I almost didn’t see him. I was on a mission to bring home some souvenirs and my field of vision was saturated with color—the cheery red, blue, green and yellows of the handpainted wood crafts—jewelry boxes, dollhouse furniture, and crosses filling every nook and cranny and wall of the small kiosk. And then out of the corner of my eye, I noticed him. A young boy about 10 years old sitting at a small table to one side, an artist’s paintbrush in one hand and a carved plain wood letter of the alphabet in the other waiting for the young artist to transform it from naked wood to a playful folk art piece.
It was Day 5 of our trip to El Salvador last October and our hosts had arranged for a day trip to the town of La Palma for some sightseeing and souvenir shopping. As our van wound its way through the narrow streets of this village nestled in the pine-forested mountains near the Honduran border our eyes feasted on the murals painted in the distinctive La Palma style. Scenes from the everyday life of the campesinos (farmers)—brightly coloured birds, rabbits, flowers, and village scenes covered every spare wall, park bench and bus stop in the village.
La Palma is known for its characteristic decorative art style used on the exterior of buildings, on handicrafts, and souvenirs.
Decorated concrete park benches in the town square of La Palma.
It was El Salvador’s iconic artist Fernando Llort who taught the people of La Palma to draw and paint following his technique and designs. His desire to share his God-given talents and skills with others blossomed into an artisanal movement creating handicrafts using his motifs and led to the creation of a cooperative called La Semilla de Dios, or “God’s Seed”. Today there are dozens of cooperatives and workshops in La Palma where campesinos learn about art, gain marketable skills and find sources of income other than field work to provide for their families.
I presumed that the young boy’s family probably belonged to one of these cooperatives. I wanted to learn more but I did not have time to engage him in conversation as our hosts were anxious for us to move on to our next destination. As I was being pulled away I did not even have time to learn his name—I will call him Fernando—but his demeanour and circumstances struck me and I wanted to take his picture to remember him by. I couldn’t help drawing a comparison with the children in North America who spend hours being passively entertained by virtual games, movies, and apps while here was a young boy actively engaged in a serious pursuit—creating art in order to contribute to his family’s very real need for income.
When Llort moved to La Palma in 1972 he had a dream to lift people out of grinding poverty and through art created by their own hands to gain a self-respect for themselves and discover their dignity as children of God reflecting the divine image. It was this dignity that I saw on young Fernando’s face. When I asked his permission to photograph him, he seemed surprised at first that anyone would take notice of him. But his modesty quickly turned to pleasure as he straightened himself, pride beaming from his face that he and his artwork were being recognized and recorded in this way. He seemed surprised again at the monetary token of my appreciation I offered him for posing for the picture, but it was the least I could do because he had given me much more than just a photographic souvenir to take home with me.
The hope, pride, and dignity shining from his face gave me a window into the hopes and dreams of all of El Salvador’s children—to be seen and heard and have their gifts recognized and affirmed, to be able go to school and have enough to eat, to be able to wander freely exploring the countryside and their neighbourhood without fear of violence…and most of all to live and grow up in peace.
Thank-you, Fernando for your grace and hospitality. I pray you and your artwork continues to flourish and contribute to the realization of your dreams.
Photo credit: La Semilla de Dios. All other photos taken by Al Jaugelis