Sculpture Vulture

22 Oct, 2010 | Andrew Cummings

Scavenging amongst the houses littered about the Miraflores area of La Paz, you might come across the Escuela de Escultura. An annexe of the Academia de Bellas Artes devoted solely to sculpture students, you’ll know this place as soon as you see it from its rather interesting entrance. Intrigued, we go inside to find out a bit more about studying sculpture in La Paz, and are more than a little surprised at what we see: a heap of dilapitaded sheds masquerading as workshops, wooden pyres carpeting the ground, and unfinished sculptures sadly surveying the wreckage like disappointed Greek statues. But why ‘surprised’? Well, the Academia’s main site – though hardly an example of cutting-edge architecture – is certainly no bombsite, and a palace compared to the sculpture school; on top of that, Bolivia has churned out a fair few talented sculptors in the past fifty years or so, including María Nuñez del Prado. So why does the prime site for the study of sculpture in Bolivia’s capital get such sore treatment?

“We don’t get enough support from the government or from the Academia proper,” Blas Calle, a teacher at the escuela, tells us. “We have enough money to buy some materials, such as clay, but most of the time we just have to find it wherever we can get it – we melt keys to get bronze, for example, or we find bits of tree on the street. It’s ironic, because Bolivia is so rich in wood, but it’s all exported so there’s none left for us.” Transport of materials is the key issue, though. “There’s just not enough money,” one student tells me. “Once, we found about fifteen tree stumps, and we had to carry them all the way to the school on our backs.”

It seems, then, that the students are very dedicated. “It’s their passion,” Blas says. “They work until nine at night, even when they don’t have to. We spend time here, we have parties here. We even made the sheds here ourselves. It’s like a family.” Even so, they haven’t got much to look forward to when they finish their degrees: at the end of five years – including two preliminary years at the main academy before specialisation – the students don’t receive any qualification whatsoever. Blas continues: “I worry about what they’re going to do after they finish. Some teach; some go onto other schools or colleges; but nothing’s certain.”

“At the main academy, things are generally quite different,” a painting student tells me; “barely anyone ever turns up.” But that’s not the only difference: at the sculpture school, student Eliana Bustillo explains, teaching is much more practical than theoretical. “It’s hands-on from day one.” And all of this practice pays off. It’s easy to see from the sculptures dotted around the school – wooden Christs, bronze women, metal angels – that these students are no amateurs. A sculpture exhibition, which takes place at the main academy shortly after our trip to the sculpture school, proves to be extremely popular; “I’m very happy with the turnout,” says Eliana when we bump into her there. The sculptures on show are truly amazing, and the throng of admirers at the exhibition certainly knows so, too. Despite this, things aren’t really looking up on the financial front for the Escuela de Escultura. But there’s something about the clutteredness of the place, the passion of its students and the quality of their work, that makes me really like this place. It seemed like the disappointed sculptures were starting to see the bright side of things too. As I was passing through the exhibition I could have sworn one of them winked at me.

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