Imagine a detailed mermaid grasping a fish and pearl in her hands bursting from an inert piece of wood, or the figure of a Yaqui woman now adorning the Presidential residence of Los Pinos emerging from a trunk of ironwood. Roberto Solorio, ironwood sculptor and craftsman, stops to reflect how his weathered hands continue to create these figures that much to his surprise have made their way around the globe.
Originally from Michoacan, though having grown up in Sonora, as a child Solorio was taught by a Seri couple who instructed him in working with ironwood. He worked on perfecting his craft, which has now been adopted by his entire family including brothers and nephews.
Between the hammer of a mallet, and the rumble of a chainsaw, the artisan raises his voice while describing how his work, which range from miniatures to figures measuring 3 meters high that can take months at a time, have made their ways to spots he had never imagined. There’s one piece in Japan, another in some part of the Mexican Presidential residence at Los Pinos, and another that was taken to the White House in Washington, D.C. To help illustrate, he shows off the photos he’s kept in an album, demonstrating both the process of making the figures and some depicting where the finished pieces are being given as gifts.
“Look, here is the photo where I made an indigenous woman, and this is when our Mayor presented it to (President) Peña Nieto. Here’s the golden eagle an FBI agent bought from me, which was given to President Clinton while he was in the White House,” he explains.
The workshop is filled with piles of trunks and branches of ironwood, which he buys by the ton or pick-up load. This situation has become complicated as currently there are no longer permits for ironwood, and the one granted to him by then Governor Manlio Fabio Beltrones expired years ago.
“It’s becoming more difficult; ranch owners where there’s ironwood have to go and request permission from federal offices in Hermosillo and it’s complicated for them to go to and fro… and we’re just talking about ‘dead’ wood,” laments the artisan.
Along with this problem is there are many who are using ironwood to make charcoal, which disappoints the few ironwood artisans who assure their work is a better investment and attracts tourism.
The ironwood trunks and branches strewn across Don Roberto Solorio’s workshop are those he’s collected near ditches on ranches. “Look,” he says pointing to a piece of formless wood, “I can get a dolphin from there.” Pointing to another trunk, “an eagle from there…it depends on the size of the piece as well as imagination. Everything comes from the imagination, I seek proportions,” he details.
The artisan’s passion to “create” figures is not an easy one after losing two fingers from his right hand following a work accident a number of years ago. Adding to this, four fingers on his left hand have no strength following injury to tendons.
“It’s not easy, sometimes I don’t know how I do these things, but I only know that the things can be done. I also have diabetes and have to take care of myself,” he furthers.
Making figures out of ironwood keeps the artisan vibrant and current, and this passion has spread to his brothers, cousins, and nephews who also work with ironwood and continue to strengthen the craft.
When Solorio begins a figure he doesn’t do so thinking about where it will end up but rather by putting everything into his art. The result has captivated hundreds of people who have known how to value his work. Just as the case of the FBI agent who bought the eagle as a gift for Bill Clinton, and which may very well still adorn a space at the White House, there are numerous other stories that trail the pieces he’s created.
Some of the images Solorio has molded have come from his dreams, such as a Christ figure he once imagined.
He explains, “I saw something on television and I believe it impacted me greatly; they were images of an earthquake in Guadalajara. I recall a child, then I dreamt it, it was Christ with a young child and when I awoke I wanted to make it. I believe Esthela Hernández has that Christ with a child figure.”
Roberto is now thinking about an exhibit, but not at a gallery. He prefers setting up an exhibit near an intersection so that local people and tourists alike can see his work and obtain a piece that has emerged from his hands, and imagination.
Roberto Solorio’s workshop is located just off Calle Revolución (Curios market), turn left one block after the railroad tracks (It’s not a specific store, it’s the whole workshop). His pieces may also be found at many of the curios shops in town.