San Antonio de Ibarra: Transforming wood into beautiful works of art.

 

Text: Carolina Matheus

Planted in the midst of green hills, quaint houses, and a panoramic view of the city of Ibarra, stands the San Antonio de Ibarra Village.  San Antonio catches one’s eye on the road towards Ibarra, not only for its peaceful vistas, but because it holds  a predominantly white and mestizos population of approximately 14,000 people, in which around 3500 people dedicate their lives to wood carving, sculpting or related crafts. Whether you are walking on a quiet side road, or the picturesque main plaza, you will run into carpentry workshops, furniture stores, or artisan workshops. Some workshops are camouflaged; outside they look like shacks, or regular homes.  Yet inside the fragrant smell of Cedar wood fills the air, as reddish shavings cover the floor next to delicately hand-crafted chairs, religious sculptures, and tables.  San Antonio has become one gigantic carpentry workshop in which many families have found a relatively lucrative source of income, while at the same time preserving a wood sculpting tradition of hundreds of years.

AN OPPORTUNITY TO STAY CLOSE TO LOVED ONES

Though the elaboration of many arts and crafts in Ecuador is often a supplementary source of income, this is not the case of San Antonio artist and artisans.  For the majority, carving religious imagery, fine furniture or secular sculptures provides the livelihood for their families.  As one artisan explains at his workshop adjacent to his home, dedicating his life to sculpting religious imagery has allowed him to give his three kids a decent living.  They have a modest yet comfortable home, schooling, a car… comforts which are rare in most rural settings of Ecuador.  For him, it’s not just the material things which count. He truly values his flexible schedule, being close to his kids and wife, in a safe rural setting.  While other middle class Ecuadorian fathers have had to immigrate to find jobs, or spend long hours outside the home, this tradition passed down from his father has brought peace of mind to his family.

In isn’t always easy.  Like any other salesperson in the capitalist economy, there are periods of booms and busts.  In the 1960’s many tourist were visiting the Imbabura province seeking to admire the landscapes and cultural richness of the Otavalo Indians.  On their trips around this region, they began attracted to San Antonio’s wooden sculptures.  Sales also went up during the 1970’s during the “petroleum boom” when a middle class emerged with the desire and the money necessary to adorn their homes with works of art.  They became devout clients of the San Antonio craftsmen who also began to grow wealthier.  However, after Ecuador dolarized its economy sales have decreased, especially to Colombia.  Fortunately, in the last few years, as the economy has become more stable, and tourists are coming in more regularly, sales are slowly picking up.  Yet members of the Artisan Association of San Antonio recognize the need to be more united and also more organized. For this reason, Artisan Association of San Antonio is recently promoting more exhibits and participation at fairs in order to get more exposure.

A TRADITION OF FINE QUALITY

Just like in colonial times, some San Antonio sculptors maintain the traditional process of making religious sculptures.  Usually a fine piece of Cedar or Andean Walnut wood is carefully chosen.  A saint, Jesus, or Mary, is selected usually based on famous XVIII century sculptures of Quito. Then, the master sculptor will carve out the general volumes. Usually an assistant will participate in several of the next steps such as painting some of the less elaborate part of the sculpture. Yet all the detailed sculpting and painting such as eyebrows, flowers, and gold painting, is done completely buy the master sculptor.  This set-up must not be very different than what could be found in Quito or Cuzco three hundred years ago.   Other San Antonio workshops are less traditional,  and have a more “assembly line” format  in which one person carves the volumes, another spreads on the plaster, another sculpts the hands, and yet another paints the details.  No matter the process, it remains certain that all the religious sculpture is hand made.
The level of skill and precision in the wood carving is undeniable.  This could be appreciated at the recent “Archangel Sculpting Contest” held in the village in June 2007. The angels found at the exhibit are true works of art, difficult for the judges to evaluate.  Balance, movement, symmetry, and harmony can be found in almost every piece, from traditional to modern. It is no wonder many renowned artists from Ecuador are originally from San Antonio!

A GIANT CARPENTRY WORKSHOP

During colonial times, throughout Spanish America, religious sculptures made by the famous “Escuela Quiteña” were coveted.  It was said that the level of skill, technique, but mostly the expressive faces and bodies of the sacred figurines inspired believers towards faith and repentance, and therefore were highly valued. It was from this famous school in Quito that San Antonio inherited its roots.  Yet it was in a very unusual manner; for disaster opened the way to opportunity.

The 1868 Earthquake of Ibarra devastated this city and all its neighboring villages.  The local clergy sought help from the capital by recruiting Escuela Quiteña artists and artisans to restore hundreds of works of art destroyed.  Javier Miranda, a painter from Quito, ended up in Ibarra and found an assistant from San Antonio, Daniel Reyes, as a handyman.  Little by little, Javier began to recognize that his assistant had an innate ability for carving and sculpting, and decided to take this young man under is his wing, now as an adept pupil.  He went back to Quito were he was taught him all the tricks of the trade of the Escuela Quiteña.  Once the apprentice reached the level of his teacher, he went back to his home town San Antonio ready to set up his workshop. The Ecuadorian government helped Daniel and his brothers set up a school/workshop which taught carving, sculpting, and painting.  The locals quickly showed their ability to replicate the exquisite Escuela Quiteña style. Workshops started to blossom throughout the village as more and more clients from Ibarra and Quito began to recognize the ability of the San Antonio artisans as the “heirs” of the Escuela Quiteña.  It wasn’t until 1944 that a formal High School, Liceo de Arte Daniel Reyes was formally founded in San Antonio.  There, the teachers started to teach artistic principals of balance, symmetry, anatomy and new tendencies from Europe. Though copying from live nude models was common place in Europe, in this conservative Andean village, it was considered a scandal.  Many of the locals protested against this irreverent new school, but despite popular outrage, it still survives today. The school allowed artisans to branch out from religious imagery towards other more secular themes.  This is how it all began and developed.
Today, more than one hundred years later, an entire village lives by transforming wood into beautiful works of art. The San Antonio wooden sculptures preserve the Escuela Quiteña legacy, and at the same time give several families a decent way of living. As a young boy helps his grandfather polish a piece of wood, one hopes the tradition will continue.

Bibliography:
Escudero, Ximena (1992)  América y España en la Colonia: Historia de un Sincretismo.  Quito: Banco de los Andes.

Murriagui, Alfonso (June, 2007) “ San Antonio, Un Pueblo Donde se da Vida a la Madera”www.nodo50.org/opcion/cultura/llamingo.

Personal Interviews:  June 2007
Rómulo Garrido
Ester Yépez
Oswaldo Villalba