Friday, December 15, 2017

San Miguel's roadside Michelangelo

Probably because I don't know much about art or artistic techniques, I've always thought of sculpture as the pinnacle of artistic expression. It certainly seems the most difficult to execute.

Paint brushes bend and you can always paint over your mistakes or whatever you feel didn't come out just right. Leonardo did that often with many of his paintings, relentlessly seeking perfection, or because he just couldn't quite make up his brilliant mind, or his notorious attention deficit disorder kept calling him to a myriad other projects, such as designing a catapult or a flying machine, or exploring the intricacies of the human body by dissecting cadavers.

Simple tools of the sculpting trade. 
Even painting frescoes, glass-blowing or silversmithing seem easier than sculpture because the media are more malleable or you can correct your mistakes.

During a trip to Tuscany, Stew and I were awestruck with the detail Michelangelo could squeeze out of formless chunk of marble: David's fingernails and veins, his pulsing muscles, his distant gaze, even David's pubic hair. In his Pietà, at St. Peter's Basilica, the folds of the fabric covering the Virgin Mary are doubly amazing when one considers they were chiseled out of marble.

It's not only difficult to get that detail out of stone, but it must be the most nerve-wracking of labors. One stray whack of the chisel or hammer and there goes one of the Virgin's fingers or hand.

Madonna of the Libramiento.
Over the past eight or ten weeks I've marvelled at a man perched atop a crude homemade wooden ladder, hammer and chisel in hand, slowly wresting a representation of a Virgin of Guadalupe out of what began as a featureless, ten-foot-tall hunk of rock.

On Tuesday, December 12, Lupita's feast day, he wasn't working but he or someone else had placed a can with  flowers at the foot of the finished statue.

It's not a David or a Pietà but at least to my eyes, a very accomplished representation of the traditional image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, including the folds on her tunic, and the two small angels hovering over her tilting head, the sunrays in the background.

It's all the more remarkable coming from José Godínez, 45, an untrained sculptor—unless you count thirty years of experience—whose workshop is nothing more than a gravelled space scarcely twenty feet deep, off the heavily trafficked Libramiento, or bypass highway, that wraps around San Miguel, and about a mile downhill from the Luciérnaga shopping mall.

Sculptor at work.
The only cover over Godínez's "atelier," which is littered with large pieces of sculpture, is a plastic tarp kept aloft by wooden poles. A large and rather macabre stone skull with a piece of a car's gearshift stuck on top, sits by the side of the road atop a rock with a sign that tells motorists "BAJALE!" or "slow down".

Godínez is a very handsome man, with a bushy salt-and-pepper moustache, a deeply lined, weathered face, and penetrating blue eyes, who wears a large, floppy hat. His manner is gruff, impatient with visitors interrupting his work to ask questions.

Indeed, getting him to talk about his work is not easy. His answers come in two- or three-word unembellished bursts, as if afraid to blurt out some trade secret.

His latest Virgin of Guadalupe is 2.2 meters tall, he told me, or about eight feet tall, and he's worked at it for over two months.

That's not his largest Lupita, he hastened to add. Earlier this year he created a four-meter-tall version for someone's garden.

He doesn't work with any fancy stone, but with rock that comes "from inside the earth", a sort of volcanic material. I volunteered "basalt" but he said that wasn't it, though he didn't have any name for it. Basalt is dark in color and this rock looked more like limestone but finer-grained and denser.

Road sign. 
Godínez began sculpting when he was fifteen years old, and said his inspiration didn't come from any individual teacher or training but "from the heart" and he learned simply by practicing and getting better with every blow of the hammer.

He pulled out a dog-eared, dusty notebook and showed me one of his earliest creations, a statue of his mother, plus photos of some of his work in mesquite wood, which he said is even harder to work with than stone. One of his pictures was of a huge pair of doors for someone's house.

How much does he expect to get for his latest Lupita, I asked. He paused and said about eighty thousand pesos, or approximately $4,200 dollars at the current rate of exchange, and to my mind a very reasonable price for such an impressive work.

With that tidbit of information, Godínez went back to work on a circular stone pedestal, about six feet in diameter by two feet high, that will be placed under the sculpture of Lupita that he just finished. The exchange with him left me not much more enlightened about how sculptures are created, but ever more awed at people who have such talent.

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