the wood whisperer

Miguel Licona mesquite and turqouise
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Miguel Licona mesquite and turqouise
Miguel Licona wood and turquise art
Miguel Licona

by Paula M. Bodah
Photos Courtesy Miguel Licona

Santa Fe artist Miguel Licona combines mesquite and turquoise to tell beautiful stories

Miguel Licona readily acknowledges he’s not the first artist to inlay turquoise into wood. It’s hard to imagine, however, that anyone else does it more beautifully. Maybe that’s because Licona studies his wood, searching for the story in every piece before he makes his first cut.

The Santa Fe artist and owner of Wild Edge Woodworks crafts most of his pieces from velvet mesquite he finds in the desert. “Mesquite is a good wood for inlay because it always has cracks,” he says. “My designs start with looking at the cracks and the grain of the wood. I’m guided by the form of the tree. I honor it and its natural form.”

Taking his cue from what the wood tells him, he embellishes what’s there by using a router to carve out leaves or mountains or rivers. Because there are no turquoise mines to speak of in New Mexico, for inlay, he uses Kingman turquoise from Arizona or chrysocolla, also known as Peruvian turquoise. “I crush it up with a hammer and anvil and filter it through a series of sifters, so I have different size chunks, all the way down to a fine sand,” he says. After pouring epoxy over the stone inlay, he sands it—a lot. “It’s so flat you can’t feel the difference between the wood and stone.”

Licona makes tables, benches and chairs, often playing up the wood’s striking live edges and adding large, gem-quality pieces of turquoise. But his cutting boards and Lazy Susans are the bread and Cielo Handcrafted, the gallery he and his jeweler wife, Gloria Olazabal, operate in Santa Fe.

Licona took a circuitous route to becoming a full-time artist. While the New Mexico native was studying ecology at Dartmouth, he took advantage of the New Hampshire college’s well-regarded woodworking program. “It was just recreational, but I loved making furniture and turning bowls,” he recalls. He worked as a wildlife biologist, then as a high school teacher until about four years ago, when he decided to turn his avocation into a career.

Part of his success, he believes, is because people feel a connection to living things, and that includes wood. “Some people can’t even express it,” he says. “But when they see my work, they see something special.”