Son of O'Keeffe's chauffeur carves his own legacy in Abiquiu

Friday, May 11, 2012 10:07 PM
Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford
Leopoldo Garcia lives in the Abiquiu house built by his grandmother, which also doubles as his studio and gallery.
Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford
Since he was a little boy, Leopoldo Garcia has always been able to find faces in rocks and wood. This carved cottonwood log contains two blue faces and, like all of his carvings, it comes with its unique story.
Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford
Death, represented by a carved skeleton, wears a top hat and plays a violin.
Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford
Artist and carver Leopoldo Ernesto Garcia was born in Abiquiu. He recalls its most famous resident, Georgia O’Keeffe, as being very generous — and sometimes very strict.

ABIQUIU, N.M. — Made famous by the artist Georgia O'Keeffe, the village of Abiquiu hasn't changed much in the last few centuries.

Thousands of visitors come each year to tour her home with its gardens and adobe walls, but just around the corner lies the real Abiquiu with dusty, narrow streets and aging houses. A folk artist with a gallery there knew O'Keeffe. He tells tales about the woman in black.

Her paintings hang in museums around the world. He carves rabbits, saints and corner angels — all of cottonwood, the preferred wood for traditional New Mexican folk artists. She was a wealthy Easterner who could afford to renovate a run-down adobe mansion once owned by General Chavez, who battled renegade Native Americans and possibly participated in the 19th-century slave trade in the Southwest. She bought the sprawling hacienda for $1 in 1945 from the Catholic Church. He lives in the same adobe house his grandmother and mother were born in with 12-foot ceilings but with doorways less than 6 feet high. His father was O'Keeffe's chauffeur.

As an accomplished artist, O'Keeffe was always confident of her abilities and the value of her art. He was a young boy with dyslexia, beaten by nuns and priests because he could neither read nor write, so he withdrew inside himself and took comfort in his art.

She was a newcomer drawn to New Mexico's high-desert skies and distant mountains. He was descended from a blended line of French and Spanish pioneers who had ranched at Arroyo de Agua west of Coyote.

Leopoldo Ernesto Garcia, now 59, will always remember Miss O'Keeffe.

“To me she was a godsend,” he says as we sit in his studio. “She made my first birthday cake. A little chocolate cake with one candle.”

Abiquiu has a unique history. Established by the Spanish governor in 1754, the Pueblo of Abiquiu became home to Genizaros, or detribalized Native Americans, who had been stolen as children into the slave trade and grew up without clan or family. Abiquiu was the northernmost edge of the Spanish empire, and for the gift of a 16,000-acre land grant, its citizens were to defend Hispanic families against marauding bands of Utes, Navajos or the dreaded Comanches. The village became the trailhead for the Old Spanish Trail, the 1,200-mile route that linked Santa Fe and Los Angeles beginning in 1829.

Now more Hispanic than Indian, Abiquiu no longer is a designated Native American pueblo, but the descendants of the first villagers still cooperatively manage the ejido, or common lands, of the Abiquiu Land Grant.

Into this culturally complex world, O'Keeffe came to permanently live in 1949. Married to photographer Alfred Steiglitz, who stayed in New York, O'Keeffe was childless yet she gave to village children.

“She was a lady dressed in white or black who stood in the back of the church on Sundays. A lot of kids in Abiquiu got her help,” Garcia says.

He says that O'Keeffe financially assisted with a public sewer and water system and funds for the elementary school. She paid for students to attend boarding schools and she grew flowers for the church, but “her gardener would chase after kids with a pitchfork if they stole fruit from her trees.” Garcia learned that firsthand. At Christmas, O'Keeffe would put a box with bags of candies and nuts in the servants' driveway.

“If you took two of them, she'd come out and get you,” he says, smiling. “She knew how many kids were in the pueblo.

“My grandfather got involved with Miss O'Keeffe because he was the caretaker. She wanted me to help on weekends and garden for her,” he says.

But instead, Garcia chose to stay in school in Santa Fe, where he finally learned to read in the 11th grade. After a variety of jobs in shipyards, as a plumber and as a plumbing instructor, Garcia came home to his grandmother's six-room, double adobe house. With a Swiss army knife and tubes of paint in bright primary colors, he creates traditional homemade carvings.

O'Keeffe became famous for her vivid flower paintings, her skulls suspended above New Mexican landscapes and her multiple images of Cerro Pedernal, a prominent flat-topped peak visible for miles in the Chama River Valley. Generally, for folk artists, there is no fame. They go about their business with simple tools, and their art communicates local values and customs. Garcia carves traditional New Mexican motifs such as angels, St. Francis with birds on his shoulders or San Pasqual, the patron saint of cooks. But Garcia also has an abiding sense of humor, and he carves bright pink bunny rabbits, unique death carts and even aliens.

The name of his studio reflects his playfulness. It's Galeria de Don Cacahuate — the Gallery of Mr. Peanut.

“I always was an artist since I was a little kid because I couldn't read or write,” he says as we sit among his carved images. “I opened the gallery 18 years ago, and I've helped children learn art because I love to teach.”

He draws with his grandchildren.

Devout santeros — men who carve wooden saints — have always made death carts with somber skeletons on the cart's seat to remind parishioners that death may come at any moment so be careful of one's sins. Garcia's death carts have horses with splayed legs, or white elephants instead of the horse. One tableau has the cart and a coffin with a removable lid.

“I do contemporary death carts because New Mexico is saturated with traditional death carts,” he says with a chuckle. “I don't want my work to look like anyone else's, but it's the same kind of work with cottonwood and cottonwood roots.”

He searches the Abiquiu Land Grant for just the right pieces of wood, and then he carves and paints.

“I've always been able to see faces in rocks and wood,” Garcia said.

As for his rabbits, he grins and says: “I carve rabbits with clothes on because all the people are moving to the mountains, so the animals are moving to the cities.”

O'Keeffe died at age 98 in 1986. A Santa Fe museum features her works, and visitors tour her Abiquiu house by appointment. Only 12 people are allowed at a time, and photography or sketching is prohibited. Though I admire O'Keeffe's fine art, I value the work of living folk artists connecting to centuries of culture and tradition with a modern twist. I prefer chatting with Leopoldo E. Garcia.

Pink rabbits? Aliens having a bad hair day? Death carts pulled by elephants? Why not?

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at