Mariano Rangel is a Venezuelan folk artist from Tabay, Merida, and something of a local legend. Born in 1944, he is completely self-taught. He worked as a farmer until 1984, when one day his wife asked him for help to finish a wood carving of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception.
The idea of creating the image had come to her in a dream, she said. The Virgin had appeared to her in person, so this was no mere whim, but an obligation that needed to be met.
Mariano was working in the fields at the time, driving a plough with oxen and pulling potatoes out of the soil with his big, strong hands.
After work he would try and help his wife with the carving. Neither of them had ever carved anything before, but she was determined it must be done, and he seemed to have a natural instinct.for working the wood.
By the time the Virgin was finished and painted, Mariano realized he had a natural affinity for carving and wanted to do more. Over the years he gradually perfected his skills, took on larger and more ambitious projects, and his makeshift workshop became a magnet for national and international collectors of folk art.
Mariano's sculptures have been exhibited as far away as France, Japan and the USA.
The inspiration for his art has barely changed over the years. He still focuses on the saints and virgins of the Catholic Church, and 19th century independence heroes like Simon Bolivar, with his trademark mutton chop sideburns, bright blue jacket, white trousers and riding boots.
Mariano likes to leave a section of bark showing on his sculptures so that when you handle them you get a tactile sense of the wood. He's also keen to mark the difference between his own work and ceramic figurines.
This October, Mariano's sculptures were featured as part of the International Tourism Fair, FITVen 2013, which this year was held in his hometown state of Merida. I had seen his work before in exhibitions of popular art in Caracas, but it was a great honour to finally meet the man in person and shake his massive gnarled hand. It was even more impressive to see how delicately he carved a figure of Simon Bolivar with his tools of choice, two stubby kitchen knives that he had filed down for easier whittling.
He told me that he never imposed a figure on the wood, but just handled it until the shape and contours inspired him to carve. That's how he achieves figures that seem to have an inner life, a sense of movement, something which sets them apart from many other carvers who display their works in Merida,
Mariano's success has now inspired his children and grandchildren to take up carving and there is a recognized "Rangel School" of carving.
If you are in Merida try and visit the family workshop where works of all sizes are displayed. From Tabay head for Mucuy Baja and ask for "Taller Mis Principios".