Marco Oviedo, Carver

Northern New Mexico boasts a number of important wood carvers

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The story of wood carving in New Mexico, both religious and secular, is one of individual people rather than of an artistic trend. It is a story of deep-rooted personal history and tradition; of an intangible energy that comes from the hills and earth of northern New Mexico; and of a spirituality that takes form in wood and pigments.

Marco Oviedo — a wood carver, blacksmith and breeder of donkeys in Chimayó, New Mexico — carries on a family tradition of wood carving that can be traced back as far as 1730. And, most likely, his Spanish ancestors were carving figures from wood long before that date. Through a painstaking and loving process, Oviedo creates wooden masterpieces—from saints and archangels to allegorical and folk figures.

In keeping with tradition, Oviedo's entire family is involved in the production of the carvings. The raw lumber used is native wood—pine, cottonwood, aspenthat has been well dried and cured for four to six years. Even then, only 20 percent of the dried wood survives the selection process and is chosen for carving. When the wood is cured and finally predictable, the grain of the wood becomes the carver's "master" determining the strategy the carver will use to make the most of the wood. This is sculpting after all, not whittling! Following instructions given by the wood, reading the dark lines of the tree's winters and the lighter belts of the tree's summer, requires extraordinary discipline, great concentration and of course, mastery. If the grain is not followed properly, delicate protuberances such as a figure's fingers might eventually break off.

In older times, the sanding of a carved piece was done with a piece of broken glass. Today, Marco and his sons or his mother smooth the wood with sandpaper. To protect the expressions, sanding the intricately carved areas of the face and hands is done only by Marco while the broader areas can be done by others in the family. The faces of the saintly, human or animal figures are, more than anything else, the carver's "signature." In the case of Marco's figures, whether by accident or design, the smiling faces clearly resemble his own. Because each piece of wood has a unique personality, there are times when the grain of the wood naturally enhances the figure and to apply gesso and paint would be inappropriate. Therefore, the carver learns to read and respect the wood and to understand when a piece is finished.

Death Cart Procession

If the figure is to be painted, the sanding is preparation for the first coat of animal hide glue. The glue is a "sizing" element and is brushed on to "bring up" the soft, wide wood fiber in the lumber's "summers," providing more surface for the gesso to cling to. There could be as many as ten coats of glue applied—with sandings in between each coat. Only the bottom is left uncoated, allowing the figure to breathe.

Just as the glue forms a base for the coat of gesso, the gesso (ground gypsum) becomes a base for the paint. It not only makes the wood impervious to water-soluble paints, by can also be used to correct small mistakes. The gesso creates the smooth finish, which makes painted wood such as Marco's so distinctive. Finally, as a stabilizer, one of the Oviedo family brushes on a solution made of egg white.

With the Oviedo carvings, the first interpretation is rendered through Marco's meticulous work in the wood. The second interpretation comes from Marco's wife, Patricia Trujillo Oviedo, who paints the figures. Again, this is not a hurried or in any way commercial process. The paints which she uses are made primarily from natural dyes, substances such as iron oxides, indigo, cadmium and mercury salts, walnut hull extract, and the occasional insect such as the cochineal bug. When the paint has dried, the figure is rubbed with tallow or beeswax.

In addition to creating exquisite reproductions of historic bultos, but completely original and unique to Marco Oviedo, is a form of carving he call his "storytellers." These are groupings of figures, sometimes religious, sometimes not, which depict familial and ethnic traditions. For example, the "storyteller" pictured above is a Holy Week procession of Penitentes, performing the penance of self-flagellation and pulling a cart with a life size, allegorical figure of Death, known traditionally as Doña Sebastiana. (The Hermanos Penitentes were a religious brotherhood which flourished in the mountain villages of northern New Mexico from the mid-eighteenth to the late-nineteenth century.)

Each carved figure (saint, human or allegorical creature) has its own history, beginning with a piece of green wood. There is perhaps no better way to understand and appreciate that history and the traditions that gave it birth than to hold a carving in you hand and experience all that the wood has to say.

An excellent source for information about New Mexican Santos and religious folk art (including a broad bibliography) is Santos and Saints—The Religious Folk Art of Hispanic New Mexico by Thomas J. Steele, SJ; Ancient City Press, PO Box 5401, Santa Fe, NM 87502.

You can learn more about Marco's current work on the web at Oviedo Carvings and Bronze remote

By Pamela Michaelis, founder of The Collector's Guide and former host of “Gallery News” radio show on KHFM 95.5 remote, classical radio in Albuquerque.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 2

Related Pages

Hispanic Arts and Crafts Tour of Northern NM article
Traditional New Mexican Hispanic Crafts article

Patrociño Barela, Carver article
Santos of New Mexico: a 400-Year Tradition article
Three Hispanic New Mexico Metal Traditions article

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