George T. López

 

López carried the “Cordova Style” of woodcarving developed by his father, José Dolores López, to new heights by becoming the namesake village’s first artist to makewoodcarving a primary source of income. During the 1920s and 1930s, López watched and learned as his father established a viable local enterprise in Cordova, NewMexico, with a new, unpainted style of woodcarving that was a profound departure from conventional colonial-era polychrome carving styles. Soon after the elder López’s death in 1937, George López set out to achieve a level of production and public recognition that his father had never realized.Like many villagers who supplemented their farming income with migrant-laborer work, López helped support his family beginning at age fifteen by working in sheepcamps, on farms, and on road crews throughout the region. Back home in 1925, he was inspired by his father’s burgeoning career, particularly the supplementaryincome it provided, and began to carve. López carefully began to hone his craft alongside his father, using his father’s works as prototypes for his own.In countenance and pose, López’s early works were thus strikingly similar to his father’s; except for slight changes in scale and other minute differences, it is hard todistinguish between the works of father and son. He carved many of the same subjects, including secular animals and birds, religious santos (figures of saints), andskeletal images of death. He also copied some of the more unconventional items his father made, such as screen doors and lazy Susans. Likewise, his choice of woods,including aspen, juniper, cedar, willow, cottonwood, and pine, echoed his father’s preferences. And while López’s works initially lacked his father’s refinement andfinesse, his personal style was emerging. The younger Lopez’s works, which ranged from a few inches tall to life-size, were generally more elaborately carved than hisfather’s, as well as more block-like and massive. In the early 1940s, shortly after his father’s death, López was forced to take a construction job in nearby Los Alamos, then the budding birthplace of the atomic bomb. His carving took a backseat to his job, and his artistic production became rare and sporadic. The artist compensated by simplifying his style, leaving his imagessmooth and plain by limiting the amount of filigree surface carving to simple border designs. But in 1952, López quit his Los Alamos job in an effort to make carving his principal occupation. He now worked full-time to refine his artistic technique, in hopes of reaching his father’s level of precision and complexity. He succeeded: his production level increased significantly, and with it came a newly refined repertoire of santos and other narrative themes. López made one particularly complex tree of life from 395separate pieces.The extra time on his hands also allowed López to develop his entrepreneurial skills. Though his four siblings also worked as woodcarvers, none had yet toundertake it as a serious vocation. With help from his wife, Silvianita, López became the first Cordova carver to set up a shop in his own house, only a short distancefrom the highly traveled road that brought tourists into the village. His house not only had ample display space for the hundreds of carvings he produced, López’savailability to talk with patrons in person proved to be a strong selling point as well. By 1960, López was renowned as Cordova’s leading woodcarver, popular withcustomers throughout the Southwest and beyond. While his siblings and others in the village also began to market their carvings from home-based, tourist-friendlyshops, López was still widely acknowledged by his fellow villagers as the most successful carver of his time, as well as the best.In López’s later years, his production declined and his works became less ambitious, both in the range of subjects and degree of design. Nonetheless, in 1978, hewas invited to participate in the Smithsonian Institution’s annual Festival of American Folk Life. Four years later, he was awarded the prestigious National HeritageFellowship. By the time López died at the age of ninety-three, generations of Cordova natives proudly listed woodcarving as their primary profession. Owing in large part to López’s efforts, the Cordova carving style that his father pioneered remains firmly entrenched as an essential part of the village economy.