Everyone who reads this blog knows that I write a lot about folk painting and folk sculpture, and it sometimes seems as if they are entirely separate fields. There is, however, one folk artist who pioneered the blending of the brush and the chisel in brilliant bas-relief pictures that have a 3-dimensional vibrancy unlike any other body of work.
And he owes it all to his mother-in-law.
Mario Sanchez was born in 1908 in Key West, Florida, a small island only 70 miles from his family’s home country of Cuba. Key West was settled by New Englanders and Bahamians in the early 1800s, and saw an influx of Cuban emigres during that country’s wars of independence from Spain in the 1860s and 1870s. One such newcomer was Eduardo H. Gato, a Cuban cigar maker, who built a large factory and settled his workers around it in an area that came to be known as El Barrio de Gato.
Mario Sanchez’s father worked in the factory, and the family lived in the Barrio. His father didn’t actually make cigars, though. Pedro Sanchez was an educated man, and his job was that of a “reader.” Every day, he read aloud from local newspapers in the morning, and in the afternoons he would read from a novel chosen by the workers. Each worker paid Pedro twenty-five cents for their daily edification.
Mario grew up in the easy-going island culture of Key West, and held a number of jobs that included office clerk, stenographer, translator, actor, and comedian. He even received a diploma from a local business institute and worked for a real estate company.
And he was always making things. Mario would, as a youth, find pieces of driftwood along the beach and carve images from them. He would also make kites outs of colored tissue paper and scraps from a local box factory. In 1929, Mario married Rosa De Armas, who worked in the cigar factory and lived with her widowed mother. They were actually living and working in Tampa at the time, but soon moved back to Key West. During the hard times of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Mario supplemented his income by carving replicas of local fish and selling them for $1.50 each at a hardware store.
It is not known how many he made or sold, but it doesn’t matter: his mother-in-law loved them. It was she who suggested that Mario carve scenes of his memories of old Key West. He did so, first by drawing and carving scenes on discarded boards of tobacco crates and later on good pine, cypress or cedar boards. His very first work sold for two hundred and fifty dollars.
The Sanchez in the Fenimore Art Museum collection, featured here, is titled “Peace with Tranquility.” It is a classic Sanchez, finished in about 1960 and showing a street scene from his youth that includes a self-portrait of the artist as a boy flying a kite featuring the American stars and stripes. The relief carving is about a quarter inch deep, just enough to give dimension to the picture without detracting from the bold pattern of the flattened design. It is a warm, charming reminiscence of a community and a culture that once thrived on Key West, and now these works are a treasured part of the island’s rich heritage. Mario’s work can be seen at the East Martello Museum on an ongoing basis.
By the time of his death in 2005 at the age of 96, Mario had been justly famous for some time. When he was told by our former Director Lou Jones in 1973 that he had never seen bas-relief work of this kind before, Mario replied “That’s what Carey Grant told me.”