January - February 2008
Mad over money

The making of a master carver

THESE three crosses, on top of a hill overlooking the whole town of Paete, is part of the town’s history. This is where many sought refuge during the Japanese occupation. The original wooden crosses have long been gone, these cement structures take their place. [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

NO ONE visits Paete without being awed by the artistry and industry of its people. Even Jose Rizal’s Noli Mi Tangere mentioned the town’s woodcarving shops and the masterpieces created in these.

“Maraming malalandi ang kamay rito dahil maliit ang espasyo ng aming bayan (Our town is so small people have learned how to be creative with their hands),” says woodcarver Justino ‘Paloy’ Cagayat Jr. says, explaining why he and his townmates are artistically inclined.

Sandwiched between the Sierra Madre mountain range to the east and Laguna de Bay to the west, Paete has a small land area for farming. Ninety percent of its land area is upland and hilly. Lanzones harvest is once a year, rice planting takes place twice a year at most. Cagayat believes the town’s topography may have kept people indoors, forcing them to focus on artistic pursuits.

Paete’s artists are said to be able to carve anything. In fact, many of the town’s young people who work on ships and in hotels all over the world carve images on vegetables, ice, butter, and soap. But the masters here say all these are easy to handle compared to wood.

Paete’s carvers pick up a paet at an early age. Cagayat, now one of Paete’s maestros, began carving at the age of 14 in 1974; by 1989, he was managing his father’s shop. A mining engineer graduate, he never practiced his profession and instead immersed himself in the family trade that was begun by his great-grandfather, a carpenter. He remembers being assigned to carve small carabaos (water buffalo) in the beginning, as these require little mastery of the craft and are not intricately detailed.

Cagayat explains that those learning to carve start with small pieces to give them time to learn how to handle a chisel correctly. Those who get cut, he says, are either lacking in training, are working with dull chisels, or are simply “not sharp enough.”

“I was given enough time to learn, and when it was taking too long for me to learn something, I got a knock on the head from my father,” he recalls with a laugh.

It takes decades before carvers reach the stature of the likes of Cagayat. Even he admits that he cringes at the sight of his first works, especially the faces of saints. “They had a lot of imperfections,” he says.

An apprentice who wants to learn the basics of carving begins at the bottom — literally for some — by sweeping floors of wood shavings. Some are assigned to the finishing line, which means sandpapering and varnishing. Those who have mastered the art of making small decorative items can be assigned at blocking, or when the rough draft of the image is carved in wood. It is crude, but the form and shape of the statue can be gleaned at this stage. This is what a person assigned in detailing works on. Surfacing, or further refinement, follows.

Unlike what one sees in Hollywood movies, where artists plunge into a work of art using only their imagination, all carvings here begin at the drawing board, unless one is making a carabao or a spoon, or other similarly simple products. Even model cars require drawings. The drawing also outlines how a log is to be cut to complete a statue. It is safe to say that all carvers know how to draw. But Cagayat confesses to consulting books of saints with pictures before plunging into carving a religious image.

The most difficult — and well-paid — part of statue-making is shaping and defining the face. In his shop, it is Cagayat who handles this task most of the time. When he is too busy to do so, the craftsman to whom he delegates the job can expect to be paid something like P500 per day.

A statue of the Virgin Mary can take a week to finish. So does a 24-inch-long carving of the Last Supper. Paete’s religious images can be found in millions of Roman Catholic churches and homes all over the Philippines, and even overseas.

“Gusto ko maging kasing-galing ako ni Mang Paloy (I want to be as good as Mang Paloy),” says one of the town’s ship-bound carvers. He admits that his carvings, if done on wood, would not pass the standards of Paete’s maestros.

“Walang tigil na pag-aaral ang pag-ukit (Carving is an unending education),” says Cagayat. The trouble is, he says, there are only a few of senior carvers like him who are left. “I hope,” he says, “someone teaches those next in line.”

Cagayat is proud that five of his former assistants have moved on to establish their own shops. His own 22-year-old son has also been carving for over a decade now — not images of saints, though, but mostly car models that the young man sells at car shows.