The Cubero Adventures: "Hello, I'm Looking for the Workshop of Federico Armijo."

The first half of this story was posted last week under the title of "Searching for Ernest Hemingway." Unable to totally resolve the issue of whether or not Hemingway had written The Old Man & the Sea while staying in Cubero, I got directions from two men to the house of Federico Armijo. He was and remains so important in the history of art in Albuquerque I could only wonder what he was doing out here. If, that is, he was here at all.

CUBERO, NM--The three of us, David, MaryAnn and I, left the Villa de Cubero. I was in the back seat of the Volvo sedan as it sped up the old loop road into the village. A left turn on the far side of the arroyo took us past most of the houses. Cubero has more abandoned adobe structures than any occupied settlement I have ever seen. There is no wood left in these adobe shells, no stucco, no remains of roof timbers...just the walls slowly melting back into the earth. I suppose everything else has been scavenged, mostly for firewood.

We had taken a wrong turn...hard to do in Cubero. Nevertheless I kept looking for a building that could serve as the workshop for a sculptor. We rounded a curve and the last house looked like it just might be it: machinery, hoists, saws, and perhaps the biggest clue...the corbels atop the porch posts were painted a very nontraditional sage green with red trim. David drove the car into a vacant area on the far side of the house. I left him and MaryAnn sitting there while I scouted out the situation.

A Sheet Metal Screen
I am a shy person. I don't talk to strangers, much less go up to somebody's door in a different town looking for someone whom I had never met. But there I was skulking around somebody's back yard in Cubero. I knocked on a door. No answer. I walked around the house, past a chainlink enclosure and a pickup truck. A dog barked somewhere across the road.

I finally found the porch and knocked. I could hear a door open but could see nothing. The screen door was covered by a sheet metal panel with many tiny holes in it. Whoever was inside could see me, but I could see no one. I smiled at the door and said, "Hello, I'm looking for the workshop of Federico Armijo."

Olivia's Mercantile
Federico Armijo leaned back in a black leather chair. MaryAnn, David, and I were glad to be asked inside, but it took a while for our eyes to adjust to the darkness of the living room. Most older adobe houses do not have huge windows. The house is a refuge against the heat and brightness of the outdoors.

Our host began talking about some of his pieces that decorated the walls. I was particularly struck by a large crucified Jesus without arms. And the wall itself, which was unplastered adobe.

Armijo said that the house had once been a store and gas station on the old Route 66. It had belonged to Armijo's aunt. (Later, during my conversation with historian Johnnie Meier, I found out that Meier had a picture of a store known as Olivia's Mercantile. He emailed it to me. This 1937 photo is published here courtesy of the Chapman family. It is obviously the same building: the two upstairs windows side by side, same roof line, and same portal). Federico had not been kidding when he said that the building had been "on" Route 66. Old pre-1937 Route 66 passed within 6 feet of the portal of the house.

San Jose
Eventually we talked about the artist's childhood. During World War Two Armijo's family was living in a one room adobe house in Albuquerque, in the San Jose neighborhood. While his father was overseas in the war, his mother and grandmother made adobes. When his dad returned, he added a new room. Federico was born in 1946. The family lived in those two rooms until Federico was 13. They added more rooms during the 1970's.

A Jackknife and a Hatchet

Federico started recounting how he first got interested in carving wood. He talked about Andy Anderson who used to whittle at the Alvarado Station when Armijo was a little boy. And he talked about his very first project. He had been a Boy Scout. Working for a merit badge Armijo carved a small key chain out of a three inch piece of elm. He recalled how after the war Mayor Tingley gave away elm trees and his family had planted 17 of them around their property in San Jose. Later, "I entered this little neckerchief slide in a contest at a Jamboree and won second place. I won a real nice 'Old-Timer' jackknife and a hatchet." Winning that prize inspired the boy to work at it even harder.

Jane Mabry
Federico mentioned Jane Mabry's name often...and with genuine affection and gratitude. She hired him to mow her lawn. She took an interest in his carving. In fact, she bought him a complete set of carving tools when he was 10 or 11. He still has that set today. In 1959, when he was just 13 years old, Jane Mabry and Federico Armijo had a show together.

But he started carving larger pieces when he was in Vietnam. He pointed again at the figure of Christ. "That was part of the main beam of a sampan that was blown out of the water." He said that someone had stolen the arms. I could tell that the figure meant a lot to him. It hung right in his living room next to the kitchen door. Even without arms, it was so powerful, so moving, it was hard to look away.

Moving to Cubero
I asked Federico why he had left Albuquerque and moved out here to Cubero. He said it came down to a couple of things: He got divorced...and he had family connections out here. Not only was his aunt the original owner of his dwelling, his Uncle Buddy founded that other icon of old Route 66, Budville, which is right down the road from Cubero.

A Tour of the House
"Would you like to see the house?" he asked. We followed him into the next room. His wife Linda greeted us standing in front of one of his carved doors. It was beautiful. But the other side of the door was even more striking! A stylized ibis was carved into the mahogany center panel.

We followed him up a narrow staircase into the attic where his drawing and printmaking studio is located. Having hurt his back, Federico spends much of his time up here where nothing is much heavier than a sheet of paper. He said he makes a lot of art for his children these days.

Three woodblock prints hung from a clothesline in front of a dormer window--a study in controlling the amount of ink and pressure. Hand colored prints of another print were lined up on a table. Hanging on the wall at the top of the stairs was a painting of a man carrying a big crucifix. It reminded me of the Penitente influence here in Cubero during the 19th century. The haunting face of suffering humanity stared back at the viewer. There was nothing heroic or even worthy in that eerie figure...only a middle-aged man, large, crude, and weighed-down not by his spiritual burden, but by his own human excesses. "How like myself," I thought.

The Silence
From a drawer Federico produced a photograph from the days of his owning an art gallery in Old Town. In the picture he is surrounded by 10 of the artists displayed in his gallery. I did not know him personally back in the 70's, but his reputation was that of a superstar. He was a man loaded with talent and drive. A contemporary of Armijo, the artist Russell Adams once told me that when looking at the work of Federico Armijo one understood the difference between art and a picture. Adams then quoted Andre Malraux: "The difference between art and decoration is that decoration does not restore the silence." The Silence...how well put.

Even in his woodworking, where everything seems abstractly organic and flows from dimension to dimension, even in those pieces...there indeed is that Silence inside of me. I think back to a picture I had seen of a roll-top desk, one of Armijo's carved pieces of laminated wood. Stunning. Silent. More than decoration. That desk sold recently for $28,000. And if one has that kind of money, not over-priced.

The Machinery
The four of us walked out into the yard and toward his workshop. Large hoists, cranes, saws, forklifts, compressors, generators, flywheels, hoses, and various other pieces of heavy machinery were grouped around a couple of trucks. Much of this stuff was totally unfamiliar to me.

One large machine, for instance, had a huge frame made of I-beams, giant wheels with cables strung between them, and what looked like railroad tracks running crossways between everything. It was a saw. In fact, it was a saw for cutting stone. The cable was the blade. Armijo has done many large sculptures that use metal and stone.
On the corner of 16th St. and Lomas in Albuquerque stands just such a piece. It is one of the famous artist-designed bus stops along Lomas just north of downtown.

In the Workshop
We spent another hour or so wandering through his workshop. It is large. Much of the work Armijo has done here would seem to require more than one person. I have a feeling that Federico Armijo is one of the bigger employers in Cubero.

I picked up a piece of what looked like mottled copper. Federico explained that it was the same material he used on the copper-plated doors to the auditorium of the Hispanic Cultural Center.

Among all the equipment and works-in-progress we stopped to examine a large tube of aluminum. It stood six feet high and was bent to form about 2/3 of a circle. The sculptor pulled out a carved piece of laminated wood. He positioned it on top of the aluminum, explaining how eventually this would be a chest of drawers. He went through every problem he perceived in putting the piece together and how it would be solved. This took a good 20 minutes. Everything was already thought out. Everything was organized and resolved. He could see the finished piece and knew how to get there. I only wish I could see it when it is completed.

What an Afternoon
How gracious and accommodating the artist had been! We were humbled by his vision, his energy, and the depth of his knowledge. And all this in a way that made us each feel good about our own world. That is what great art does. We smiled all the way home. But I will say that between searching for Ernest Hemingway at the Villa de Cubero and our incredible visit with the artist Federico Armijo we were totally exhausted.

Smiling and exhausted. What a perfect way to end The Cubero Adventures.

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Tags: armijo, cubero

Comment by Anthony R. Lovato on May 5, 2009 at 11:30am
Thank you! I truly enjoyed both stories. It is always nice to see a piece of New Mexican history revealed through story telling.
Comment by Lee on May 5, 2009 at 4:53pm
funny... on the one hand you felt kind of like you were intruding on his world by just walking up to his workshop uninvited, and who wouldn't have felt the same way. Then it turns out that Mr Armijo enjoyed your interest probably as much as you enjoyed his story.
Yeah.. the little things in life like this that you never could have anticipated. Very cool, thanks for sharing it.
Comment by Johnny_Mango on May 5, 2009 at 5:32pm
@ Anthony- Thanks. Adrian Bustamante said, "All history is a construct." I try to make sure the reader knows that by making the reporter part of the story. I appreciate your interest.

@ Lee- Yes. You are 100% right. It was a leap of faith on both our parts.
Comment by Adelita on May 6, 2009 at 7:46pm
I love your adventures. The two stories were absolutely incredible. Great writing!!

And I totally understand the part about being shy!
Comment by David Cramer on May 7, 2009 at 5:36am
These two stories have been wonderful to read. Your shyness strikes me as also a form of your respect for others. You don't barge into their lives, but approach them openly and gently.
Comment by Leah on February 17, 2012 at 5:27pm
That's my cousin! Love u Freddie! Check out my brothers work he learned from Freddie too. http://alibi.com/art/40443/Carving-Artist.html
Comment by Michelle Meaders on February 18, 2012 at 3:07pm

What is "the Alvarado Station?"

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