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The making of a saint.

THE COUNTRYSIDE around Asuncion is typical of much of Paraguay: cotton and tobacco fields, palm trees offering little shade to scrawny cattle, infrequent escarpments of basalt punctuating otherwise rolling terrain. If you come in the springtime, it is a bit cooler but the sun is strong, illuminating the fields of yellow flor de agosto (ragwort) and periodic lapacho trees covered with white or violet blossoms, the north wind dispersing the aroma of bitter orange trees into every corner.

Route Two leads east from the capital, past Lake Ypacarai to Caacupe where the basilica to the Virgen Azul de los Milagros (Blue Virgin of the Miracles) shines like a beacon, its new dome covered with copper plate imported from Chile. Twelve miles to the north, on a cobbled road guaranteed to loosen your fillings, lies the colonial village of Tobati, almost lost in an oppressive haze of smoke from the brick kilns common to the area. Less obvious is a secondary industry, the manufacture of saints (that is, wooden images of saints)--polychromed figures fashioned from cedar destined for the santerias or saint shops of Asuncion. The santos, as they are called, are still very popular and adorn family altars of many homes throughout Paraguay.

The acknowledged grand master, if not patriarch, of the santeros (saintmakers) of Tobati is 63-year-old Zenon Paez Esquivel, whose home, workshop and salesroom, all rolled into one, announces itself on the main street with a crude sign reading: "Artesania y Santeria." Don Zenon learned his craft from his father and grandfather, as part of a family tradition spanning more than one hundred years. Paez has been a carver, much of his adult life, augmenting his income building coffins when he could not make a living by carving saints alone. Something of a living national treasure, he serves also as a spokesman for many regional artisans, appearing regularly to cut a ribbon for a new crafts outlet or urging his countrymen to preserve their traditions and maintain high standards in their work.

Over the years Paez has done large-scale projects, like a huge Crucifix and numerous life-sized images of San Roque, San Francisco and the Virgin Mary for various churches in Asuncion. But his "bread and butter" remains the carving of saints whose attributes are passed from one carver to another: San Miguel with dragon; San Roque with his sores and faithful dog; San Isidro plowing on Sunday behind his oxen (until the Lord sent down an angel to take his place so he could go to church). He knows by memory the iconographic trappings of at least a hundred saints, many of which he stores in a trunk in his salesroom in case a customer appears, suddenly in need of a San Cayetano, Onofrio or Silvestre. If he receives an assignment for a lesser-known martyr not part of his normal repertoire, he consults his collection of oraciones, small popular prints of saints with prayers printed on the reverse side. Or he might check with the village priest, Padre Teofilo Caceres. Caceres himself has commissioned Don Zenon and his brother Emidgio to carve figures for the town's 16th-century Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepcion to replace colonial images stolen from the church's altar.

Today, carving has become a cottage industry for much of the Paez clan. The progeny of the Paez brothers produce an array of religious and secular imagery that respects tradition but also reflects the whims of the individual carver. One of Don Zenon's sons, Alcides, has helped his father with numerous projects while establishing his own reputation as a skilled santero. Another son, Francisco, carves saints but more often fashions masks representing los reyes magos (the Three Wise Men), delicate pesebres (nativity scenes) and replicas of the pioneers and their ox-drawn wagons. Cousin Getulio Paez specializes in small (three inches tall), brightly painted santitos. "I believe that the saints are alive, so they should have a convincing human appearance," observes Getulio, and indeed each santito is rendered with convincing veracity despite its size.

Sometimes the production comes from a husband and wife operation, as in the case of Nilda Paez de Orrego (Don Zenon's niece) and her husband. He worked for years as a factory technician in Asuncion, but chose to return home and become a santero. "It's much better having him home," Sra. de Orrego explains, "and besides, if he works hard as a carver, he can actually contribute more to the canasta familiar ("family basket" or income) than he could at the factory." Orrego meticulously fashions detailed likenesses of San Lorenzo with his grill, San Francisco with birds fluttering from his shoulders and even Paraguay's new and only saint, San Roque Gonzalez, the Jesuit priest martyred in the 16th Century. Nilda paints the carvings in the bright, startling colors that are her trademark. The couple has been creating pieces together for four years, and they have to work overtime to keep up with the demand for their distinctive items.

Nilda's sister Josefina is the only woman in the family who both carves and paints. Her work is notable for its precision and subtle color combinations. She possesses a good nose for the business side of the operation, ranging far and wide to line up special exhibits of Paez family carvings. "We want people to like our work so our market increases," she says. "Then we can improve our living conditions and offer our children a better future."

To a large extent Zenon Paez has already done exactly that. His son Urso lives with his wife and children in a prosperous neighborhood of Asuncion and makes a good living undertaking major commissions, especially altar figures for churches throughout the country. From tropical hardwoods like palo santo and quebracho, he also carves carefully finished, unpainted figures of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, or chess sets representing the opposing sides of the War of the Triple Alliance (1865-1870). He uses light-colored wood for the Paraguayan Army (with General Francisco Solano Lopez as king and his companion, Eliza Lynch, as queen), whereas the combined armies of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay are rendered in a much darker hue.

Unlike many traditional crafts based on skills passed down through generations, it does not appear that saint-making in Tobati is in any danger of dying out. Zenon and Emidgio's young grandchildren are already helping in their elders' workshops with carving, sanding and painting. One little eight-year-old is already a skilled fashioner of tiny nativity scenes.

Just as each carver endows his art with special features, each differs in how he or she produces for the market. Some are "high volume producers" and use almost assembly-line techniques to turn out several saints a day. Others, like Don Zenon, only work on one or two at a time and will devote several days to each one, with another day spent on painting. Although the trade has great spiritual rewards, the earthly ones are not so generous--a nine-inch carving representing perhaps four days of effort will probably sell for no more than US$10.

Although the carvers prefer to sell their work directly to customers who have rattled their way over the stones all the way to Tobati, for the most part the artisans can only generate sufficient sales volume by marketing their work in galleries, craft shows and santerias in Asuncion. This may change if Padre Caceres succeeds in opening a community sales cooperative for all the santeros. He has purchased property on the main plaza of Tobati to house a salesroom, bookshop-library and regional museum for a small permanent collection. "The problem is that the work always leaves Tobati, and each generation of carvers makes its own contribution," states the priest. "Some (of the carvings) must be saved so citizens come to appreciate the skill and tradition that long has resided in this region."

While Padre Caceres is preserving the tradition at home, Zenon Paez has taken his craft far afield and garnered both national and international recognition. He has been written up in several books on folk art in Paraguay and beyond. His work regularly goes to neighboring countries for arts festivals like the Feria Internacional de Artesania Tradicional de Santiago, Chile; Cosquin 80 in Cordoba, Argentina; and the Festival Latinamericano sponsored by the University of Brasilia. In 1979, a Paez chess set on display at a trade fair in Madrid was so admired by King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain that the Paraguayan trade mission purchased and presented it as an official gift to the royal couple. The carver still proudly points to a photograph in his salesroom which documents that event.

Without a doubt, though, Paez's most memorable achievement came in 1988 during the Paraguayan visit of Pope John Paul. Months before, Paez told friends he wanted to carve a lectern in the shape of the Holy Spirit (a dove with rays of light emanating from all sides) to give to the Pope. Eventually, he opted for a more traditional santuario (painted niche) enclosing an image of Nuestra Virgin de Caacupe; the carver's daughter did the painting. Full of emotion, Paez, his wife and a granddaughter personally presented the gift to the Pope on his birthday, May 18, 1988. "That was a great moment," he exclaims, with a hint of tears in his eyes.

A line from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's last poem, "The Bells of San Blas," comes to mind: The saints! Ah have they grown forgetful

of their own? Are they asleep or dead? The highway to Tobati is adorned with signs for the Granja San Genaro, Plomeria San Felipe, Almacen San Roque, and even Heladeria San Gertrudis, leading one to conclude that the saints are quite alive and very much involved in forms of human endeavor as diverse as the plumbing business and the manufacture of ice cream. Embodied in the figures of unadorned or painted wood, they exist in profusion as both objects of faith and as a popular art form well worth the trouble to explore.

THE CENTER FOR VISUAL ARTS

A representative selection of Tobati santos from several decades of production is on display at the Centro de Artes Visuales (C.A.V.) in Asuncion, Paraguay. Like many cultural institutions, the C.A.V. was the brainchild of a few visionary individuals who saw quality in their midst and sought a vehicle to celebrate it. In 1980, three painters--Ysanne Gayet, Oswaldo Salerno and Carlos Colombino--intent on promoting and preserving the popular and contemporary art of Paraguay, opened the Museo de Barro in San Lorenzo, a little town on the outskirts of the capital. There were lean years, several moves and predictable disputes regarding the precise shape the program should take. But in February 1988, after much hard work, permanent quarters for the C.A.V opened on Calle Uno in the Molas Lopez district of Asuncion.

As designed by the current director, Carlos Colombino, the C.A.V. is really a complex of three distinct spaces with additional facilities taking shape as time, energy and funds permit. The Museo de Barro, directed by Oswaldo Salerno, displays an enormous collection of clay pieces from the two ceramics centers of Ita and Tobati, but also exhibits many wooden objects like old and new painted santos, nichos and masks. The Museum's salesroom offers contemporary folk art and an impressive array of books and catalogs published by the Center.

Contemporary artists can show their work next door in the Sala Josefina Pla, named for Paraguay's poet who has championed numerous art forms throughout the country for many years. Finally, in the Taller de Artes Visuales, there are studio facilities for workshops and evening classes in drawing and painting for amateurs and professional artists alike.

Future facilities will include exhibition space for indigenous art (a pr gram being developed under the direction of Ticio Escobar), furniture, metalwork, popular prints, photographs and textiles. The C.A.V has sponsored travelling exhibits of Paraguayan art to France, Italy and the United States, and more are planned.

The institution supports itself through its sales facility, private donations, corporate sponsorships and help from international organizations. Colombino sees his center as providing "a space for dialogue, development and confrontation ... among the three Paraguayan cultures (indigenous, mestizo and European), in a democratic setting." The center is open daily, and is a unique resource for anyone interested in the contemporary and popular art of Paraguay.

Caleb Bach teaches art and Spanish at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. He has just received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to complete a book on San Blas, the patron saint of Paraguay.
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Title Annotation:includes article on The Center for Visual Arts in Paraguay; wood carvings
Author:Bach, Caleb
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Mar 1, 1990
Words:2096
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