Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Solitary Sculptor of the Paramos

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Solitary Sculptor of the Paramos

Article excerpt

Secluded in the rugged mountain plateaus of western Venezuela, Juan Felix Sanchez created a site of spiritual and artistic beauty that was declared a national monument in 1982

Icy torrents thunder down the steep inclines of the Andes. The foaming water is the only element that stands out against a steady, cold rain. Before us lies the boundless vista of Sierra Nevada National Park, located in western Venezuela, the only part of the country with an alpine geography and year-round snow-capped peaks. The first Spaniards called these high, bleak regions paramos because of their similarity to the plateaus of Castile. But the paramos of Venezuela are exceptional in themselves because of the country's location in a tropical equatorial zone - in Venezuela there is no other place like them.

Awed by this magnificent landscape, we make our way along a precipitous, ancient path, broad, stony, and saturated by many small streams. We are heading for El Tisure ridge, over eleven thousand feet high. There, for over three decades, from 1952 to 1981, local artist Juan Felix Sanchez built a chapel of native stone and sculpted replicas of the holy sepulcher and the figures of Calvary out of wood. The site was declared a national monument in 1982.

Although only about twelve and a half miles separate El Tisure from La Mucuchache (a village near San Rafael de Mucuchies, at 10,300 feet, where the walk begins), the mountainous terrain and the altitude make the trek so difficult that it takes a minimum of six to eight hours. Every so often we must stop to catch our breath and rest the packhorses, whose breathing becomes louder and more labored as we go.

From the halfway point of Paso de la Ventana, the highest landmark, at 13,780 feet, a panorama of successive chains of mountains fade, one behind another, into the horizon. In the distance we can see the white peaks of the Sierra Nevada, for which the park was named in 1952. The Sierra Nevada includes the highest portion of the Merida Cordillera, the last eastern branch of the Andes, which, together with the Perija Sierra, forms the basin of Lake Maracaibo.

"The wild lonely places of the paramos," wrote naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, are "shrouded in mist and pale light and almost never penetrated by warm, unclouded sunlight." Situated between the tropical mountain cloud forests and the perpetual snows (from 10,500 to 15,000 feet high), the paramos contain sizable rivers and are more humid than the bare tableland of southern Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, northern Chile, and Argentina, which are characterized by very dry air and scant rainfall. Rising above the ground cover are small colonies of quitasol (Escallonia tortuosa), coloraditos, or quenua (Polylepis sericea), and great swathes of frailejones (Espeletia sp.) covering hills and crests almost up to the snow line at an altitude of some 15,000 feet.

In our descent from La Ventana ridge, wrapped in the mists around El Tisure, past mosses and lichens that cover everything but glacier striations on the bedrock, we come upon the only house to be seen, where Sanchez lived from the age of forty-six to ninety-two. He moved four years ago to his birthplace, San Rafael de Mucuchies.

The old house is built of unmortared stone with walls more than three feet thick, punctuated here and there by recesses serving as shelves. Almost all of the walls are blackened by smoke from the fireplace. There is no electric light and no window except for two or three openings in the tin roof. Here Sanchez spent forty-six years in near seclusion. His withdrawal, his search for silence and solitude, occurring exactly one year after the death of his mother, and only with his companion, Epifania Gil, marks a radical change in his life, after which his creative power reached its most intense expression and has continued ever since without interruption.

There are many unknowns in Sanchez's enigmatic life. His family was comfortably well off, and from the beginning he displayed great restlessness, first farming, then working as an acrobat, puppeteer, and even magician. …

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