Saturday, January 24, 2009


By Travis M. Whitehead
CUANAJO – Angel Cuin Juarez leaned into the cuadrado as his knife peeled slivers of wood from the swirling lilies that bubbled from the fresh pine wood. Cutting, slicing, pulling, he slowly removed anything that repressed the hidden images from taking flight through the wood frame that would soon wrap itself around a picture or mirror. Nearby, his nephew Francisco worked on a long bench that could seat three people, the back elaborately carved with a woman and calla lilies; Angel’s daughter Guadalupe painted the delicate flourishes on a wooden basket of fruit.

The family had enjoyed a good run at the Domingo de Ramos Crafts Fair, having sold most of its items including a table and chairs, although the workers broke one of the chairs as it was being loaded for transport and Angel had to cut the price from 12,000 pesos to 11,000. Overall, however, the two-week stint paid off well, and Angel and his family had returned to their workshop to begin crafting a whole new set of creations.
“I have to be creative to make this work because people don’t want the same thing all the time. I am not going to build the same thing all the time. That’s why I sell the work. People tell me how they want it. Some people want flowers, some people want fruits, and that’s how I make more and more.”

The incubator in which their imaginations gestated included a bandsaw on which Angel and Francisco kept shaving off the end of an arm to fit the long bench. Corn cobs hung from a beam; several unpainted servilleteros waited for a paint job from either Guadalupe, 16, her sister Blanca, 12, or their niece, Cinthia. Chair backs were cut with ridges of quarter moons and images of suns, pineapples, melons, and papayas. A plastic Starbucks cup sat on a bench, tracing paper with Juan’s designs lay on the ground amid layers of sawdust. Overcast skies fell through holes in the pitched roof of corrugated tin. Occasionally a frustrated storm released a few waves of drizzle, but the family labored patiently, each artisan at his or her own tasks, instilling wood with vibrant personalities while accordion music traded places with resonant vocals flowing from a CD player and radio on a shelf; CDs hung on nails protruding from a timber.

Stained brushes dangled from bowls of water where Guadalupe "Lupe", with a brown cover over her pink shirt, used jars of paint to bring life to pale representations of fruit cascading from a basket freshened with white calla lilies. She dipped a stern brush matter-of-factly into a cup of water and then a bottle of red paint before running the delicate fibers over the inner part of a calla lily bursting from a delightful cacophony of apples, bananas, oranges, papaya, strawberries, and grapes. She invigorated the area by daubing over it with pieces of foam rubber for a spotted effect, then awakened a white grape leaf with yellow and then green around the edges.She then gave it a more powerful breath of life by touching the edges with shadow.

Lupe and Blanca had both collaborated on the paint job of a trunk that came with a separate piece of furniture with drawers and doors. A shower of color cascaded like a jungle waterfall across the surface; hummingbirds thrust their enormous beaks into thick aqua blue flowers while parrots with candy apple red heads and streams of gold and blue feathers perched with crossed wings amid emerald green leaves braced with steep ribs. Blooms with deeply-grooved violet petals and centers of greenish umber grooved danced across the surface with mauve blossoms burning with orange centers.

Many of the colgantes and cuadrados, decorated with fruit, flowers and suns, came from the imagination of Juan Esteban, the 15-year-old son of Angel Cuin. Juan Esteban was busy cutting away at a cuadrado, from which suns with swollen rays of light began to ripple from the pine wood. He had already drawn the design on a strip of tracing paper and then transferred it onto the wood. A finished cuadrado decorated with fruit in relief sat nearby. “I feel very very good,” said Juan. “When I am doing my job, I enjoy doing it. I like the carving.”

I had first met Angel Cuin and his family two years before when Juan Esteban was only 13. I had understood then that Juan wasn’t sure he wanted to continue this line of work as a career. Perhaps something became lost in translation and I misunderstood, or he may have just been having a bad day and a moment of indecision, but on this particular visit he declared without reservation that he did in fact want to pursue this as a profession and had always wished to do so.

He had now grown at least a foot taller and exuded the confidence and focus of a dedicated artisan. His dedication showed in the elaborate designs of his colgantes, cuadrados, and other works that had been born from his talented hands. A colgante depicting calla lilies spilling from a yellow basket took one day to carve and another day to paint – the piece would fetch about $25. His brother, one of three who has moved to the United States to seek better work, taught him how to carve.

The first thing he learned to do was sanding, when he was about 10 years old, then he learned how to draw. “I only imagine designs. I first imagine and then put it on.” Juan has had plenty of time to become the skilled artisan he is today. When he’s not in school, he’s working in the family shop like his sisters and his niece. They can't afford to live any other way.

The following day after beginning the cuadrado with the bulging suns, the project – an impressive congregation of suns, long-beaked birds, and graceful leaves - leaned against the foot of the bandsaw, anticipating its appoint-ment with Lupe or Blanca. But first Juan needed to put his finishing touches on the piece. Dressed in frayed bib overalls over a loose T-shirt, he clamped the cuadrado on the bandsaw table and began sanding away, his slim fingers gripping a shred of sandpaper, filing at the full rays of sun, spitting tiny grains of sand like someone flossing their teeth after a full meal. He stopped and chipped away some more, sanded, carved, cut some more to reveal the divine contours in the wood until the piece took on a graceful shine. Soon the elaborate frame would fall under the spell of a paintbrush.

Juan Esteban had imprinted a part of himself into the wood, a recording of a moment of his life. That story would soon join the lifelines of admiring connoisseurs who would share the story of Juan, his family, and the rest of Cuanajo, ensuring its permanent place in the physical world.

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