Art in the hands

Coordinates: 18°27′58″N 66°07′09″O

Their design and beauty constitute the Puerto Rican cultural traditions. They are popular creations of a place that paints over the canvas of our history. Puerto Rican handicrafts can be considered as one of the works of art that represents our culture.

In our journey through the Calle San Sebastián festival, we were impressed by the amount of local craftsmen committed to their art. It’s not an easy task, as expressed by many of them, since they arrive at the festival very early and leave late at night. However, engaging with the public that visit their kiosk and having the opportunity to talk to them about their art, is a rewarding experience.

With countless options of handicraft to choose from, in the Calle San Sebastián festival there were more than 300 local craftsmen. We decided to review some of the handicraft techniques in wood, such as intarsia, the elaboration of string instruments, and the carving of saints.

Puerto Rican musical instruments made with the intarsia technique. Photo: Pamy Rojas

Puerto Rican musical instruments made with the intarsia technique. Photo: Pamy Rojas

Intarsia Art

In the art of intarsia, a technique of Italian origin, we discovered the work of Erick Ortíz Negrón. This engineer started it as a hobby to pursue his handicraft skills. He said, “I was certified six years ago as a craftsman and started working on some pieces, but now this has become a full-time activity.” Ortíz Negrón worked as an engineer for a decade, but became unemployed some time ago.

The San Pedrito handicraft made using the intarsia technique. Photo: Pamy Rojas

The San Pedrito handicraft made using the intarsia technique. Photo: Pamy Rojas

Natural State

According to Ortíz Negrón, the intarsia technique consists of using wood in its natural color to form works of art, as paint is never used to create tones. In the so-called wood marquetry, the streaks of a trunk create distinctive effects in the work of art. The wood used is from Puerto Rico and other parts of the world (all of them in their natural state). This creates all of the drawing effects in the piece.

In terms of the themes that he uses in his works, these include: the traditional Three Kings, local fruits and birds, and other ideas that reflect the Puerto Rican culture. To achieve different effects in his piece, Ortíz Negrón also uses carving, lathe, and pyrography techniques. This successful craftsman has clients in Puerto Rico, South America, Spain, Canada, and New York City.

The intarsia technique consists of using wood in its natural color. Photo: Pamy Rojas

The intarsia technique consists of using wood in its natural color. Photo: Pamy Rojas

Handicrafts in strings

On another hand, Gerardo Hernández, is a luthier in his free time. As a conservationist, Hernández uses the wood of fallen trees to create his instruments. The wood that he uses, in most cases, is native of Puerto Rico. It comes from the guaraguao, majó, yagrumo, oak, and mahogany trees.

Some of the instruments that this luthier works with are: the tiple, the cuatro, and the bordonúa, which are all traditional Puerto Rican string instruments. The tiple is a small string instrument that produces a high-pitched sound. The Puerto Rican cuatro represents the traditional jíbaro music, is a part of Christmas carols, and is valued as the national instrument. The bordonúa is a type of guitar that, unlike the tiple, produces a deep sound. In Francisco Oller’s piece, El Velorio, a bordonúa appears almost hidden. Other string instruments that Hernández elaborates are the requinto and the guitar.

The tiple is the smallest instrument of the jíbaro orchestra. Photo: Pamy Rojas

The tiple is the smallest instrument of the jíbaro orchestra. Photo: Pamy Rojas

Luthier

For this artisan, it’s a great satisfaction that the instruments he makes, have reached different parts of the world, like France, Australia, Spain, Venezuela, Colombia, and United States. “My instruments have reached farther than I have,” humorously commented the music lover. Hernández told us that when he started elaborating the instruments, he signed up to take classes to learn how to play the cuatro. Also, he signed up his kids in the course so that they could also learn to play the cuatro and the guitar. “For me this job as a luthier and the love for music has made me share time with my family and strengthen our bonds. I love what I do because it fosters happiness,” concluded Hernández.

The Powerful Hand is a piece that has many details in its minuscule figures. Photo: Pamy Rojas

The Powerful Hand is a piece that has many details in its minuscule figures. Photo: Pamy Rojas

Carving wooden saints

In the art of carving wooden saints, a craftsman who only had a few months of experience impressed us. Till Brauer, who took a class of carving wooden saints with Pablo Rinaldi, says that he elaborates his saints using techniques from our ancestors. “I don’t use images or a ruler and I don’t mark with a pencil or draw lines. I do it, as they say, ‘at a glance’. I read the saint’s biography to understand how he lived and suffered. In this way, I try to transmit his sorrow into the wood.”

A wood-carved saint’s piece of great detail that requires a lot of skill to elaborate is the Powerful Hand. This figure, as implied by its name, shows a newborn Jesus in the thumb, Virgin Mary in the index finger, Saint Joseph in the middle finger, Mary’s mother (Saint Anne) in the ring finger, and Mary’s father (Saint Joachim) in the baby finger. The small size of the saints on top of the fingers is what requires great precision and gives the piece its uniqueness. This piece is one of Till Brauer’s favorites; he explains: “the resuscitated hand cannot have iron nails, and the blood is dark because it is clotted. This carving means that when all of the members of a family die, they will be reunited in heaven. This translates in the eternal family love.”

Santos de Palo, or the carving of wooden saints, is a handicraft display that started on the island in the seventeenth century. This expression of popular imagery recreates on wood the saints of the Catholic Church. Today, the carving of wooden saints goes beyond its religious meaning, as it is a national symbol of great cultural value. The Smithsonian Natural Museum of American History exhibited various pieces that Teodoro Vidal donated to the museum. The exhibition A vision of Puerto Rico included not only the saints, but also thousands of objects that represent Puerto Rican culture. These date from the seventeenth to the twentieth century and some are: musical instruments like the cuatro, the tiple, and the maracas; kitchen utensils, like the coffee grinder, and others.


Read more about Old San Juan in the stories section.


Conscious Travel Practices:

1. Support local business.

2. Learn about the art and culture of the island.

3. Encourage the use of raw materials of Puerto Rico.


Artisans

Intarsia technique

Erick Ortíz Negrón

Ejon78@yahoo.com

Luthier

Gerardo Hernández

tallerartesanalgabriela@gmail.com

Talla de santos

Till Brauer

tillbrauer@gmail.com