Santa Fe Living Treasures â€“ Elder Stories<<Back to Treasures Index
SEARCHING FOR LENA
Honored March, 1986
My favorite is Saint Frances because it was my first piece that got sold," Ben Ortega says of his woodcarvings. "I tell everybody that Saint Francis didn't want me to go to California.
His carvings are in collections world-wide, yet Ben never planned to be an artist. "I used to sit in the kitchen and make little faces. I made two Indians-small pieces-and then I carved a little Saint Francis. Mrs. Myrtle Stedman [the artist and builder] saw my carvings. She loved them so much I gave her the Indians. I used to work for her, picking apples and peaches when I was a little boy."
Born in Tesuque, New Mexico, in 1923 to Isador and Agnes Ortega, Ben and his two brothers and sister were raised by an aunt and uncle. "My mother died in an automobile accident when I was two," he said. "My father died when I was six."
He grew up poor, but blessed with love, and had to quit school in the eighth grade. At eighteen, he "went to the war. Serving with the 240th Combat Engineers, he went "overseasÃ‘straight from San Francisco to New Guinea. It took twenty-eight days to get there." He was in Dutch New Guinea and then in the Philippines "ready to go to China or the mainland of Japan when the war ended." He "returned home five or six months after the bomb was dropped."
Back in Tesuque, he enrolled in school. "The only time I have been out of Tesuque was those three years, and I was always thinking about the beautiful Tesuque Valley that I love so much," he said. He took two years of cabinet making and machine shop in Santa Fe. He planned to go to California with classmates to find work. "While I was waiting to go, I decided I was going to carve something just to pass the time," he said, "so I... carved a little Saint Francis and a little Madonna."
Asked if he had anything he could contribute to a benefit sale for the Santa Fe Opera, Ben donated his two carvings. They sold at once. "That evening, there was somebody knocking on my door. This lady from New York asked, 'Are you Ben Ortega, the artist?' I said, 'No, I'm just Ben Ortega.' She asked me to make a Saint Francis. When she came back, her sister wanted a Madonna. A friend wanted a crucifix."
Please see Volume 1 for complete text.
Photo Â©1997 by Joanne Rijmes