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New Mexico woodcarving artist Isabro Ortega dies at 66

August 19, 2018 GMT

The man who created The House of the Clouds has died.

Renowned carver Isabro “Charro” Ventura Ortega spent most of his life hand-carving and painting the interior of his house — a two-story building perched on a rim road in Truchas, 8,000 feet above sea level. He called it La Casa de Las Nubes.

Ortega died there Tuesday of an apparent heart attack, his sister said. He was 66.

Born and raised in the tiny mountain village on the High Road to Taos, he almost never left. Exceptions were stints working or going to school in nearby towns.

He preferred, his sister Carol Leyba said, to stay at home, carving La Casa, detailing every nicho, pantry shelf, cupboard door, paper towel rack, light fixture and bed frame.

He sang as he worked, or listened to British rock groups from the 1960s.

“Oh, I do sing a lot of Penitente songs when I’m working,” Ortega, told the New York Times in 2012, but the British invasion has always been my inspiration.”

Though Ortega began building his house in 1984, his masterpiece was still a work in progress when he died.

It isn’t much to look at from the outside, still covered in the gray scratch-coat that comes before stucco.

But the interior of the handcrafted abode resembles a chapel — prayerfully hand-carved from floor to ceiling, except for the parts that are still raw adobe.

La Casa smells like wood inside. It’s covered with a coating of what looks like dust, but is actually sawdust.

Composed of meticulously notched planks, layered in geometric patterns, and inlaid with willow branches, tin cans and the bones of the cholla cactus, his work is reminiscent of Moorish mosaics.

He was influenced by Spanish Colonial art and the iconography of the Catholic Church. Native American imagery shows up in the form of Kokopelli and kachina figures carved in doors or framing the mirror in his master bathroom.

But, his close friend and fellow carver Felix Lopez said, the self-taught artist combined the techniques of these traditions in a style that was uniquely his own.

“He was a humble guy using humble materials, and what he came up with was pretty incredible,” Lopez said. “He would show you something that he had been working on and you would say, ‘Wow, what an imagination. I never would have thought to do something like that.’ I have never seen anybody else do something like what he did.”

Though anchored to his hometown, Ortega was no stranger to the rest of the world.

He opened La Casa to visitors during the High Road Art Tour each fall.

“He had friends all over,” said Ortega’s niece, Laurie Leyba Martinez.

“He had clients in New York, a customer from Ireland. I remember once they wanted him to go to Ireland to build a house, but he wouldn’t leave his home.”

A group of architecture students from Tennessee visited him for a week every year, Martinez said.

Ortega had taught woodworking to children through a summer program in Truchas, she said, and had recently been contacted by the Rio Arriba public schools about teaching a regular class during the school year.

In addition to being featured in the Times in 2012, he’s been written about in Sunset magazine, New Mexico magazine and most of the region’s newspapers.

The attention didn’t change him, Martinez said.

“My uncle was not a man of money,” she said. “He was very spiritual, and he loved everyone and treated everyone with respect, regardless if they were good or bad.”

Martinez said Ortega was was a member of Los Hermanos Penitentes, a secretive brotherhood of Spanish Christians whose morada, or meeting place, is near his house.

When anyone in the communities of Cordova, Chimayó or Truchas died, Martinez said, her uncle would carve a cross with the name and birth and death information. Those tributes dot graves in the area’s cemeteries.

Ortega, never married or had children. He left La Casa de las Nubes to Martinez.

“I plan to keep it and honor his legacy,” she said. “Maybe turn it into a gallery so everyone can remember him. I plan to bury his ashes at his home so he’ll never have to leave his home, and make a shrine of him and his art. I don’t ever plan to sell it. It’s the last part of him that I have.”

A rosary will be recited at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Truchas. A Mass of Christian burial will be celebrated at 10 am. Wednesday, also at Holy Rosary Catholic Church.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the children’s program of the Truchas Services Center or La Cofraida de Nuestro Padre Jesus de Nazareno in Truchas.