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Artist Has Devoted His Life To Carving Saints' Images

One of Puerto Rico's most respected santeros has been carving wooden saints for more than six decades.


21 December 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE MIAMI HERAL
D. All rights reserved.

PONCE, Puerto Rico - Domingo Orta was just a boy when he was captivated by a wooden carving of the Virgin Mary standing watch over fields of coffee in a neighbor's ranch.

''I was drawn to her,'' said Orta, who remembers spending hours studying the details of the saint's face. ``She served as my inspiration.''

At 75, Orta is known as one of Puerto Rico's most gifted santeros, artists who specialize in carving wooden saints. Over the past six decades, he has carved thousands of religious icons, received numerous awards and shipped his pieces across the globe.


This time of year is particularly busy for the craftsman with orders for Nativity scenes that include the three Wise Men -- Melchor, Gaspar and Baltazar -- who followed the star to Bethlehem, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the baby Jesus.

The Reyes Magos, as they are known on the Spanish-speaking island, are treasured by Puerto Ricans and their images are prevalent from Christmas through Jan. 6, the day of the Epiphany. Orta's small studio, attached to his modest home in the seaside city of Ponce, is filled with a colorful assortment of the Biblical characters.

''They call me the man of the Three Kings,'' said Orta, a soft-spoken, compact man with glasses and a thick mustache, who bears a striking resemblance to the fairy-tale Geppetto, Pinochio's maker.

''I'm like a doctor,'' he said, displaying his array of knives atop a large wooden table that bears a deep dent from from years of nicks. ``I've been eating away at this thing layer by layer.''


Orta's favorite carved creation is of the Three Kings bringing music to the baby Jesus. One holds a set of maracas, another a guiro (a serrated gourd scraped with a stick) and the third carries a cuarto, a string instrument similar to a guitar.

The cuarto holds special meaning for Orta, who began his trade by carving instruments, not saints. The son of a flamenco guitarist, Orta's first wooden carving as a child was the cuarto. But it broke to pieces when an uncle used it to chase a cat off a balcony.

To stop him from crying, a neighbor gave Orta a fresh chunk of wood, which he whittled into his first santo, St. Martin. Later in life, Orta tried to make a living off carved instruments but they didn't sell well.


At an arts fair more than half a century ago, a leader of Puerto Rico's Institute of Puerto Rican Culture took a look at his work and advised him to focus on santos.

''He had a very special artistic form, a way of incorporating a cultural texture to his work,'' said Ricardo Alegria, 83, considered the dean of popular art culture in Puerto Rico. ``People used to laugh at the notion that wooden saints would be considered works of art.''

''We are very proud of [Orta],'' Alegria said. ``In the 1940s, there were only a handful of santeros. Today there are dozens. That shows the power of the art form.

''Santos are a very important part of our culture,'' he said. ``Some people used to say the only culture in Puerto Rico was fried codfish. We've come a long way.''

For Orta, santos are a family affair. His wife Santia also specializes in the craft and each of their six children learned the technique, which they are passing on to their own children.

Orta has lost count of the number of santos he's carved. But his work is well-known and on display at various spots on the island, including a 2 1Ú2 foot-tall rendition of Los Reyes Magos at a plaza in Aguadilla, on the west coast, and a seven-foot-tall carving of Jesus inside a chapel in Ponce, Orta's largest piece.


Orta doesn't rely on renderings of the saints to guide his carving. His creations are based on religious teachings from his childhood.

''I am Catholic, but I don't go to church. I don't even know if I'm baptized. But I live a wholesome life,'' said Orta, who quit booze 30 years ago and gave up smoking seven years ago.

''See, I'm a saint, too,'' he said with a grin, as he put the final touches on St. Judas.

''I don't live big, but I consider myself a millionaire,'' Orta said.

``My art is my life. I think I'll die carving one of these little saints.''


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