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Featured on this page is the accomplished Pampanga santero NICOLAS LUGUE of Apalit. Nick, as he is more popularly known, is a 41-year old santero who has found quite a measure of success not only in his native Pampanga but also in nearby provinces and even in Metro Manila. In a narrow alley tucked along Barangay San Juan, lies Nick’s house-cum-workshop, which is always a beehive of activity as he and his artisans carve, sand and paint santos of all shapes and sizes. Nick shares with us his experience in carving (pun intended) out a name for himself in the santo industry.
Q: TELL US, WHAT WERE YOU DOING BEFORE YOU BECAME INVOLVED IN THE SANTO TRADE?
NICK: My father, Leopoldo “Pol” Lugue was a carver before me, but he started out carving designs for doors and furniture. I would help him carve these designs and that’s how I got my start -- carving bas reliefs for doors.
When he shifted to santo carvings, I tried that too and I felt a different sense of fulfillment with santos. Santos, unlike furniture, offered a much greater challenge, allowing me to explore and realize my fullest potential as an artist. Every time a client reacts upon seeing a finished santo image, I get a sense of how my artistic skills have improved.
Q: WHEN DID YOU DECIDE TO GO FULL BLAST IN THE SANTERO BUSINESS?
NICK: It was in 1991, actually at the height of the Pinatubo eruptions and its aftermath, that I decided to concentrate on being a santero. Previous to this, I also tried my hand at metalsmithing, experimenting with ‘pukpok’ art. But the appeal of a sculpted image was more enduring to me.
I practiced first with “butul baka” (cow bone) carving—you know, simple bone masks that were affixed to carved bodies of small saints. My first wooden santos were anatomical nightmares! But then again, it was case of “practice makes perfect,” and over the course of time, that’s what I did, practice until I got things right.
Q: WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES IN RUNNING A RELIGIOUS ART BUSINESS? WHAT IS BUSINESS LIKE TODAY?
NICK: The main challenge in this business is the lack of a wide and deep talent pool. So basically I end up doing everything.
But I like being very hands-on, though. I still do the basic carving, which to me, is the most important step, because if it’s wrong to start with, you can’t undo the mistake. After that, my workers take over. I also do “encarna” work, although I get a lot of help from my younger brother Andoy, who has become adept in painting in oil, lacquer, and all types of paints.
We work twelve months a year, so we are luckier than most. We are already doing Holy Week images at this time. That is why I have no plans at the moment to expand our business -- we are doing quite well.
Q: WHAT ARE YOUR MOST IMPORTANT COMMISSIONS?
NICK: My most important projects are commissions by private individuals, particularly in Bulacan and in Nueva Ecija. For a family in Talavera, Nueva Ecija, I sculpted most of their Semana Santa images, a lot of them tableaus, which have since been featured in their Lenten commemorative book.
Most of my commissions are for Semana Santa images, with Virgins being the most popular. And yes, I have been contacted by SSF members from abroad too, with various inquiries about potential projects.
(Nick has actually worked on two replicas of the canonically-crowned Virgen de los Remedios used for parish visitations. For the Saint Joseph the Worker Parish in Floridablanca, Pampanga, he completed a Nativity Set with thirteen figures. Likewise, he helped restore the 170 year-old Holy Angel of the Nepomuceno Family of Angeles City)
Q: YOU ARE BECOMING A POPULAR NAME AMONG SSF MEMBERS. WHAT MESSAGE WOULD YOU LIKE TO LEAVE THESE SANTO ENTHUSIASTS WHO ARE CURRENT AND POTENTIAL ADMIRERS OF YOUR WORK?
NICK: Well, I hope that SSF truly becomes a venue for information-sharing and for helping out those who desire to have their initial santos, or to upgrade to better ones.
I know that there are a lot of young santo enthusiasts who are members, so to them, I say, be ready to learn from those who have more depth of experience and who are more in the know. Keep an open mind, share the joys of owning and caring for a santo, so that our revered Philippine religious traditions will live on.