure. When I did not follow this procedure one time, the Christo popped back off the Cross even though the glue had set. Now, I don't take chances and I don't take miracles for granted.
Above a photo of Jose Delores Lopez, the man who helped revive the tradition of Santo Carving in Northern New Mexico, father of George Lopez.
It is an honor to continue to help in repairing these wonderful carvings, I do know that Sabanita will from time to time also do repair work on them, on occasion do not be insulted if you're request for a repair is turned down. She is actively busy making new carvings.
A year after meeting this family I asked Sabanita if she would make me an "Our Lady" figure with rays, at the time she was only making them without the rays, it was more to her style. She accepted the commission and made one with full leaf like rays of cedar which I proudly display in my home to this day.
To Sabanita I would like to say thank you for your generosity and sharing your family with me. I'll never forget the time we picked Ranier Cherries from the trees, it was the first time I'd ever tasted them, and they will always remind me of you.
A Beautiful tribute on youtube can be seen through this link:
Please continue reading...
This style of carving is better explained as a type of 'Chip' carving similar to "Tramp Art" and should be considered a type or branch of tramp art. Jose Delores himself began his carving history by making family members and friends in the community chip carved frames for family photos and religious images of Saints.


  1. Again an awesome historical post. I wrote a post including you at mine. You make me miss Taos!

  2. Robert--another one of your best posts! Very informative, and very personal; beautiful!



  3. I met George Lopez in 1990 approx he was very kind and signed a small carved bird for me (Then gave me a HUG) ! Wonderful artist