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Spanish Colonial classes in El Rito

In today’s fast-paced environment, few places remain where one can learn to hone the skills of a timeless craft. Northern New Mexico College’s El Rito workshop is one such place.

Like the colonial Spaniards who settled in northern New Mexico hundreds of years ago, students in David Vargas’ Colonial Woodworking class use traditional tools, local air-dried ponderosa pine, and passed-down knowledge to create inspired works of art that can only be described as uniquely New Mexican.

The workshop smells of crisp pine, the curled shavings of which cover every workspace. Tables and chairs, cabinets and altarpieces lie around the shop, some nearly finished, others just about to take form. Slowly, the shop begins to fill, the artists unveiling their works-in-progress from under white cloths, revealing already impressive pieces.   

LEARNING FROM THE MASTERS

In the corner of the room, veteran woodcarver Felix Lopez takes up a traditional wooden mallet and chisel, carving delicate designs into the legs of an altarpiece, commissioned for a local church.

“Our ancestors had very rudimentary tools,” he says. “Today, we have access to machinery to help, but we still carve the details by hand.”

Lopez, who has been coming to the El Rito workshop for more than a decade, has been carving for more than 30 years. He has won first place in Spanish Market and teaches relief and bulto carving.

He also taught his son Joseph Ascension Lopez and daughter Krissa M. Lopez the craft, passing along skills and tradition to the next generation.

“This place is important,” the Española valley native says. “It may be a little bit far, but it’s worth it.”

Lopez is not the only artist to frequent the shop. Maurice Serrano started carving at El Rito seven years ago and also does retablo work.

“I never expected to find an interest in woodcarving, but it’s fundamental to me now,” he says.

Many of the carvers live in the area, but others travel from Santa Fe, Los Alamos and even Albuquerque to experience this unique place. 

THE OLD AND THE NEW

Although experienced carvers have found a place in El Rito, greener artisans are just as welcome.

Tim Seaman, a second-semester student, says instructor David Vargas and fellow woodworkers are always willing to lend a hand. Many in the group are Vietnam veterans who see the workshop at El Rito as an important place for therapy and camaraderie.

“We have a lot in common here. It’s a good place to be,” student and veteran Eric Aidle says.

Students learn specialized skills, such as how to glue planks seamlessly together to make a surface, and a technique called mortise-and-tenon joinery that binds pieces together without metal hardware. 

Finished pieces and books full of examples serve as inspiration for furniture projects, the scope of which is only limited by individual ambition and creativity. Some students decide to stick to traditional designs while others decide to integrate Asian influences or experiment with natural stains. 

A LIVING HISTORY

Tim Seaman, now in his second semester of the program, says he has learned much about the longstanding history of colonial furniture-making in El Rito.  In the 1930s, the site was home to a WPA handicraft program, in which New Mexicans were put back to work creating pieces that can be seen today in many homes and hotels in Santa Fe. Few people know of this history, he says.

Learning how to use hand tools and raw wood also provides a lesson about what life was like for colonial settlers who managed to make ornate furniture out of the limited resources available to them.

However, these pieces are more than just artifacts of the past. “This is a living history,” instructor David Vargas says. “In many places there are hobbyists who create an object and move on. But here, the objects are used in homes and passed on.”

The carving styles themselves have evolved over time in what Vargas describes as a melting pot from original Spanish carving brought with Moorish influence, Native American elements and more recently, European styles. They continue to develop with addition of each new concept artists bring.

Whether it is history, camaraderie or the pure satisfaction of mastering an art, Spanish Colonial Furniture-making at El Rito continues to draw people in.

For Seaman, being able to have a physical connection to history and learn from masters is what appeals.

“There’s so much skill out there among the woodworkers of New Mexico and so many people willing to learn” he said. “We want people to come to El Rito and share that experience with us.”

But, perhaps the feeling inspired by the workshop at El Rito can best be captured with the help of words from St. Francis of Assisi:

“A man who works with his hands is a laborer. A man who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. A man who works with his hands, his head and his heart is an artist.”

Story and photos by Stephanie J. Montoya. Stephanie is a reporter for Northern New Mexico College. She can be reached at (505) 747-2193 or stephanie.montoya@nnmc.edu.