Young girls with fluttering wings, boys on horseback, aflight, dancers as well as little devils - all emerge from the hands of Isabel Santos once she starts working with wax. The material becomes poetry, and each of the figures expresses Santos’ feelings and experiences, as a sculptor, as a mother, as a woman.
Surrounded by her creations, she speaks of her fascination with bronze, painting, photography and literature. She recalls her childhood drawings, the days at the San Alejandro Academy, the time spent teaching classes, the exhibitions, and the loss of her son Abel. The artist’s past and longings converge in the creation of figures that suggest butterflies, capable of communication, consolation, inspiration.
“All of my work is dedicated to Abel,” she says. “In a way, it’s a reference to maternity, through children. My figures come from the world of magic-realism, from fantasy. I call them ‘my monarchs,’ since they are girls with butterfly wings, adolescents who fly, carrying within them the souls of those who’ve passed on, as a help and motivation.”
“Some people compare them to fairies, but they aren’t, not really. Besides, I want them to be from here; that they not lose their Caribbean essence, our sea, our sky. That’s why their horses are like the twisted coral found on the coastline, and their wings are opening in a sign of flight, freedom, expansion.”
Her work shows the experience and exquisite detailing of the academy, but also an innate talent and inspiration. Her wax figures are notable for their delicacy and originality, as well as the way the colors and medium are used to their full advantage.
“I prefer natural wax, the kind made by bees, for its shading and color. There’s a particular bee that makes a darker wax and that shows up better, but is also easier to work with,” she explains.
Santos came up with the idea of using wax in the 1990s, when economic difficulties made metal casting impractical. Little by little she began to realize the benefits of working in wax, as well as the possibility of achieving different tones with different kinds of wax. Lately she’s begun adding pieces of cloth in order to add color to figures like that of Carmen, one of the pieces in the collection Dardo en la memoria (Memory’s Dart), dedicated to the great Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso, and Cuba’s National Ballet.
“That exhibition, at Havana’s Gran Teatro, was extremely important to me,” she commented. “My work has become part of that institution’s honorary history, and afterwards I was able to work on some stage scenery with Alicia Alonso. It was a marvelous experience and it was with her that I realized that my monarchs do not simply fly, they also dance.”
Dardo en la memoria, she points out, “is the recollection of a particular scene in a ballet, and the attempt to preserve the movement. I spent more than a year watching the dancers’ rehearsals and working with them. I wanted to create pieces that they could identify with, and that’s why I needed to fully understand the technique, their positions, everything. Alicia touched the pieces herself and was pleased. I wanted for people who entered the gallery to feel as though they were onstage, surrounded by people with whom they could interact, and I achieved that.
Pies y manos (Hands and Feet) is also part of the exhibition, with plaster casts made directly from the feet of the prima ballerina Anette Delgado, along with representations from Giselle, the Wilis, Carmen, Esmeralda and Swan Lake.
“Carmen’s sensuality fascinates me, along with the young, innocent and cheerful Giselle, and the magnetism of the Wilis. Communicating all of that through sculpture is difficult, but I try to do the best I can. I also enjoy bringing literature to life through visual arts. As I read, I imagine the forms and images that I’ll create afterwards with my hands,” she says.
In addition, she confesses to a passion for the life and work of the Cuban national hero José Martí. “For the 150th anniversary of his birth, I created the exhibition Me refugio en ti (You are my shelter), in the memorial that carries his name and was inaugurated by Fidel Castro. One of the pieces is a reproduction of the cover of Martí’s famous children’s book La Edad de Oro (The Golden Age). I’d like to do it in bronze so that children can interact with Martí.
Honored as an Illustrious Daughter of Old Havana, and the 2005 National Medal of Culture prizewinner, Santos says that she is also inspired by the 19th century, “when women put up their hair, along with the styles and candor of the period.”
“I don’t reject the time period in which I ended up living,” she adds, “but I’d love to revive the tenderness and innocence that has been lost.” Recognized by the World Food Program for her work Las tres negras desgracias (The Three Black Disgraces) and decorated with the International Coatlicue Prize from Mexico’s ComuArte, Santos claims to have fallen in love with sculpture from her very first moments in the world of visual arts.
She has not abandoned her dream of casting her figures in bronze, “a very complex process, but with marvelous results,” and insists that she is brimming with ideas for new projects. Furthermore, she sees painting as another important mode of expression and says she would love to teach again.
“We need to help our art flourish,” she says, adding her desire to remain creative. That, she insists, is the best way of finding life’s meaning.