Ar­ti­sans of the World

Peru sculp­tor An­to­nio Olave is inspired by faith and pas­sion.

Porthole Cruise Magazine - - Porthole - by RICHARD VARR

AN­TO­NIO OLAVE PALOMINO IS SUR­ROUNDED by an­gels. He sits amid paint-splat­tered carv­ing knives and a bevy of brushes along­side open jars of muted and earthen-toned pig­ments. Four un­fin­ished, slen­der wooden sculp­tures sit on his work­bench — pre­cisely shaped fig­urines soon to look like the shiny, gold-leafed saints, vir­gins, and an­gels on the shelves around him.

He works qui­etly and seem­ingly con­tent­edly in his stu­dio and gallery along a nar­row street in the San Blas Quar­ter, a pop­u­lar neigh­bor­hood of artists and crafts­men cen­tered by the San Blas Church (Cusco’s old­est) with its gilded sil­ver al­tar and mas­sive bib­li­cal and con­quis­ta­dor-inspired oil paint­ings from the Cuzco School art tra­di­tion.

Olave’s work­bench is caked in plas­ter and paint — tes­ta­ment to his more than 60 years as a sculp­tor, driven by his faith and pas­sion to cre­ate imag­i­nary re­li­gious fig­urines. With a sliver of sand­pa­per, he gen­tly smoothes the hand of a sad Je­sus child, the one he calls “El Niño Manuelito.” It’s a sculp­ture he carves over and over again — a work that has made him one of the most fa­mous artists in all of Peru.

“This is my orig­i­nal cre­ation,” af­firms the 86-yearold Olave, his throaty voice still strong and as­sertive. “Re­li­gion inspires me, and in my gallery there are many works of Niño Manuelito.”

While there are many im­ages of a young sav­ior, Manuelito is unique be­cause the boy is seated with hands at his foot, stem­ming from a tale the artist heard back in 1975. As the story goes, Olave had trav­eled three days by horse­back and bus to the high­lands of Vil­cabamba to re­pair an earth­quake-dam­aged Je­sus im­age and al­tar for a lo­cal church. While there, he heard the story of the shep­herd boy Q’al­ito, who raced to the aid of a cry­ing friend who stepped on a cac­tus spine. Q’al­ito is said to have then stepped on a thorn him­self to show com­pas­sion for the child.

“I heard the story and that’s why I made the sculp­ture of Niño Manuelito in this po­si­tion,” Olave ex­plains. “That inspired me to make the child in a like­ness of a young Je­sus.”

Since then, his sculp­tures gained pop­u­lar­ity as Olave would sell them at the San­tu­ran­ticuy crafts fes­ti­val ev­ery De­cem­ber 24 in Cusco’s cen­tral Plaza de Ar­mas. “Many Cusqueñas wanted to have Manueli­tos in their homes for Christ­mas,” he re­calls, “and they would fight to get one.” To­day, they’re fix­tures in na­tiv­ity scenes through­out the coun­try.

A proud mo­ment for Olave was when Pope John Paul II blessed his Manuelito dur­ing a 1985 visit to Sac­say­huamán, a sprawl­ing Inca cer­e­mo­nial es­planade out­side Cusco. He re­calls the Pope re­turned the child sculp­ture, but Olave in­sisted he keep it as a gift say­ing there are al­ready many in Peru.

With help from his son, Olave also carves fig­urines and shapes pot­tery in tra­di­tional Inca de­signs. “We pre­serve the old ways, mak­ing ce­ram­ics like the In­cas. We use the same ma­te­ri­als and col­ors ex­tracted from na­ture.”

In his gallery stand side-by-side Inca and Colo­nial Span­ish fig­urines — what he calls a “wed­ding” of the two cul­tures. “I have a lot of re­spect for the In­cas and Spa­niards too be­cause I learned a lot about their art,” he ad­mits. “I con­sider both cul­tures very im­por­tant in my life.

“We pre­serve the old ways, mak­ing ce­ram­ics like the In­cas.”

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