Sunday, February 27, 2011

Long Shadows

Howard Shupe from an old photo
It seems like a hundred years ago, I met a quiet man in the parking lot of the Village Crossing grocery store in a small Arizona town built around a golf course designed by some infamous developer/promoter in 1976.  Neighbors spoke glowingly of a man who did amazing things with local wood, carving them into statutes.  He moved from Tucson to the small town after retiring from a career in the US Forest service starting as a timber cruiser and ending as the director of fire control for a large corner of Southern Arizona.

It was he who directed the tanker planes in mid-air loaded with water and clay to release their cargo on raging forest fires. He got his start in Taos, New Mexico a frontier town as he was growing up, marrying a local sweetheart, checking on grazing land leased by the forest service and setting a record for a huge number of trees blazed in one average workday. A normal forest service worker blazed 100 trees. He could do 600.

I've never met a man so humble.  After retiring, he moved from a house he and his wife built on the south side of a rapidly expanding Tucson cutting and hauling an incredible amount of stone by hand to an adobe hacienda with a courtyard off the main road in the new golf resort town.

Out of respect for his father, Elmer, he ceased carving wood statues after an incident in 1946 in which the elder advised him that we was not a very good carver. The son knew his father well. The father was saying, "I don't want the competition." 

Elmer was a rug trader, furniture maker and  ne'er-do-well  When the supply of old santos ( carved wooden saints) dried up, he learned to carve his own.  By the son's account they were primitive things. The son possessed skill as an artist, designing and creating silver jewelery, paintings, elegant furniture and carving saints from cottonwood root. With two children at home and a love for the outdoors, he eschewed his father's profession as rug trader and went to work for the forest service.

Once he modestly said that after he retired he'd sold over $100,000 of santos to the rich, famous and collectors like me. He took me under his tutelage showing me the traditional methods along with modern techniques for carving Hispanic Catholic saints. The image above is not a usual Hispanic Catholic santo.  Howard had a repertoire of approximately 35 traditional santos to his father's half dozen max.  If asked to carve something different, he'd willingly indulge my whims.    

St.Francis Xavier
After first practicing traditional techniques on crosses, retablos, nichos and a few very primitive stick figures,I asked him for advice on carving a santo. He  assisted without hesitation, showing me how to perform complicated carving maneuvers.  Cottonwood root is in short supply since it's also the main material used in traditional Hopi kachinas. Howard described harrowing adventures with his wife lowering him on a sturdy rope down an eroded river bank to retrieve an exposed hunk of cottonwood root.  It's not something I would want to waste as a greenhorn carver, especially since my teacher gifted me several pristine samples of root.

My St.Francis Xavier

It's been years since I've worked with santos.  Two rustic carvings sit on my workbench in the garage.  In an upstairs bedroom, a St.Francis Xavier sits on the end of a Danish modern chest of drawers.  But is it St.Francis Xavier?  In Dawn's studio is an armoire with some of my favorite santos by Howard.  One is similar to Xavier, except for the leather cape, one of the few santos with additional ornamentation that is not wood.  I check my photo stock.  It appears there are three possibilities.  St. John, St. Francis Xavier and St. Ignatius Loyola.

I call the santero.  No answer.

In the two hours intervening I solve the mystery decoding a small label at the front bottom of a photo.  I answer my phone seeing a familiar number on the screen.  It's been six months if not longer since we've spoken. I make sure I identify myself after saying hello.  He's eighty-eight. After small talk about the weather here, I explain the solved dilemma, saving him the trouble of mentally imaging which of hundreds of santos, I'm talking about. He sounds healthy and in good spirits.  We talk about a newspaper clipping a granddaughter sends describing the sale of one of Elmer's primitive santos for $5,000.  Again, he offers me encouragement, well wishes to Dawn and signs off.     

No comments: