LUIS ORTEGA’S RAWHIDE ARTISTRY: Braiding in the California Tradition
April 3 – July 4, 2005

Museum of the American West
4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles, CA 90027-1462
Contact: Jay Aldrich
323.667.2000, ext. 329, fax 323.666.1295
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Hours, Tuesday – Sunday, 10am-5pm; Thursday, 10-8pm

Hobbles with doubled sixteen-strand black rawhide body; covered stainless steel ring and buttons with red interweaves.
High Noon Collection, Los Angeles.


Los Angeles – Intertwining art, function, and California’s ranching traditions, braided lariats and other rawhide works crafted by legendary artisan Luis Ortega will be on display at the Museum of the American West from April 3 through July 4, 2005.

Luis Ortega’s Rawhide Artistry: Braiding in the California Tradition is the first major retrospective of the work of this fifth-generation Californian. The Museum of the American West’s George Montgomery Gallery will showcase more than 100 examples of his elaborately braided works—spanning five decades. The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum of Oklahoma City developed the traveling exhibition, and Los Angeles is its only West Coast stop.

“Luis Ortega learned the basics of rawhide braiding not far from the Museum of the American West, from a Chumash Indian on his family’s ranch on California’s Central Coast,” said Louise Pubols, PhD, Historian at the Museum of the American West. “Ortega’s masterful and functional rawhide craftsmanship tells a story of his own heritage, as well as a story about the Spanish and Mexican ranching traditions of California.”

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, José 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 José 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, Andrés, 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 jáquima, 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 train 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.

About the Museum of the American West
The Museum of the American West provides rich learning opportunities for all people by exploring the myths and realities of the American West and its diverse populations. The museum enhances our understanding of the present by collecting, preserving, and interpreting objects and art, making connections between people today and those who have shaped the past.

The museum receives approximately 374,000 visitors annually and each year provides free guided tours and educational activities for more than 40,000 area schoolchildren. It is located in Griffith Park at 4700 Western Heritage Way, across from the Los Angeles Zoo, where the 5 and 134 freeways meet. Admission is $7.50 for adults, $5 for seniors and students, and $3 for children. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, and on major holidays except Thanksgiving and Christmas. On Thursdays, the museum is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. 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 <>.

<> — look for Ortega’s release and click on images. If you have any questions, call 323.667.2000, ext. 329, or e-mail <>.

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