The Gainesville Magazine
Article published Dec 4, 2006
A quick glance at Héctor Puig’s collection of santos de palo figures belies its true worth.
The wooden saint pieces look too humble, too simple, to be highly respected works of art. But beneath the 40 coats of paint that some of these figures wear are histories and legacies the life’s work of a group of dedicated Puerto Rican carvers, known as santeros, whose knives found beauty and spirituality within the wood.
Puig owner of Gainesville’s héctor Framing & Gallery is one of the foremost preservationists of this dying art form. He first discovered it in 1997, when a friend brought him a St. Francis of Assisi figure carved by New Mexican santero Frank Brito.
“I was struck by the pieces,” Puig says.
An avid art collector, Puig sought out more santos, all the while researching the men who created the pieces.
The Spirit Inside
Santos de palo, or “saints of wood,” originated in 16th-century Spain. When Spain colonized Puerto Rico, missionaries used santos to convert island natives to Roman Catholicism. Since churches were few and far between in the mountains of the island, the santos found homes in the private altars of villagers. They believed the spirit of the saint dwelt inside the santos, and if the spirit was invoked during prayer, the saint would speak with God on their behalf.
The carved pieces can range in height from four to 25 inches, and are made from either mahogany or cedar. Within the art form, there are three styles: colonial, which emphasizes realistic proportions and a refined finish; primitive, which is crude in its finish and inspired by folk-art traditions; and autonomous, a style typical of the region of its origin.
Most santos de palo are painted, although some carvers left their works unpainted to show the beauty of the wood. The colors and designs of some santos make references to Puerto Rico itself its flag, its geography, its history.
Santos Puerto Rico
Los Tres Santos Reyes by Jesús Crespo
“It’s something that has offered me a connection with my roots and the Spanish community,” Puig says of the santos de palo. A higher calling.
Puig’s collecting has frequently brought him back to Puerto Rico, where he lived until he was 13. As a boy, he had not been overly familiar with santos; but once he was well-versed in the art, knowing the names of the giants whose carvings had so intrigued him Celestino Aviles, Ceferino Calderon, Carmelo Soto, Rafael “Fito” Hernandez he intended to find them. He did.
The connections were immediate. The santeros granted interviews and even honored Puig with santos de palo from their own altars.
“The pieces themselves speak volumes,” Puig says, “but the experience of collecting them that feeling speaks even more.”
For the santeros, the inspiration comes from a higher power. To be a santero, they say, is not just a profession or a hobby; it is a higher calling. As a collector, Puig says he also holds an obligation to the santos.
“I do feel a certain responsibility,” Puig says. “I want to preserve the best example of what’s available at the time.”
Puig has portions of his collection lent to exhibits in Dallas and at the Harn Museum, with a new exhibit opening at the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico in November. Museums and galleries in Madrid and Barcelona are also negotiating with Puig to host his santos de palo at some point in the future.
Santos Puerto Rico
Los Tres Santos Reyes by Antonio Avilés
Santos In Demand
When former Eustis, Florida, mayor Evelyn H. Smith became interested in purchasing a santos collection from a friend, she knew very little about the art form. So she contacted Puig, whose collection was on display at the Harn Museum at the time, for assistance in pricing the santos that her friend was offering.
“He was so proud of collecting, and that’s contagious,” Smith says.
Upon purchasing the santos, Smith gave Puig half the collection as payment for his services.
“He wanted me to have first choice of the santos,” Smith says. “He gets just as much enjoyment out of seeing someone else have them.”
But Puig says that not all santos collectors show respect for the art form. At art auctions in New York, Atlanta and on the Internet, he has encountered Puerto Rican santos, mislabeled as Mexican or damaged due to improper storage.
In Puerto Rico, unscrupulous collectors have been defrauding villages of their santos since the santos market first boomed in the 1960s. Puig tells of collectors posing as priests taking away valuable santos “to be blessed,” and then never returning the pieces or replacing them with less-valuable duplicates.
Puig says the deception continues in Puerto Rico’s airports and tourist traps, where lesser-quality santos are advertised as authentic santero creations. As most santos are unsigned, it can be difficult to identify authentic pieces. Puig encourages those interested in collecting santos to do their homework, just as Smith did.
Santos Puerto Rico
La Mano Poderosa (detail) by José Antonio Orta
Carrying On The Tradition
With so much of a treasured past in his possession, Puig has begun to give thought to its future. He says he is not yet sure to whom he will pass on the santos de palo, but it is likely to stay in the family.
“I have three daughters who are very much into it as well,” Puig says. “They have respect for the tradition.”
He does have one request: the collection must stay together. Puig’s interviews and experiences with the santeros will also be preserved, as he plans to write a book about santos and the modest artisans who carved them.
In the meantime, Puig remains passionate about educating others on the history and humility of the santos and santeros through exhibits and articles.
“I’m willing to share,” Puig says. “That’s what my collection is for.”
Santos Puerto Rico
Las Once Míl Virgenes by Héctor Moya
To Contact Héctor Puig via Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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