Celestino Avilés lives in Orocovis, the hilly central region of Puerto Rico that is the geographic heart of the island. His artistic genre, the carving of wooden santos (saints), is acknowledged to be at the spiritual heart of Puerto Rican cultural identity. The carving of saints dates to the early period of the Spanish conquest. Farmers in the isolated mountains of the island carved saints out of local woods, such as cedar, developing their own indigenous aesthetic. It is largely due to the efforts of Celestino Avilés that the craft of saint-carving has remained a vibrant tradition in his homeland. Avilés began carving rings of corozo, the nut of a prickly palm tree, when he was a child. Later, while selling his rings at craft fairs he began to study with master santeros (saint carvers) Norberto Cedeño and Juan Cartagena. Soon Avilés became known for his skilled carving of saint figures, choosing to leave them unpainted and depicting them with closed eyes, in "a position of absolute religious solemnity" as he puts it. In 1982 he founded the Museo Orocoveno, known locally as the Museo de la Familia Avilés, in order to preserve the history of saint-carving in the region. A year later he initiated the Encuentro Nacional de Santeros (National Gathering of Saint Carvers) on the grounds of the museum. As Walter Murray Chiesa, craft specialist in Puerto Rico says, "Today Celestino Avilés is considered by many a Puerto Rican legend: a true living monument, a great carver of wood, bone, stone, sea shells and a leader: a natural born Ôinitiator' of great enterprises and projects. He is unique, very modest and a true symbol of our folk artists." Thanks largely to the inspiring work of people like Celestino Avilés, today the tradition of saint-carving is enjoying a renaissance in Puerto Rico, with over 100 carvers actively working in a wide variety of artistic styles.
National Endowment for the Arts · an independent federal agency