Above: For 34 years, Isabro Ortega has built his dream house and handcrafted
ISABRO ORTEGA WANTED TO BE AN ARCHITECT, but he was one of nine children growing up in the village of Truchas, tucked into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains north of Santa Fe. His parents couldn’t afford to send any of their children to college. His mother wanted him to be a priest, a job Ortega predicts he would have done well. “Anything I do, I give myself to it,” he says. “That’s the way Mom and Dad raised us. Whatever you do, do it right.”
Ortega clearly took that lesson to heart in the wood-carving career he eventually chose—and most especially with the house he built in a uniquely over-the-top version of Spanish Colonial decor. Inside, he hand-carved, painted, and embellished every surface. Every door, floor, ceiling, step, and banister. Every picture frame, closet, nicho, shelf, and toilet paper holder. He even carved designs into the tops of kitchen cabinets, the places that only God can see. He calls his masterwork Casa de las Nubes, so named because when he worked on the roof, “it seemed like I could touch the clouds.”
He knows the exact date he started the house: June 13, 1984. He still isn’t finished. When I visit, he’s carving a bed for the bed-and-breakfast that he hopes the house might become, maybe as soon as this summer. Why does he think this is the year he will finally finish? “Because there’s no more carving!” Ortega says, laughing. “I’ve carved it all!”
Ortega had a vision of the house before he started on it. “I told my friends I was going to build this unique house that you have never seen. People said, ‘Only rich people do stuff like that. You’re never going to do it.’ Nobody believed I was going to build what I built.”
“I’ve been working on it and working on it and working on it,” he says, and that’s a major understatement. Now 66, the never married master wood-carver has the energy of a younger man, carving every day from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., excluding the Sabbath. “I just love to carve. I come up with crazy ideas; everything is unique.” Ortega sweeps open the door of an exquisite octagonal pantry so lovingly carved and adorned it’s like stumbling upon a secret grotto. Where does he get his ideas?
“From the good Lord,” he says. “I’m a recovering alcoholic. I was always afraid that if I stopped drinking, my creative mind would go away. But after I stopped, I came up with greater ideas. Sober life is different. It’s beautiful.”
Ortega’s house stands next to his now tumbledown childhood home. As a finishing touch, he plans to plaster the interior walls of the adobe-and-wood-frame casa “Truchas style, with mud, the way I remember Mom and Dad’s house.” That earthier surface, he says, stands apart from the slicker finish of a Santa Fe–style home. Throughout the rooms, Ortega turns his self-styled “Truchas rosette” and zigzag edging, dubbed “Truchas carving,” into motifs. Other designs incorporate rusted tin cans, willow, and dried cactus that he gathers himself.
These achievements rise to the extraordinary when you factor in that Ortega carves with a humble utility knife. “I get through blades like I used to get through beers,” he says with a laugh.
He even carved designs into his chicken-coop ceiling, which earned him a scolding by the building inspector for erecting a guesthouse without a permit. “I said, ‘It’s a chicken coop!’ The inspector said, ‘Don’t lie to me. I went inside, and it’s carved!’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll send you some eggs.’”
Ortega makes his living by carving commissions that include bultos, cabinets, and coffins, and he’s a popular stop on each September’s Truchas High Road Art Tour. But he holds those jobs to a strict balance. “I don’t want to get too much work. My work is my house. I’m not into money, as long as I have money to live and be happy.” His niece, a dental hygienist, is apprenticing under him. “When I die, she takes over. She’s an angel.”
After 33 years, he’s grown accustomed to people teasing him about how long he’s taking. “I knew it would be slow,” he says. “That’s the beauty of it. I have a friend, he said, ‘One of these days they’re going to take you to the nuthouse.’ I said, ‘They’re gonna take me to the Smithsonian!’”
I came to see a house, unaware of just how impressive it would be. More than that, though, I’m impressed by the man who built it—a determined, patient, and cheerful nonconformist who is just as much a one-of-a-kind as his house is. Whether he finishes it this year, as he plans, or “in a million years,” as he often jokes, he’s already looking ahead. Ortega gestures out the window toward one of the old houses nearby. He may be closing in on age 70, but he’s talking to the bank, he says, hoping to obtain the funds to purchase it. “If I buy the house next door,” he says, “maybe I’ll carve it.”
Wood-carver Isabro Ortega accepts some work on consignment. Contact him
at (505) 689-2581.