Ben Ortega Sr.
MAKING MIRACLES OUT OF WOOD
Ben Ortega Sr. did not always want to be a carver and Tesuque, New Mexico was not always going to be his home. When he carved his first pieces 27 years ago, he was still thinking that he might be a prizefighter. During his two years in the army in the South Pacific, Ortega – strong and wide of girth- was a champion boxer, more interested in punching heavyweights than culling the delicate face of St. Francis from a gnarled piece of driftwood.
But in 1961, while preparing for a trip to California to look for work, Ortega carved a couple of wooden figures – a St. Francis and a Madonna – “just for fun” because he “ discovered them there in the wood”. He had learned to use tools in machine shop and cabinetmaking courses after leaving the Army.
Fate then knocked on the Ortega’s door.
“A couple of men, fund-raisers for the Santa Fe Opera, came by the house. They wanted to know if I had anything of value to donate to an auction, a benefit for a new building at the opera, Ortega remembers. “I told them that I didn’t have much, but if they thought my two small carvings would sell, they could have them.”
As it happened, Ortega’s carvings were the first two items sold at the opera auction. The next day, a woman who had seen his work stopped by his house unannounced.
“Are you Ben Ortega, the artist?” she asked.
“No, I’m just Ben Ortega,” he relied.
“Well if you’re the one who made the St. Francis, could you make me two more, only a little taller?”
Ortega’s face lit up like the midday New Mexico sun. Yes, he would make more carvings. An artist’s career was thus launched: His home would be Tesuque, not California, and prizefighting and the machine shops of the West Coast would have to wait forever.
“The business started coming in right away,” recalls Ortega. “Collectors started coming by my house, and at a special sale for local artists at the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, I sold 18 carvings during the first few minutes.
In the nearly three decades that have passed since those first carvings, Ortega estimates he has created about 50,000 figures. His favorites are St. Francis, San Pasqual, San Isadore, and the animals. Ortega’s work can be found in private collections throughout the world and are also in the collections of many prestigious museums, including the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, the Museum of Albuquerque, museums in Germany and Japan and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.
About once a week Ortega takes the four-wheel-drive with kids, grandkids, chainsaws and axes and combs the winding arroyos and dry riverbeds of New Mexico, searching for wood that holds the happy figures inside.
Much of Ortega’s success as an artist and a carver lies in his knack for looking at a twisted, weathered chunk of wood and seeing faces and figures. “Much about my success with woodcarving has pleased me over the years,” says Ortega. “But what makes me the happiest is seeing the joy on people’s faces when they first see my carvings and look closely at my works.
“People smile, they weep, and some even get down on their knees and pray.”
Excerpted from HISPANIC magazine July 1988