Isabro Ortega grew up very poor in the village of Truchas, New Mexico. He and his friend, Rudy, were inseparable. There was a boy in town who had lots of toys while Isabro and Rudy had none. The other boy had an electric train set, so Isabro and Rudy made their own out of sardine cans and wire. It was a long train and he thinks they had more fun playing with it than the electric set. “We had to use the imagination,” he says. Of his poverty Isabro adds, “We were very poor but we had lots of love. We didn’t have any money growing up but in terms of love we were millionaires.”
Isabro has been making things since then, since he was a little boy. And he was particularly drawn to wood. When he was in the fourth grade, whenever his mom and dad left, he’d go into the tool shed to get the handsaw he wasn’t allowed to use. He remembers one time in particular when he set a project up on one of the family’s wooden dining chairs, using it as a workbench and, you know what’s coming—he cut into it. His sister still has the chair. After that his dad wrapped the whole tool shed with roofing paper because just telling Isabro no was not enough.
His dad was what Isabro calls a rough carpenter. He built barns and things of necessity. He never hired anybody to work for him because they always did it together. From the time Isabro was little he helped his dad with his trade and, by helping, he learned.
After high school he was taken on as a union carpenter’s helper. He wasn’t supposed to use the tools, only hand them to the carpenter, but soon Isabro was cutting boards on the table saw and the man he worked with bragged that one day he would be a great carpenter. He was right about that but he may not have envisioned Isabro’s future entirely.
For Isabro is an artist—a master carver, entirely self taught–likely not something the carpenter even considered. He does a lot of commissioned woodwork, building and carving cabinets for entire kitchens, and hand making and carving doors and furniture for some of Santa Fe and Taos’ finest homes. He’s currently making all the doors for a big new restaurant that’s being built in Truchas. Anna and I sell his work in our gallery as well. One of his large chests was shipped to Utah this last season.
Isabro wanted to be an architect but he wasn’t able to go to college. However, in his own way, he’s become that architect. As long as I’ve known him and well before that, he’s been building his dream house. It’s one of the first structures you see as you approach Truchas. I think of it as Isabro’s castle. It’s a giant work in progress. The photos in today’s post were all taken in his home/studio. It’s a two-story adobe structure and every bit of wood in it has been, or will be, carved—even the floors. He’s currently building a chicken coop (the building in the photos that is under construction–what do you think–the best view of any chicken coop in the known universe?) and even the chickens get carved details in their house. I don’t think Isabro knows how to make anything without carving at least some part of it.
Isabro says he can never stop because, for him, it’s not work it’s love. We are all the better for that. He doesn’t have a website so, in order to see more of his work, you have to come to Truchas and you are better for that!
Love to you all,
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