Work, he said, was a first-rate medicine for any illness.”
It’s what a guard tells a prisoner in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novella, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich—about a Russian wrongly sentenced to a decade of forced labor during the Stalin regime.
In one scene, guards order a unit of prisoners to build a brick wall on the second floor of the prison’s power plant, in the dead of winter, and the main character, Ivan Denisovich, becomes so obsessed with the job that he loses track of time in his quest for perfection.
Isabro Ventura Ortega, a longtime carpenter and woodcarver in Truchas, isn’t working in subzero temps, and he’s certainly no prisoner. But as a chilly Thanksgiving dawns in Northern New Mexico, there’s no question that he’s lost track of time in his quest for perfection and great detail.
Only Ortega’s obsession is with wood, not bricks, and for more than three decades, he’s been working on the house he built from the ground up, starting in June 1984. He’s still hard at it, with no end in sight to most of the unfinished work on the inside, where he’s turned the entire first floor into a workshop for his customers and his artwork.
And it all happens here, at the Casa de las Nubes, or House of the Clouds, off to the right just as you enter town. You can’t miss the mansion, which hangs over the valley.
“I built this house when I was drunk, and to tell you the truth, I don’t think I could’ve built it if I wasn’t drunk,” says the 63-year-old Ortega, who adds that he hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol since Jan. 4, 2007, when he buried his best friend, Rudy Rael.
With sobriety, he takes greater pride in his woodwork, which has become a part of the Truchas landscape. That window frame down the block is his, with its hundreds of tiny notches and zigzags. That doorway there, with the Kokopelli figure, that’s his too.
Even the crosses in the local cemetery have his name on them.
“It’s the least I can do when people are dying, and I don’t charge a penny,” says Ortega, who grew up poor in Truchas, the second-youngest of nine brothers and sisters.
His mother had always wanted him to be a priest, says Ortega. “But I’d always wanted to be a rich and famous woodcarver. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but maybe. You always gotta hold out hope.”
Still, no better place to ply such a trade than Truchas, a region rife with woodcarvers. Their backyard is a national forest of aspen and pine and firs. Nobody ever taught Ortega. He figured it out on his own, borrowing his father’s pocketknife one day, plucking a piece of cedar from the family’s wood-burning stash, then making a tiny heart, which he sold to a girl in his fifth grade class for a quarter on Valentine’s Day.
Since then, he’s become a one-man factory, making the 18-mile drive to Peñasco to buy the lumber from the Wagon Wheel Mill, stopping off at Victor’s Drive-Inn for breakfast afterward, before heading back home with a truckful of lumber waiting to be reborn.
He figures out what he wants to build first. A wooden case to hold his old-school radio? A chest for the firewood? A patron saint to stick in one of the nichos? When the light goes off in his head, he runs the wood through the planer, which turns it from raw to smooth. Then he takes a sandbelt to it and then, bowing before the altar of his 10-inch electrical saw, whittles it down to size.
And that’s when the tedium comes in. He pulls out his trusty pocketknife and cuts notches into the grain, occasionally saying prayers, as though each hole were a bead on a rosary. Design before its time is essential. The ceiling in his upstairs bathroom, for example, was carved long before it was ever installed, one skinny plank at a time in what has become an overhead jigsaw puzzle.
Wayward visitors, and there have been many, have told him his work resembles that of the Moors, but Ortega laughs, saying, “This is ‘Truchas style.’ My style. I’ve never been to Spain, I’ve never been to Rome, never been to France, I’ve never been to Europe.”
But he has been to Santa Cruz High School, where he refined his trade and graduated in 1971. He tried his hand at stenography after graduation but didn’t like “the whole suit-and-tie thing,” and bailed after a year. He ended up building cabins in the Taos Ski Valley, then before long hightailed it back to his hometown on the High Road.
He’s a carving machine. He doesn’t just carve so that people can see. He carves in places where no one can see—inside the kitchen pantry, in the dark of a chicken coop out back, underneath the cages where you need to crane your neck and use a flashlight.
He’s even left his artistic imprints on the toilet paper dispensers in his bathrooms.
There are no shortcuts to his work; the mechanics are flawless, born from constant repetition, and he says he’s never, ever cut himself. Ortega hopes to carve until the day he dies, he says, because it offers him sanity in this “dog-eat-dog world.”
He plans on building his own coffin for when the time comes, but if the Grim Reaper should appear out of nowhere in the middle of the wood-burning night, Ortega says he’s ready. He says he wants his ashes spread around the foundation of the house.
“Just open the morada and pray me a rosary,” he says, referring to the private chapel across the street, built by the penitentes centuries ago. “I don’t need much.”
But until that time, and hopefully way later than sooner, if you’d like a tour, Ortega would love to give you one (call 689-2581). A half-hour session costs $15, but you get to walk away with one of his wooden crosses.