Marco Oviedo has been making art since he was six years old. “Longer than I want to admit,” he says. He belongs to one of the few families that have been continuously, over the last 500 years, doing this same process. There is an example in a text he shares, showing a piece by his great, great, great, great grandfather that was made in 1600. “You see the tones of the skin on his piece that is 500 years old,” he notes, “it is the same in my pieces here. So the techniques are preserved. The only scary part is nobody wants to learn them these days. My kids don’t want to learn so I don’t even know what’s going to happen.”
Marco is a carver and a maker of bronzes. He works in many styles using several different mediums and processes. He may carve bultos of santos in the New Mexican style, simple and elegant, but he is also still working in the baroque method that has been handed down through his family. “The originals, the masters of these pieces, take me years to carve,” he says, “I’m doing a Guadalupe that I already have two and a half years into carving. I do my own face in the San Franciscos. That way I am looking for a little salvation.” The master bulto maker smiles at me.
“It is almost impossible to preserve these things,” he continues, speaking about his concerns that these techniques will be lost in time. “Look at this skin so shiny—the technique to do this uses the bladder of an ox to polish it—and you need to know how to prepare the bladder, how to preserve it. And this is a special paint I make, too. It is a secret.” The lumber for carving is an endangered species, too, Marco says. “Most of the lumber now is produced by fast grow, but what you want for carving is something that won’t crack—something that is strong in its center and not green—something that has grown slowly over time. Then it takes seven or eight years to dry it correctly. I used to cut and dry my own, but now the different museums, like the Smithsonian, get donations of good lumber to carve and they give it to me.”
Marco says his life is all about art—about advancing his art and keeping it alive as long as he can, before he is gone. He works nights and sleeps during the day. He prefers the uninterrupted silence when the world is asleep, when there are no phones, no faxes. “In the Middle Ages they used to say working is praying and that’s what I am doing.”
Also in the Middle Ages the religious pieces were all made within guilds: groups of people that did the carving, those that prepared the carvings as “canvases” to receive foiling and paint, those that put on the color. It has never been the norm for one person to do the whole process, but Marco does.
The same holds true for his bronzes. Most bronze sculptors create the master and then take it to a foundry, where numerous people perform the various steps of production. But Marco casts his own pieces in his own foundry. He is also one of the very few who does all of the steps of this process himself. There are eight to ten “professions” in a typical foundry, from the maker of the molds, the people who pour the wax, those who melt the wax out, others who pour the bronze, still others who fix any imperfections in the cooled cast, those who sand blast the pieces and artists who apply the patinas. “I’m the only crazy nut that does all this stuff myself,” he grins. However he does have a little help now. An apprentice—a young man who wants to learn—has begun working with him and recently he taught his sister how to do patinas.
The number of steps in his various processes is mind-boggling. “You carve and then you put on the animal glue, many coats, usually seven, sanding in between, then there are six to seven coats of gesso, a special gesso that I make, sanded in between. You are preparing a canvas of your piece, making it ready for the color.” He uses brown paper grocery bags as sand paper, if you can imagine. Then all of the parts that are going to have gold leaf and any areas that will be skin, need to be coated with “bol”, which is a fine clay liquid. He applies the bol, sanding in between each layer until its surface is like porcelain. Then comes the gold leaf and, on top of that, he paints with oil colors that he mixes himself from old methods handed down by the family. These are the steps to create a carved painted piece. We’re not even talking about the bronzes here.
“I am one of the people that has developed a technique to make a bronze piece that looks exactly like a carving,” he says. “On top of the wood master you put a coat of silicone rubber and then pour the mold material. You put coats and coats to create your mother mold, which will take the wax. You pour wax coats, inside and out—you do this three, sometimes four times—to make the thickness you need. This is the beginning that we coat with a kind of soup called a slur, then the special sand, inside and out, let it dry and the next day you come and do it again, ten to twelve times—like coating a drumstick with egg and then dipping it in crumbs. Then you are finished and ready to pour the bronze.” Which entails just as many steps to complete. You get the idea. His processes are very complex.
Marco was exposed to a diverse art scene as a boy. As he puts it, “I had the huge privilege to be raised by my aunt on my father’s side.” She owned an art gallery in Mexico City and had gone to school with Picasso, who spent time with them. Marco recalls watching him create a sculpture with tricycle parts, an act that horrified him, being the proud owner of his own beloved trike. They lived in Coyoacan, near Frida Kahlo, so they saw her often. They also visited Andy Warhol in New York, but his fondest memory of any artist was meeting Miro and being invited into his studio—something Miro rarely did.
The art that Marco truly honors, however, is that of his familia, handed down through the centuries. It is his hope that his knowledge of the old techniques will live on beyond him—if not actively, at least in the work he will leave behind.
More photos of Marco’s work:
You can see Marco’s art at oviedoart.com.
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