Cuenca’s artists and artisans create a deep-rooted harmony of craftsmanship and purpose

Mar 8, 2023 | 2 comments

Within a five-block radius of San Sebastian Plaza are two saddlers, at least five furniture makers, a knot of tailors, a sprinkle of goldsmiths, a colorful stained-glass studio, a thriving farmers market, more bakeries than I can count, and twice as many restaurants as I would ever be able to frequent.

People are busy cobbling shoes, repairing appliances, and upgrading computers. A shop near the Museum of Modern Art sells traditional handicrafts from the surrounding villages.

In another, a tradesman hammers tin into toys for children and water cans for gardeners. A neighboring woodworker is building dollhouses for daughters and spice racks for cooks.

 A tailor specializing in alterations sews by hand or on a treadle sewing machine. 

And a colony of fine art painters will swing open their doors to capture the amber of early morning light before mixing the colors that will suspend a moment in time for as long as the painting survives.

The symphonic orchestra of brushstrokes, tapping, clamping, cooking, peddling, winding, ripping, and fine-tuning that resonates from the shops of Cuenca’s artists and artisans underscores the deep-rooted harmony of craftsmanship and purpose that radiates throughout the city.

Cuencanos reject the illusion that we live in a disposable world. Material objects have lasting value here and are cared for well beyond tightening a bolt or tuning an engine. It is an understanding of responsibility and care for all things because our humble planet is finite, should never be taken for granted, and must be preserved. 

This determined allegiance to authenticity and care defines a culture that honors preservation, ritual, and traditional values with the same fierceness it holds for the love of one’s family.

A father gives his anxious son a small hammer, a handful of nails, instructions, and encouragement. A mother guides her ​child​ threading a needle and offers calming reassurance​.

A car door closes on a well-worn taxi, and someone whispers to a friend for  advice or a patron saint for guidance. 

Children released from the staid confines of a classroom summon a squall of shrieks, laughter, and name-calling as they race to their playground. 

Taxis honk, cannons boom, the fluttering wings of pigeons, the feathered brush of palm fronds, the clatter of frail carts with jittery bottles tumbling along cobblestone streets, folks bowing their head in prayer and water muttering in its rocky bed. 

This is the story of Cuenca.

I know there are those among us who do not feel kindly towards settling down in Cuenca, just as I know there are those who wander but are not lost. 

However, after six years in Ecuador, I am still enchanted by the sights and sounds of this precious jewel, where the shadow of tradition and forward-thinking optimism are clasped together into complex jewelry, highlighting our interrelationship with each. 

The blinding beauty that first overwhelmed me has indeed been muted. The noise, once thought of as a cacophony, seems a symphony now (albeit a John Cage symphony). 

Traditional clothing is no longer exotic but expresses a commitment to tribal wisdom; fruits and vegetables, once foreign, are now daily fares.  Even the uneven and narrow sidewalks have, over time, slipped into place. 

However, I still thrill seeing flowers in bloom every day of the year, and am both gratified and greatly relieved that time has lost its urgency.

Cuenca is heavenly in that you have an opportunity to create whatever you want. It is worldly in that you need to learn what it is that you truly desire. 

The challenge is choosing your own best path and remembering the thread that led you here.

Robert Bradley

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