Releasing the heart of the wood: Byron Martinez and Patricio J. Chávez
Chimayó is also home to many fine santeros, including this pair of talented artisans. By Adele Oliveira
The Hispanic village of Chimayó is renowned for its famous weavers and weaving traditions, but it is also home to many superlative woodcarvers. In this year, the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Santuario de Chimayó, we visit with two of its most talented woodcarvers who typically walk away with award after award at Spanish Market.
On the south side of N.M. 76, the road that connects Chimayó to Española, is the compound where woodcarver Byron Martinez grew up. Standing in front of his house and workshop on an April morning, he gestures to an adjacent field with a sweep of his arm. “When I was a kid, all of this was an apple orchard,” Martinez says. A few apple trees still dot the fence line, and a functioning acequia runs alongside the highway, bisected by footbridges and driveways.
Martinez’s grandfather was the celebrated woodcarver Apolonio Martinez, but Byron Martinez came to woodcarving relatively late in life, teaching himself how to carve in earnest barely a decade ago. In the 1990s, Martinez was in the midst of a long bout of alcoholism and spent weeks at a time at a remote mountain property in Colorado. His first piece was a bear carved with a chain saw; it now stands in front of his father’s house, just up the driveway. “I had dreams about the blessed mother and a statue of a bear,” Martinez explains. “And I thought, ‘Heck man, I’m gonna try to carve a bear.’”
In the years since, Martinez has honed his traditional skills and also makes contemporary pieces. He first juried into Spanish Market nine years ago and also served on the artist liaison committee for several years. Martinez’s connections to his past and to the present are evident. His skills as an artist extend beyond woodcarving: One recent piece is a miniature reconstruction of his grandparents’ graves in the Santuario de Chimayó’s cemetery. His wife, Felicia, did the lettering on the headstones and made the tiny floral arrangements that decorate the scene.
A woodcarving calledMomma’sWorst Nightmare speaks to contemporary social issues that have long plagued Rio Arriba County — the county has more heroinrelated deaths per capita than anywhere else in the nation — and Martinez’s own battle with addiction. The piece is a large hand on a round pedestal that clasps a metal syringe entwined with a rosary. Martinez’s friends Rachel Montoya and Valerie Quintana contributed the tinwork on the syringe and the rosary, respectively. In front of the hand is a small portrait of a woman whose face is adorned in Day of the Dead-style makeup, a cross on her forehead and delicate sugar skull whorls around her eyes.
“I put my mom through hell,” Martinez says of his alcoholism and this particular artwork. “So many things have happened to me. I hope my work can have an effect on someone else, maybe help them with their problem.”
Martinez’s workshop is in his garage, which is filled with evidence of his other passions and pursuits: a motorcycle, golf clubs and a full wall of children’s artwork done by various nieces, nephews and other younger relatives. On a table in the back of the workshop isMartinez’s most recent piece, a large sacred heart carved in relief. His tools are neatly scattered on his worktable — chisels of every size, mallets, toothpicks, pink erasers, an air hose to clear bits of wood while working. Martinez puts on his glasses and demonstrates hitting a chisel with a mallet, chipping off little slivers of the wood. For the most part, he submits unpainted pieces to SpanishMarket. “I prefer to use unpainted hardwoods, because if there’s a mistake, you can’t just fill it with wood putty and paint over it,” he says. The grain of the wood ripples visibly behind the heart. The piece is close to finished, but isn’t just yet. Martinez will tinker with it for a while, refining rough edges, and will know it’s done based on instinct.
“Everything I do is personal,” Martinez explains, “and everything has a meaning.”
The work at Chávez Gallery just down the street from the santuario in Chimayó, is at once whimsical and traditional. On the face of it, this is an incongruous combination, but the gallery expresses itself in a way that is both natural and unexpected: Saints draped in red capes with heavy-lidded eyes peer down from a colorful and expressive painted wood panel, and an intricately carved, unpainted wooden skeleton, holding a lantern to light the way beyond, stands next to an equally intricate and also unpainted crucifixion called Cristo Crucificado.
The gallery is the primary home for the work of Patricio J. Chávez and his wife of 22 years, Shawna Chávez. The two often collaborate on projects and pieces, like the panel depicting different saints. They conceived of the piece together, then Patricio carved the wood, while Shawna painted it. Patricio Chávez is a lifelong resident of Chimayó. He notes, “my ancestors are buried at the santuario.” He made his first retablo for a school project when he was a seventh-grader at Pojoaque Middle School. “I always knew I was an artist,” he says. “And being born and raised Catholic, the church has been a big influence on my work.”
Chávez is a frequent award-winner at Spanish Market, mostly for his unpainted bultos and retablos. In 2014, Cristo Crucificado won second place in the unpainted bulto category, and last year, Chávez took home the sole award for unpainted relief for a depiction of Saint James. In that piece, St. James’ horse rears back, and he holds his sword aloft. The sword stands alone, delicate and precise. The fine detail of Chávez’s work is striking, from the pleats in St. James’ garments to the fragile edging on Christ’s waist cloth in the crucifixion piece.
Next to St. James is a relief called Adam and Eve Eat the Forbidden Fruit depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden poised to eat the forbidden apple. The piece won the unpainted relief award at the 2014 market. Text below the figures spells out the piece’s title in Spanish, Adan y Eva comen el Fruto Prohibado. While the majority of Chávez’s subject matter is devotional, it gently pushes the boundaries of traditional art by being infused with personality and expressive artistry. In the Adam and Eve piece, Eve’s hair ripples past the edge of the frame, as does Adam’s forearm and elbow. The serpent, wrapped around the tree of life, flicks its tongue and bares its fangs at Eve. Adam and Eve’s bodies are broad and strong, and the grain of the wood spans their muscular limbs.
While much of Chávez’s work is done on commission for collectors, he makes sure to maintain stock in the gallery that is affordably priced so it’s accessible to locals as well as tourists. “We’re blessed to be by the santuario, and all sorts of people come in here looking for something,” Chávez says. “Maybe they’ve had their heart broken or lost their husband or wife, but they’re all searching for something.”
Chávez tells the story of one customer from Japan who’s returned twice to the gallery. “She’s Buddhist, but for her, the work crosses religions.” Chávez explains that in addition to honoring God, his work serves the function of promoting and preserving Spanish colonial culture. “Some tourists who come here are oblivious,” he says. “They think they’re in an old Indian village, so I’m continuously educating visitors about the culture and history of the village.” He points to St. James over his shoulder. “This is more than just a saint.”
To further illustrate what he means, Chávez points to a large carving of the Virgin of Guadalupe and runs his finger along the grain of the wood that folds itself into the Virgin’s veil, pointing the same direction, curving together. “This piece of wood wanted to be Guadalupe,” he says.
“Right before I go to sleep, I say, ‘Thank you Lord, for my God-given talent,’” Chávez continues. “And I pray to God that I am able to give back to the people.”