Feature

The Saint Sculptor

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The craft that produces religious statues all over the world begins in a modest workshop in the town of Paete.

Photography by
Story by
Miguel Nacianceno
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Originally Published In

Among all the parts of the human body, the hands may be the hardest to draw.

Many artists can attest to this. To get it right, it takes an intimate understanding of anatomy and a vivid imagination of how the body is warped by the viewer’s perspective.

And yet, on a desk in a master wood carver’s workshop in Laguna rests about a dozen of them carved in wood. Each hand is sculpted to perfection – from the subtle ripples where bone protrudes through thin skin to the bend between each segment of the fingers. 

These hands stretch toward the fluorescent lights above, waiting to be joined with the arms of the holy images they belong to. It’s almost sacrilegious how the pieces are simply laid on the table. But it’s just a busy afternoon in the workshop in the days leading up to the Holy Week and the table is proof of the masterful work that happens inside the studio of one of the best artisans in Paete, the wood carving capital of the Philippines.

From this capital, trophies, religious images, and souvenirs are made. For a craft that produces highly exalted pieces, it begins in such a modest workshop in the town.

“Maraming manguuka dito sa Paete, pero konti lang kaming manguukit.”

A Town of Artisans

In the middle of a living room which doubles as a workspace surrounded by worktables and chisels of all sizes, the artisan begins carving a block of wood with rough etchings of a human face.

Justino “Paloy” Cagayat Jr. comes from a family of wood carvers in Paete. Before him, there was his father and grandfather, who were known to be one of the best artists in town. After him, there is his son, Franco and a nephew with his own wooden workshop nearby. 

“Sa katagalan ko dito, marami na akong naririnig [tungkol sa kasaysayan ng paguukit], pinagbuo-buo ko na rin [ang mga kwento] sa isip ko,” he says. There are stories from the Spanish colonial era of a priest passing through who asked a local what the town was called. In a misunderstanding, the local thought he was asking about the tool in his hand. Thus, pait, or chisel, became the namesake of the town.

According to more stories Paloy has heard through the years, the practice of carving holy images originated in Quiapo, all the way in Manila. Back then, there already were craftsmen in Paete, but they were more known for making capiz windows and animal sculptures. As more Churches were built, the demand for holy image sculptures grew as well. Paete’s access to termite-resistant wood from the nearby batikuling trees made wood carving an easier practice to adopt there than the busy city. Spanish friars soon trained Paete artists to carve figures like saints and the Savior himself, enticing the population of skilled carvers in the town to service the demand across the country.

Paloy shares all of this without glancing up from his work. In his hands, the block of wood has begun to take shape. The lids of the eyes gain definition while its nostrils almost inhale and flare with new life – almost. But not yet. 

The Stations of the Workshop

Touring Paloy’s studio is like walking through stations of the cross. Different stages in the wood carving process are fixed in different areas of the workshop. 

Every sculpture starts with a sketch. In the living room, Paloy opens a notebook containing blueprints of how he first envisions the final look of the statues. The drawings are brought to life thanks to his calculations on each sculpture’s dimensions.

Through the door at Paloy’s left is the entrance to the main workshop, where all his apprentices are at work. The nearest wall is a blackboard where he draws a lifesize scale of the pieces they’re making. At the moment there are images of Jesus scourging at the pillar in chalk — one version facing front and another facing the right, to capture all perspectives of the scene. Paloy and his apprentices will use it as reference throughout the wood carving process.

After measurements, the blocks of wood go through a series of detailing. The general shapes are first captured by his assistants. Slowly, the defining features of the holy image begin to take shape as more and more of the wood is chipped away. As the master carver in the workshop, Paloy is responsible for the more detailed etchings at the homestretch of the process.

Going through another entrance at the furthest side of the workshop is a space where his workers apply finishing touches to the statues. At this station, all the sculptural pieces are recognizable body parts waiting to be fitted together to form an icon or a historical figure. Apprentices sand the statues to give the surfaces a smoother texture. A wood putty is also applied to cover up holes and other imperfections. And lastly, the figures are painted to bring more color into the sculptures or varnished to keep its natural beauty.

In Paloy’s humble workshop in Paete, it’s almost a miracle to witness countless holy images emerge from blocks of wood. From there, the different pieces are sent to churches and shrines all over the world — in Palawan, Hong Kong, and even the United States — taking its place in the faith of many religious communities.

Paloy’s Legacy

One might think that Paloy’s career is a bit macabre. Not everyone’s workplace is cluttered with wooden limbs, but Paloy says he doesn’t mind it at all. “Swerte nga yun eh! Bakit ako matatakot? Nilalagay mga gawa ko sa gitna ng tableau, ang pinaka focal point ng mga simbahan. Dinadasalan nila.” 

Much of what his family has made are commissions from different religious communities. Whatever it may be, then thy churches’ will be done: whether it be Mormons who ask for an Angel Moroni statue or Catholics requesting for a figure of Jesus Christ on a cross.

Their patrons go beyond religious sectors too. Paloy says that his grandfather used to carve carabaos and deers for the town. Then, his father made holy images upon request. He and his father also did custom woodwork, such as carving a bevy of trophies for the University of the Philippines-Los Baños, Ateneo de Manila University, and the San Beda University. They’ve also made wooden puppets for the late National Artist Amelia Bonifacio-Ramolete’s theater in Quezon City, the Teatrong Mulat ng Pilipinas.

Wood carving is steady work that has sustained their family for decades. But with a family tradition that has been passed down for three generations already, the weight of keeping a legacy looms over the studio.

Out of his three children, only his son Franco has shown the same interest in wood carving. However, Franco’s style is different from the other generations of carvers in their family or even around town: he’s taken a dedicated interest in cars and other automobiles. As someone who has Asperger’s Syndrome, Franco experiences an especially high focus on select subjects, and so pursuing wood carving solely of this particular kind has become fundamental to his life.

“Minsan may nagtatanong sa akin, ‘Bakit ganyan ginagawa mo? Bakit hindi katulad ng sa tatay mo?” Franco confesses. But still, no one can deny his passion. Every commission he receives is made with utmost care, like engineering working hinges on his scale model cars. 

The pressure to keep their tradition alive in a certain way dissipates with Paloy’s recognition of his son’s talent and commitment — even if it may be different from his own. As a father, he understands how these things are out of his control. “Hindi mo mapipilit ang tao eh. Kahit yung tatay ko, naging swerte lang din na nagustuhan ko magukit, kaya namana ko [itong workshop] sa kanya,” he says.

In his area of the studio, Franco is proud to showcase his craftsmanship. Cars of different sizes, models, and styles are lined up on his table, each piece showing off his incredible attention to detail. While it was not expected at first, he has carved out a niche for his style and has collected a number of clients under his belt too.

The sheer quality of the sculptures that the Cagayat family makes belie a serious pride in their craft. “Maraming manguuka dito sa Paete, pero konti lang kaming manguukit,” he chides. To him, the difference between a wood carver and someone who merely chips at wood is a discerning eye for art and a patience to do the calculations needed to make each figure so true to life. Wood carving is as much art as it is architecture. And in between the initial draft and the final sculpture are hours upon hours of dedicated practice. All of this work is how the block of wood in Paloy’s hands transfigures to hold the tender gaze of Jesus.

For as long as Paloy has carved wood all his life, his hands have been shaped by the wood as well. Calluses have grown where his skin resists against wood the most; while newcomers to the craft may wince at the pain of soft flesh meeting hard wood, the way Paloy’s hands have transformed has allowed him to carve for longer with less discomfort.

But after decades of carving, the body’s adaptation to this craft plateaus and declines. Paloy’s eyesight is not the same as it was when he was younger. In his studio, he uses a lamp and a magnifying lens to see his creations better. Perhaps, he’s getting too old for this, he says.

There isn’t one successor to their practice. While the craft will always have its religious audience, his son’s practice proves that wherever there is passion and talent, there will be patrons who will recognize it. Many of his former apprentices have also come and gone to set up their own studios and businesses around town, keeping the treasured practice in Paete, Laguna alive for more years to come.

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