Becoming Cuenca

THE Arts Capital

Jun 16, 2022

He may be best known for his stinging 1929 novel about his childhood town, Asheville, North Carolina, but Thomas Wolfe had positive words about life including, “Culture is the arts elevated to a set of beliefs.”

For many of you reading my blog, the arts are an important part of your lives. It has been the arts that reminds you that you have a life. And it is worth celebrating and enjoying it.

If you are looking for a new place to live, be it the next state or province near you or be it another country, the arts most likely are a big factor in the places you are debating to live. There will be some who’ll say that museums have to be part of their new hometown. Others will want a symphony orchestra as part of their community. Many will want a vibrant local arts scene with lots of fairs.

Cuenca, Ecuador has it all. The city is known as “The Arts Capital of Ecuador.” It has been said that Cuenca is the “Rising Arts Capital of Latin America.”

Someone stated online in 2013, “It’s amazing that there is so much talent in a small city like Cuenca.” This city has grown quite a bit in the last nine years. And that includes the number of artists.

For those wanting a symphony, Cuenca is perfect for you.  And cellist Yackson Sanchez is thrilled you will be watching him, and his fellow musicians perform almost weekly. By the way, that is the talented Venezuelan cellist on his bicycle, on the way to a performance at Teatro Pumapungo. Numerous musicians of the symphony either walk or bike to rehearsals and performances.

I asked Sanchez about lugging so much weight on his back. He told me, “The cello is only about seven pounds, but when you add the weight of the case and other accessories, the cello is somewhere between 20 and 30 pounds on my back.” He confided to me, “Sometimes I walk home.”

When he was a young boy, Sanchez started taking music classes with fellow Venezuelans, who were 25 to 30 years old. At the age of 19, Sanchez became a member of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. It was Sanchez’s first international exposure, playing in every country in South America as well as the United States.

The worldly experience helped him to become a cellist for the Venezuela Symphony Orchestra when he was 24 years old. The strife in Venezuela had Sanchez seeking a new life in Ecuador in 2018. Soon afterwards, his talents were recognized, and now he is one of six talented cellists in the city’s symphony.

Founded in 1972, many of the symphony’s concerts are performed at their home at Teatro Pumapungo. With 700 seats it is big enough for a wide variety of events and small enough to still feel intimate. A good portion of their performances is in a lovely setting at the Old Cathedral of Cuenca. It has performed at other large churches, including Iglesia de Santo Domingo and Iglesia La Merced. The symphony is beloved by expats as they find the music to be world class. Adding to that love is the concerts are free.

Love jazz? Cuenca is perfect for you. The city is home to internationally acclaimed saxophonist and clarinetist, Su Terry. She is the leader of Jazz De Barro (Mud Jazz). Their first album, “Festejo De Capishca,” was a combination of traditional jazz and Andean dance music popular in Ecuador, especially in the provinces of Chimborazo and Azuay. The word “capishca” comes from the Quichua word, capina, which means “to squeeze.”

She began her professional career at the age of 16, playing for church performances and musical theater. While attending the Hartt School, a well-known music conservatory in Hartford, Connecticut, Terry began playing at jazz gigs.

Under the late jazz legend Jackie McLean, Terry blossomed and began her storied career, playing and recording with a variety of notable jazz artists. She has also performed with jazz greats such as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and trumpet player Jon Faddis. You may remember Faddis in the original “Blues Brothers” movie as part of the movie’s band, The Louisiana Gator Boys.

Want to attend the only jazz club in the country? You are in luck. New York native Jim Gala opened The Jazz Society Café in 2012. Its new home is on the west side of the city, moving from historic El Centro during the Covid pandemic.

Gala wants people who have never listened to live jazz to experience something special. In an interview with me in 2020, Gala said, “Many people, especially Americans, have never been to a real jazz club. There’s something about live music. When you are in a room there’s something extra going on with the music. There is a looseness and ease at a jazz club. It’s a free zone.  It’s a relaxed atmosphere.”

Music became a part of Gala’s life even before he began school. While in high school, Gala attended the Eastman School of Music which is ranked among the best music schools in the world. The acceptance rate into this prestigious teaching institution is about 13%. Among the school’s famous alumni are jazz greats flugelhorn player Chuck Mangione and double bassist Ron Carter.

You will find Gala performing quite often at his club. As you can see, some highly talented musicians have made their way to three degrees south.

World class guitarist Steve Vai said, “The classical guitar has a dynamic to it unlike a regular acoustic guitar or an electric guitar. You know, there’s times when you should play and there’s times when you gotta hold back. It’s an extremely dynamic instrument.”

The classical guitar has a dynamic to it unlike a regular acoustic guitar or an electric guitar. It has a beautiful sound that makes you feel good and happy. Andres Segovia literally created the genre of classical guitar, which hadn’t existed before around 1910. There was flamenco, which he borrowed from, but he actually arranged the works of Mozart and other classical composers for guitar, something that had never been done before.

The frontman and leader of the Byrds, Roger McGuinn, adds, “Segovia’s style is not slick or contrived, but it’s still very clean and his timing is impeccable. It’s got a feeling of casual elegance, as if he’s sitting around the house in Spain with a jug of wine, just playing from the heart.”

In Cuenca, you can hear Renato Albornoz beautiful classical guitar playing at local venues like La Yunta restaurante. Eat, drink, just feet away from this talented guitarist. There are many talented Cuencano musicians to listen to at very affordable venues throughout the city.

Perhaps why Cuenca is considered an arts capital and a retreat for talented artists is people like Eduardo Segovia. A master at his craft, Eduardo is a fantastic ceramicist. Working with clay comes naturally to this man. Even at an old age, Segovia is full of energy and excitement, and shows no signs of slowing down. It is apparent that ceramics are not only his profession, but also his passion.

My wife and I had the honor to visit him at his casa. It is filled with galleries (rooms) of his work. No two pieces are exactly alike. There are literally hundreds of pieces of his work, and your eyes will glaze over at all the shapes, colors, and designs. It is an overwhelmingly beautiful sight to behold.

They say that master artists can account for every detail in their art pieces. Master artists do not depend on the set rules of doing art pieces, and it is evident that Segovia is not following any artistic mandates. Segovia has a credible and great explanation for the hundreds of pieces he has created. Many pieces done by master artists may be controversial or not understood by many, but Segovia can account for his stunning work in ways that enhance artistic credibility.

After we had purchased several pieces from this world-class ceramicist, my wife and I spent about 30 minutes with him and wife, drinking tea. Of course, we exchanged stories and laughs because enjoying life together is a “Must” in this country.

The American naturalist Henry David Thoreau once said, “This world is but a canvas to our imagination.” A young and upcoming painter, Catalina Carrasco, has taken Thoreau’s statement to heart… and put it onto her canvases.

One of the local newspapers describes Catalina as “one of the most recognized creators in the city.” She has worked in art direction for several feature films and short films in various countries. Her work has been exhibited throughout Ecuador.

And my wife and I can claim a large piece of her work. It is on permanent display at our departamento as we had her paint a four meters-long mural on one of our walls to represent what one would see in Cuenca.  Her modern artwork can be spotted throughout town, including idiomArt, an art space that is housed in an old hacienda in El Centro.

There is no shortage of public artwork in Parque de la Madre. That includes the carved wood sculpture in the first photo of this post. Formerly called Army Park, the name changed in 1966, when the monument to La Madre (The Mother) was inaugurated. It is a bronze work made by the artist Paúl Palacio.

What really struck my wife and me is the artwork in the park. Throughout this nice size city park are beautiful wooden sculptures. They have been chiseled and carved out of trees. It is my understanding the sculptures were created because the trees were dying. And of course, because Cuenca is an arts-loving city, the sculptures were a ‘natural’ thing to do.

The artwork is stunning. It is like an outdoor museum that is open 24/7. We spend a lot of time in the park just enjoying all of the interesting pieces scattered throughout the park. Many of the sculptures remind me of what I grew up around in Washington state and British Columbia, Canada.

When you make it to Cuenca, you will be blown away by the amount of wall art in the city. That includes this long wall along Paseo 3 de Noviembre. There is a good amount of wall art on this quiet street in El Centro that parallels the Tomebamba River. One of my favorite churches in the city, La Iglesia de Todos Santos, adds an exclamation point to the outdoor artwork.

Any walking tour of the city will have you going by artwork adorning walls and buildings. A good portion honors the rich history and culture of the region. Hummingbirds are an exceedingly popular subject matter for wall art. There are no limitations to the size of the artwork as there is a five-story building at Av. 12 de Abril and Av. Fray Vicente Solano with a gorgeous mural that takes up most of the northern face of the building.

Generally credited as one of the pioneers of abstraction in western art, Wassily Kandinsky said, “Color is a power which directly influences the soul.” Cuencanos are not afraid to use bold colors and parts of the palette one would not expect in a public area. After living near a city in North Carolina that basically wants everything to be beige, I am ecstatic to be in a city that wants to loudly express its love of the arts and life.

That is how I feel every time I walk along Calle Fernando de Aragón. The colors of the nursery, Mis Primeros Pasitos Inicial, grab my soul. I truly feel the vibrant colors painted on the building, the gates and the wall bringing out the spirit in me. It is no lie I stand there for several moments, taking in what the colors mean to me.

This entire scene envelopes my positive, feel-good emotions. It was so strong that I wanted to pass it along to you. Hopefully, you feel the energy I have on this neighborhood street on the south side of the city.

For museum lovers, you will be happy to hear there is an abundance of museums throughout this city. Here are a handful of popular museums:

Museo Pumapungo

This museum is considered the top museum in Cuenca. Located on the eastside of El Centro, Museo Pumapungo is home to a world class collection of art, artifacts, and displays that illustrate Ecuador’s geographic regions. There is archaeology of the Cañaris and Incas. Religious and colonial artwork of the eighteenth and nineteenth century are part of the collection.

Museo Arqueológico de las Culturas Aborígenes

It is a small museum in El Centro with the most representative archaeological pieces of all cultural periods. The founder started collecting artifacts in the 1970s. There is an extensive collection of more than 15,000 items covering Ecuador’s rich and diverse history.

Museo Catedral Vieja

This museum and church are one of the most visited in Cuenca. It is located across the street from Parque Calderón and was built just 10 years after the Spanish founding of the city. Extensive renovations completed in 2004 transformed the cathedral into a museum, which today displays paintings, sculptures, and artifacts of religious significance.

Museo Remigio Crespo Toral

For a long time, Museo Remigio Crespo Toral was the only public museum in the city. In 1967, it found its permanent home which was the former residence of the Ecuadorian writer Remigio Crespo. The museum represents the cultural heritage not only of Cuenca but of the country. There are 30,000 archaeological, historical and art objects, including Cañar and Chordeleg gold items as well as pre-Columbian ceramics.

Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno

Located in the old House of Temperance, the city-owned museum has a decent size collection of modern art. Its first funding came from Cuenca painter Luis Crespo Ordóñez, who donated a selection of his best works. The Museum has collections made up of a wide variety of works of art, among which are drawings, engravings, etchings, lithography, paintings, photographs, screen printing, sculptures, and woodcuts.

I hope this post makes you yearn for the human soul at three degrees south. A lot more information on The Arts Capital of Ecuador can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.”

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Salud.

Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.