Italian master sculptor Michelangelo Buonarroti used to say that his sculptures were already living inside the blocks of marble he carefully chose. All he had to do, he said, was chisel away the excess material.
Huichi Kuakari feels the same way about his pyrography: the image, be it an Aztec calendar or the face of a farmworker, is already on the slab of wood he chooses.
“When I see a piece of wood, I know what I want of the work I’m going to do. It’s the lumber itself that tells me what to do. I wanted to do a Last Supper, and I had to wait 10 years to find the perfect plank. It’s as if the the image were already inside the wood, all I have to do is bring it out,” he said.
Kuakari, neé José Juan Alvarez, will present his work during Noche Bohemia, an annual event that draws dozens of Spanish-speaking artists and hundreds of multilingual participants to Sherwood Hall in Salinas on Saturday.
Full disclosure: I will be at Noche Bohemia on Saturday, but that’s not the reason why I’m writing this story. I saw Kuakari’s Aztec Calendars on Facebook and I fell in love with the intricacy of his work and the beauty of his creations. But he lives in the Central Valley, not exactly VOMB’s area of coverage. His visit to Salinas gives me the perfect excuse to write about him and his work.
Born in Michoacan, Kuakari has been working on lumber since he was 5, when he began drawing on the planks he would get from the mill where he grew up. “There’s a connection with it,” he said. “I knew its smells, its veins. It’s as if the wood told me stories. That’s how I feel it.”
When he came to the United States almost 30 years ago he stopped his art for a while so he could focus on making a living for himself and his family. Then, in 1998, he realized he missed working on wood so he returned to pyrography — the art of making images on wood by burning it — and made an Aztec calendar.
“I failed seven times, and on the eighth try I succeeded,” he said. “That was in 2000, and after the calendar, the communion I felt with wood drove me to attempt to make more pre-Hispanic images. I became interested in learning more about indigenous cultures, and I began getting deeper into art.”
But it wasn’t until 2016 that he posted a photo of one of his calendars on Facebook, and somebody showed interest in buying it. He had already sold it, but the customer wanted to see more. By then, he had already made about 80 pieces, enough to show at an event. Which is what happened next.
After adopting his artistic name, which means wet dog in Purépecha, he began selling more artwork. Since May 2018 he has devoted himself to his pyrographic art, and he’s now getting ready for a solo exhibit at the Mexican Consulate in Fresno in the fall, where he’ll present a show focused on Dia de Muertos Purépecha.
“At first I focused on pre-Hispanic art. That’s my passion,” he said. “There’s a lot of beauty in it, and since I come from an indigenous culture, I looked for images from my culture so other people would get to know it and learn about our world view. It’s easier to understand culture through an art piece, and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
DETAILS: Noche Bohemia starts at 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 27, at Sherwood Hall in Salinas. Free.
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