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Art Figures Are Puerto Rico Collector's Items


SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Collectors are snapping up antique and contemporary wooden religious statues from galleries in Old San Juan, as well as from artists scattered around the island.

Called "santos," the figures are small statues beautifully carved out of cedar, laurel and other local woods and represent religious subjects such as the Nativity, Crucifixion, Virgin Mary, Three Wise Men and popular saints.

Statue styles are realistic to naive and roughly finished. They are found in galleries as well as in the studios of santeros (santos makers), some of which are open to the public.

Techniques for making the carved pieces have been passed down through history, according to cultural commentator Feliz Garmendia Santos, who is based in Ponce, Puerto Rico's second largest city.

"Santeros hand down their art from generation to generation, with the kids usually beginning to carve at a very young age, maybe 6 or 7," Garmendia said. "You can still see whole families of santeros in small towns in the mountains. In Ponce we have the family of Domingo Orta, one of the most important santeros in Puerto Rico."

Puerto Rico's santos tradition probably originated with the arrival of the Spanish, who introduced statues of patron saints to Latin America. But it was in Puerto Rico where the art really took hold.

The first santeros in Puerto Rico carved copies of the religious statues brought from Spain, so that other settlers going to remote parts of the island would have images with which to pray.

Until about 50 years ago santos were particularly important in rural areas where there were no churches and priests only passed through occasionally.

Usually, the santeros worked on commission, making saints to order. Such statues were unsigned, often repainted to cover faded or chipped colors and handed down from generation to generation.

Only a few of the old-time santeros have been identified.

Among them, those made by the families of Caban, Cajigas, Cartagena and Garcia are highly valued. So when a piece cannot be attributed to one artist it is classified by region or origin or characteristics. For example, some santos are known by the descriptive name cachetones, which in Spanish refers to puffed-cheeks.

Although Puerto Rico's santos tradition is still flourishing, it has changed over the years. Not all of the artists sculpt out of religious conviction. Some work with the old techniques, handcrafting each statue from start to finish.

Others use power saws to cut out basic shapes before carving details by hand. Most contemporary santeros accept commissions to make special figures, but more often they sculpt their favorites from among the most popular saints. The statues are sold from their workshops or in galleries in Old San Juan or Ponce.

Standard inventory usually includes the Three Wise Men, the Virgin, St. Francis, St. Peter, St. John the Baptist, St. Anthony of Padua and St. Roch. Also popular is La Mano Poderosa (the All-Powerful Hand of Christ), representing the hand of a crucified Christ supporting figures of the child Christ, the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, St. Anne and St. Joachim.

Most of the antique figures come to the market through dealers who scour the countryside searching for them. They are removed from alters in homes in remote mountain towns and their owners, convinced they are worth more in sentimental than real value, are persuaded to trade them for more showy, shinier plaster editions of the same saint, Garmendia said.

In Old San Juan galleries, increasingly rare antique statues bring dealers hundreds of dollars each.

Some Puerto Rican folk art scholars, including Teodoro Vidal, who owns one of the world's biggest and best santos collections, believe that antique santos are part of Puerto Rico's heritage and should be kept on the island. But as yet, no regulations prevent their removal.

Not all Puerto Rico's contemporary santeros grew up in the santos tradition. Carlos Anzueta was born in Puerto Rico but raised in Chicago.

"I was always doing art as far back as I can remember, but I didn't know anything about santos until I moved back to the island," he said. "In Chicago my sixth grade teacher told me, 'Carlos, you're gonna be known for modern saints.' But I was thinking more along the lines of (the type of saints depicted by) Leonardo or Michelangelo until I moved back to Puerto Rico and Botello, the gallery owner, suggested I carve santos. "

Anzueta's figures, characterized by elongated bodies and faces with almost Asian features, are highly detailed. They are colored with pastel dyes that allow the wood grain to show through.

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