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Luis Ortega's Rawhide Artistry

Braiding in the California tradition

By Yadhira De Leon
Published on LatinoLA: February 14, 2005


Luis Ortega's Rawhide Artistry


Organized by the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum of Oklahoma City, "Luis Ortega?s Rawhide Artistry: Braiding in the California Tradition" is the first major retrospective of Ortega?s work. Showcasing more than 100 examples of elaborately braided works spanning five decades, the exhibition will be in the Museum of the American West?s George Montgomery Gallery from April 3 through July 4, 2005.

Rawhide braiding is an ancient craft used to create the working gear prized by generations of horsemen. Luis Bierbant Ortega (1897?1995) brought California?s vaquero traditions into the 20th century and elevated them to a fine art. His roots in the Hispanic heritage of California ran deep. Ortega?s great-great-grandfather, Jos? Francisco Ortega, who arrived with the first Spanish expedition to California in 1769, is credited with being the first European to locate San Francisco Bay by land. Sergeant Ortega also served in the Spanish military, commanding the Santa Barbara and Monterey presidios. For his service, the governor of Alta California granted Jos? Francisco Ortega 26,000 acres, called Rancho Refugio, along the California coast north of Santa Barbara, and it was on this land that five generations of Ortegas learned the art of the vaquero.

Refugio for a time became known as a hotbed of smuggling, and during the early 19th century the family prospered, selling hides and tallow to maritime merchants. The family held on to their lands through the U.S.-Mexico War, but crippled by a devastating drought in the 1860s, they were forced to sell. Still, the family held firm to their way of life. By the time Luis was born in 1897, the Ortegas still lived on their old ranch, and many men in the family worked on horseback in the surrounding arroyos and hills.

Luis?s family hoped he would go to college, but the young man preferred to sit at the feet of aging vaqueros and learn the subtle art of California horsemanship. Luis?s father Andr?s worked as foreman on the Spade S Ranch in Santa Barbara County, and he was the one who taught Luis his ranching skills. Quetano Herman, another elder vaquero at the Spade S, taught Luis how to work slowly and patiently to train and gentle horses in the California tradition with a j?quima, or hackamore. Hackamores are used in the California tradition to train horses without using a bit in their mouths. A hackamore consists of a bosal (the braided rawhide loop), a headstall (holding the bosal on the horse?s head), and a macate (the horsehair rope reins). Vaqueros would begin training a horse by first using a thick bosal, then progressively changing to smaller and thinner ones. Eventually, the horse would respond to the vaquero?s slightest gesture.

Luis Ortega also learned the arts of rawhide braiding, including how to make the basic tools of the vaquero, from local artisans. Fernando Liberado, a Chumash Indian who had worked on the Santa Ynez Mission, passed on his knowledge of how to select, prepare, and cut rawhides, as well as how to braid the hides into practical works of art. The most important tool for a California vaquero was the rawhide rope, or reata, some of them reaching up to 100 feet in length. Liberado taught the 12-year-old Luis how to cut a 350- to 400-foot string from each hide.

Ortega left home in his early teens and worked as a vaquero all over the West, from Oregon to Arizona. In his free time, he braided ropes and other equipment and sold them to other riders and a few saddle shop owners. But chance intervened in 1932. That year, Ortega showed his handiwork to famed Western artist Ed Borein, who remarked, ?What do you want to be, a rawhide artist or a rawhide butcher?? After that, Ortega took up rawhide braiding as a full-time occupation. Six years later, he married Rose Smith, an Oregon schoolteacher, and they began a productive partnership of several decades. Rose managed the business and braided many of the small buttons, called ?Turk?s Heads,? on her husband?s romals and reins.

Over the years, Ortega spent more and more of his time creating extraordinarily fine pieces for collectors?pieces never intended to be used. His work gained a national reputation, and in 1986, the National Endowment for the Arts recognized Luis Ortega as a Master Traditional Artist.

Today, the Museum of the American West is very proud to bring Luis Ortega?s Rawhide Artistry to California, in the heart of the state?s historic Mexican ranchos. Museum visitors will have a rare opportunity to view Ortega?s personal collection, as well as selections from premier private collections of his work. All of this is placed within the context of Ortega?s family heritage and the rich Spanish and Mexican ranching traditions of California. The majority of exhibition labels will be presented in both English and Spanish.

Museum of the American West
4700 Western Heritage Way
Los Angeles, CA 90027
323.667.2000

About Yadhira De Leon:
Find out more about "Luis Ortega?s Rawhide Artistry: Braiding in the California Tradition" by visiting the Museum of the American West?s website at www.autrynationalcenter.org.




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