Cuenca artist Miguel Illescas expresses his love of animals, nature and cultures in metal
By Stephen Vargha
Look up what chemistry means, and you will find it is the branch of science that deals with the identification of the substances of which matter is composed; the investigation of their properties and the ways in which they interact, combine, and change; and the use of these processes to form new substances.
It makes sense that Cuenca artist Miguel Illescas studied chemistry for two years at the University of Cuenca. His metalworks are a reflection of substances being composed with visually appealing interactions.
“I met my wife, Sandra, at school 38 years ago,” said Illescas. “I got married soon afterwards and had to find work.”
Illescas ended up working for his uncle who manufactured doors and windows for businesses and homes. “At 24 years of age, in the workshop, I made a 60 cm. x 30 cm. religious metal cross for Sandra’s mother,” said Illescas. “After that I started making modern versions of it.”
One of the crosses was sold to an antiques store in Cuenca. “I came back later, and the owner told me the cross was not for sale,” said Illescas. “Three or four years later, I went back to the same store, and it was gone.”
Illescas was perplexed and asked the store owner where it had gone as she had told him it was not for sale. “She told me her husband sold it to a European for lots of U.S. Dollars. At that time, Ecuador was still on the Sucre,” said Illescas. “At that time in 1987, I was only making things for creativity, not to make money.”
That is when Illescas discovered himself. His first big project was metalworks sculpture for his childhood town of Sígsig. “It was 11 meters (36 feet) tall,” said Illescas. “The statue was so tall that I had to drive it from Cuenca to Sígsig in parts and put it together in my hometown.”
The City of Cuenca noticed and Illescas was commissioned to create a nativity scene. Made completely of recycled materials, “Ciudad Natal” has been on public display on the south side of Cuenca at Parque El Chiflón since 1995. “The city gave me the materials and in three to four months, I had finished it,” said Illescas. “I was working at my uncle’s workshop at the time when I made all of these statues.”
In 1989, artwork became fulltime for Illescas. He opened his art gallery on Calle Larga in 2015. “All artists need to show their artwork,” said Illescas. “Showing it one time per year is not enough.”
He says his gallery is located in a good area of El Centro. “It’s quiet at this end,” said Illescas. “A lot of tourists come by because of the proximity to Pumapungo Museum and the ruins.” Illescas said his gallery is important for the culture of Cuenca, especially since the city is known as The Arts Capital of Ecuador.
During the interview, a group of visitors from Guayaquil came in to peruse his large selection of artwork. Illescas temporarily stopped the interview to help his visitors and to explain his works.
“One of the visitors from Guayaquil is a swimmer,” Illescas explained after he returned to the interview. “She loves my ocean artwork.”
It is his Galápagos series that he has been making for about 20 years. “I enjoy the range of animal life,” said Illescas. “My artwork attempts to capture the magic and mystery of the natural processes which made evolution take place here in a unique way.” While he stated that, an American expat purchased one of his whales.
His love for animals began as a child when he visited his uncle in Quito. “I remember that he had a huge encyclopedia collection with lots of animals,” said Illescas. “When I make my art, I think of those animals.”
None of his series of art have an official name. “I call my collection, “Celebration’,” said Illescas. “It is a celebration of animals, life, and mystic creatures.”
“Every day in my studio, I work to find the magical combination of color, texture, movement, pose and anatomy which enliven otherwise inert materials,” said Illescas. “Inca and Cañari cultures influence my work as well as other Pre-Columbian cultures.”
Illescas said that he mixes the cultures together to create his unique pieces. “I do this as we are mixed cultures today, and that includes the Spanish,” Illescas said. “I also try to transcend the figurative to discover the symbolic and ancestral meaning of the figures. My hope is that my art sparks a silent conversation with the viewer, inspiring appreciation for the specifics of the animal form and awe for the meaning of life.”
All materials are fair game with Illescas. “I use different types of metals. I use steel, stainless steel, wood, and sometimes ceramic,” said Illescas. “Sometimes I put recycled materials together using modern production techniques. I find something new which expands my vision of the universe.”
His shiny metal art pieces usually have a clear finish. Brown colors are created by oxidizing copper… a chemical reaction.
Iguanas was the first animal Illescas created on a large scale. “I love their texture, their mystery, and its colors,” said Illescas. “The ones in the Galápagos have the greatest colors.”
“Hummingbirds were my next animal. In the Andean culture, it’s a low-key bird. It’s a welcoming bird,” said Illescas. “Ecuador has 165 species of hummingbirds, so it is a part of our lives.”
There is no definitive number of hummingbird species in Ecuador. Just the size of Colorado, the number of hummingbird species in Ecuador is between 135 and 165. To put those numbers into perspective, the entire continent of North America has only 25 species of hummingbirds.
Several large hummingbird sculptures used to sit outside the gallery of Miguel Illescas, but they have all been purchased by appreciate art lovers. “I had an American businessman come in and buy four of them and take the hummingbirds back home,” said Illescas.
When asked what his favorite piece is, Illescas declined to choose one. “What is my favorite piece is difficult,” said Illescas. “When I finish a piece, it is my favorite. I truly do not have a favorite piece.”
You can get two- and three-dimensional artwork at the gallery on Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. On Saturday, Illescas is there from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“Sundays are for good friends,” Illescas says with a laugh and a smile. “Of course, I can open on Sundays… sometimes just for you.”
Miguel Illescas Art Gallery, Calle Larga 1-209 y Miguel Angel Estrella, Cuenca, (07) 284-6768, http://www.miguelillescas.com.ec/
Photos by Stephen Vargha