José Dolores López

 

López s the acknowledged father of the “Cordova Style” of wood-carving, an unpainted interpretation of Spanish colonial-New Mexican polychrome woodcarvings that theartist developed in the early 1920s. A farmer, sheepherder, carpenter, and devout Catholic, López lived in Cordova, New Mexico, the same village in which theacclaimed nineteenth-century
santero
(maker of religious images) José Rafael Aragón (c. 1796–1862) had practiced his art. López’s father, Nasario, was awoodcarver who may have worked with Aragón.López turned seriously to woodcarving in 1917, as a distraction from his worries about his son’s overseas service during World War I. He first made pine furniture,such as chairs, chests, roperos (cabinets), and relojeras (clock shelves), finished with bright commercial house paints and motifs reflecting popular Mexican imports. Occasionally, he created polychrome santos (saints) for use in the village church. But in the early 1920s, after meeting artist and writer Frank Applegate and other areaart aficionados, López’s style changed dramatically.Applegate and writer Mary Austin were Santa Fe newcomers who cofounded the Spanish Colonial Arts Society in 1925 to provide artistic and economic outlets for area Hispanics producing colonial-era art forms. They encouraged López to sell his furniture in Santa Fe, but his crude, polychrome technique proved too gaudy for themostly Anglo patrons. The patrons’ rejection prompted López to follow the demands of the marketplace, and he developed a new, unpainted woodworking style.Earlier in the century, López had become a skilled filigree jeweler. Using simple hand tools, he now integrated this art into furniture making and other woodwork,using incised, filigree-like designs, chip carving, and hand-etched bird, tree, and leaf motifs to emphasize details he had failed to achieve with paint. The result was anornate, innovative style that gave a completely contemporary look to López’s diverse and functional repertoire, which included bookshelves, lazy Susans, record racks,even screen doors. These detailed appointments were in complete contrast with the more traditionally painted furniture that had been used in homes and churchesthroughout the region since its settlement in 1598. His Santa Fe patrons praised López’s originality, purchasing his works and crediting him with revolutionizing acenturies-old art form.López’s onetime hobby quickly became a key supplement to his farming income. During the second half of the 1920s, López continued to innovate, moving awayfrom furniture to three-dimensional un-painted figures. He also occasionally made crosses and other woodcarvings inlaid with straw, following another colonial-eratechnique. Mostly, however, López carved tiny, whimsical sculptures of birds, cats, mice, pigs, squirrels, and other animals. These images were influenced by Swissand German toys that Lopez’s son had brought back from the war. Again, López embellished his creations with chip carving to accentuate facial and bodily features. He placed his birds andother figurines in playful, lifelike poses on tree branches bursting with finely detailed leaves.In 1929 López followed Applegate’s suggestion to try his hand at making unpainted bultos (three-dimensional carvings of saints). López drew inspiration from thenineteenth-century santos
by José Rafael Aragón that adorned the Cordova church. But while Aragón had used paint to detail iconography and facial expressions,López used chip-carved filigree motifs to bring his santos to life. He relied strongly on facial expressions, body gestures, and crisp, chip-carved detail to evoke thedrama of the lives of saints such as St. Peter, St. Michael the Archangel, St. Anthony, and Our Lady of Light. His use of contrasting native woods like aspen, cedar,and pine further enhanced the details of the simple, spiritual subjects, some of which stood up to three feet tall. Other religious themes included Adam and Eve, the treeof life, the flight into Egypt, and the Nativity, as well as a number of death carts and other regional depictions of Death riding in a wooden cart.López carved hundreds of unpainted santos during the last eight years of his life. Moreover, some were made from literally hundreds of separate handcarved pieces.These carvings were the most complex and ambitious of his career as well as those for which he is best known. In 1933 and 1934, he made at least two saints for thePublic Works of Art Project (PWAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which were seen by President Franklin D.Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt in a1934 exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.By the time of his death, López had appeared in numerous publications and exhibitions as the renowned creator of a thoroughly modern carving style, and he had passed down his techniques to his five children. The Cordova Style is firmly established as an artistic tradition among López’s extended families in Cordova, and in artmarkets nationwide. Not only had López developed a new approach to traditional woodcarving, he also created a vital cottage industry, which continues to thrive.