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Our featured subject has been in the santo business for over 20 years. To set the record straight, our subject is not a carver, but an owner-proprietor who skillfully orchestrates the work of a platoon of artisans—from carvers to wigmakers, from metalsmiths to painters. In that span of time, he and his team have created devotional images that have been enthroned in the altars of 52 churches in Metro Manila alone, and in 40 other churches nationwide. His works can be found in private collections and in religious institutions in Rome, England, Madrid, Montreal, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Indonesia and India. He continues this tradition of excellence today in a small, nameless workshop along D. Osmeña St., at the back of the Makati City Hall, that also doubles as his office. It is here that we sat down one late afternoon with the esteemed santero, MR. FRANCISCO “KIKO” VECIN.
Q. TELL US, WHAT WERE YOU DOING BEFORE YOU BECAME INVOLVED IN THE SANTO TRADE?
MR. KIKO VECIN: I was a member of the corporate world, working as a Sales Manager for KLM-Royal Dutch Airways from 1970 to 1986. But even before that, from the age of 18, I was already a collector of antiques. I have always been fascinated with santos, especially processional ones, because I grew up in our house in Makati Poblacion surrounded by Semana Santa images, like the “Kiss of Judas,” which we still keep.
I prefer life-sized images because they are full of expression, almost life-like. I managed to amass about 180 images, which I had to keep in different places. Today, ten carrozas featuring my images regularly participate in the annual Lenten processions of the Saints Peter and Paul Parish here in Poblacion.
Q: WHEN DID YOU DECIDE TO GO FULL-BLAST IN THE SANTERO BUSINESS?
KIKO: It was a case of burn out. I felt I had run out of space to grow where I worked. My antique-collecting provided me with the impetus to turn my hobby into a business. By then, I had established quite an extensive network of people who helped me in the restoration of my antiques — from excellent sculptors and encarnadors to plateros and wigmakers. I quickly learned the ropes of the business. With this stable of artists, I started doing small santo projects for friends and acquaintances.
The turning point was when I gave a Sacred Heart image to a priest-friend, Monsignor Chito Bernardo, the director of Bahay-Pari at the San Carlos Seminary. He placed the image in his office, which prompted a lot of inquiries from impressed visitors. Fr. Chito next allowed me to set up a small display in his office, and the orders came along, mostly from word-of-mouth advertising. I started operations in our house, then I moved to this apartment building 17 years ago, and I’ve been here ever since.
Q: WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES IN RUNNING A RELIGIOUS ART BUSINESS? WHAT IS BUSINESS LIKE TODAY?
MR. KIKO VECIN: I am an exacting person. I formulate in my mind what I want to create. So I make it a point to tap the right kind of people, who, under my strict supervision and watchful eye, can be trained to deliver the best high-end, devotional images that anyone would be proud to own. Training them myself is a challenge. To encourage them, I pay my people more than the usual, even if I too, have costs to cover. Profit doesn’t govern me; at the end of the day, it’s the end product that gives me the ultimate satisfaction.
Q: YOU HAVE A REPUTATION FOR BEING PREMIUM-PRICED. IS THIS JUST A PERCEPTION, OR IS THIS REALLY TRUE? IF SO, WHY?
MR. KIKO VECIN: In absolute terms, my prices may seem high, but I believe that my works are a few notches higher than what you normally see out there. When I make an image, it is for keeps — it will be something that you will keep and treasure for the rest of your life and even pass on to your heirs, and not something that you will want to change or replace just a few years down the road. A number of people from your group [referring to SSF members] have actually visited me and have seen my work, and they have come away convinced of the high quality of the work that I do.
Just take a look at that (pointing to a processional santa brought in for repair), I have been asked to re-do that. It cost the owner twenty-five thousand pesos to have that made. But look at the quality (the santa obviously had disproportional features, thick legs, high waist, big feet and broad shoulders). It will take another twenty-five thousand pesos to re-carve and repaint the whole thing! If he had come to me straight away, he would have probably paid the same amount—minus all the attendant trouble! At the end of the day, it’s value for money that I give.
Q: WHAT HAVE BEEN YOUR MOST IMPORTANT COMMISSIONS?
MR. KIKO VECIN: From my many church projects, the following stand out: all the santos in the altar of San Miguel Parish in Marilao, Bulacan; the seven-foot Crucified Christ at the Our Lady of Carmel Church; for the Cubao and Manila Cathedrals, I made Crucifixion of Christ figures, while for Saint James the Greater Church in Ayala Alabang, I did the side altar statues including a San Jose. I also did various statues for Saint Andrew’s Church in Makati.
Cardinal Lopez-Trujillo also has my works in his collection, which are now displayed at the Cardinal’s church in Rome. A St. Joseph figure from my workshop is also enshrined at the Chapel of Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India.
But I remember two projects from where I derived the most satisfaction. One was a Mater Dolorosa commissioned by a family for the San Guillermo Parish in Pasig. When the mother and her daughter beheld the sorrowful image of the Virgin, tears flowed from their eyes, saying that they felt the suffering of the Virgin. I can never forget that episode.
Another hair-raising moment was when I delivered the image of Our Lady of Fatima to the church of Binakayan, Cavite. As we arrived in the town with the image in my van, people lined up in the street, singing Glories to the Blessed Mother. That was one awe-inspiring and unforgettable moment.
Q: WHAT HAVE BEEN SOME OF THE MOST UNUSUAL ASSIGNMENTS THAT YOU HAVE BEEN ASKED TO WORK ON?
MR. KIKO VECIN: Oh, there was this client who asked me to do a figure of a Crucified Christ — and he asked me to make it gory with hundreds and hundreds of wound marks and lacerations all over his body! It looked so bloody!
Then there was someone who asked me to carve a fully-naked Crucified Christ — which I simply refused to do because I felt that it was so sacrilegious!
Q: WHAT MESSAGE WOULD YOU LIKE TO GIVE TO SANTO ENTHUSIASTS WHO ARE CURRENT AND POTENTIAL ADMIRERS AND EVEN OWNERS OF YOUR WORK?
MR. KIKO VECIN: For would-be santo owners, I would advise you to invest in a good quality santo — don’t go for the cheapest. A good santo will be for keeps, a treasure for the rest of your life, a family heirloom. Make sure then that it will truly inspire devotion, that it is not just a prettified, meaningless figure.
For young santo enthusiasts, I give you all my respect. You are traditionalists like me. This (santo) tradition has been handed down to us by our forefathers and I am happy to see that you are keeping this practice alive.
(Many thanks to Mr. Leo D. Cloma for some of the pictures you see on this feature.)