Eduardo Mutuc is an artist who has dedicated his life to creating religious and secular art in silver, bronze, and wood. His intricately detailed retablos, mirrors, altars, and carosas are in churches and private collections. A number of these works are quite large, some exceeding forty feet, while some are very small and feature very fine and delicate craftsmanship.
For an artist whose work graces cathedrals and churches, Mutuc works in humble surroundings. His studio occupies a corner of his yard and shares space with a tailoring shop. During the recent rains, the river beside his lot overflowed and water flooded his studio in Apalit, Pampanga, drenching his woodblocks. Mutuc takes it all in stride.
He discovered his talents in sculpture and metalwork quite late. He was 29 when he decided to supplement his income from farming for the relatively more secure job of woodcarving. He spent his first year as an apprentice to carvers of household furniture. It was difficult at the beginning, but thanks to his mentors, he was able to develop valuable skills that would serve him in good stead later on. The hardest challenge for him was learning a profession that he had no prior knowledge about, but poverty was a powerful motivation. Although his daily wage of P3.00 didn’t go far to support his wife and the first three of nine children (one of whom has already died), choices were limited for a man who only finished elementary school.
Things began to change after his fifth or sixth year as a furniture maker when a colleague taught him the art of silver plating. This technique is often used to emulate gold and silver leaf in the decoration of saints and religious screens found in colonial churches. He left the furniture shop and struck out on his own with another friend. One of his first commissions came from Monsignor Fidelis Limcauco, who asked him to create a tabernacle for the parish of Fairview, Quezon City. Clients began to commission him to create other pieces, many of which are based on Spanish colonial designs. Peak seasons are before Holy Week and Christmas. He derives inspiration from traditional religious designs and infuses his own ideas into the finished product.
While he finds meaning in making pieces for the church, orders for commissioned pieces have become fewer because of the economic slump. But even for his secular pieces, he finds inspiration in church art.
When he is working on metalwork, he begins with a detailed drawing. He then transfers the design on a block of wood by chiseling out the details. He then covers the wood with a metal sheet, and then coaxes out the design through careful hammering with a mallet and an old rubber slipper. Afterward, he dips the solid metal sheet in molten silver, a dangerous task that must be done in the open air lest the poisonous fumes overcome him. He then proceeds to do more hammering and polishing to bring out the details of the piece.
Each piece has its own demands. Many times the size of the subject demands larger and more expansive designs to make a statement from afar. Other times it may best be expressed through careful detailing that needs close observation before it becomes evident. Mistakes are costly, as brass and silver are expensive. While small tears or mistakes in cutting out the design could be easily remedied, an error in measurement or carving might require him to do it over. He acknowledges that he makes fewer mistakes now that he has become more expert in his craft.
Mutuc’s works are more than merely decorative. They add character and splendor to their setting. His spectacular shiny retablos that decorate an apse or chapel provide focus for contemplation and devotion while the faithful commune with the Divine in regular church celebrations.
He notes that handmade pieces are finer and more delicate than machine pressed pieces, particularly when commissioned pieces involve human representations. “Facial expressions are among the hardest to do,” says Mutuc who uses different molds for each cherub to ensure their individuality. His cherubin are engaging creatures, whose strikingly lifelike quality comes through the silverplate. They look out at the worshippers with a concerned, kindly air, seemingly on the alert to guide their prayers upward.
According to him, craftsmanship begins with respect for one’s tools and the medium. The first thing he teaches his students is how to hold the chisel and hammer properly to promote ease of use and prevent fatigue and mistakes because of improper handling. He also cautions against working with an eye towards easy money. The only way to improve one’s skills, he says, is to immerse oneself, learn the technique, and to practice. Only in perfecting one’s craft can there be real reward. (Maricris Jan Tobias)