Freddy Cerna is about the same height as the statue he carves from Italian Carrara marble. The statue of Mary, her hands folded in prayer, stares back at him, reports the Catholic News Service.
'I talk to her all the time,' Cerna says. 'I ask her to help me imagine a more beautiful and sweet face.'
Cerna is one of about 650 artisans working across Peru for the Don Bosco Cooperative. While many of the artisans build furniture, a handful of them specialise in sacred art. They build church pews and confessionals, create stained-glass windows and sculpt Jesus on the crucifix.
The artisans learn the craft in a free, five-year boarding school started in the Peruvian Andes in 1979 by Italian Salesian Father Ugo De Censi. It's part of the Operation Mato Grosso, an Italian non-governmental organisation that works to eradicate poverty in Peru, Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia.
Italian volunteer and designer Mirko Codenotti says that when Fr De Censi arrived in Chacas, he was stunned by the innate manual ability of the locals and saw training as a way to create job opportunities.
Many of the boys that apply to the school live in extreme poverty. Some are orphans. About 25 students are admitted each year. The school offers them a core curriculum but also teaches them to paint and work with glass, wood, metal and stone. In the third year of the program, each student chooses his specialty. Upon graduation, the boys receive a box of tools and are invited to join the Don Bosco Cooperative.
Cerna chose stonework as his specialty. He says it's the hardest and slowest to work with but it's worth it because the pieces last in time. Like Michelangelo, when Cerna looks at a giant block of stone, he says he sees a statue waiting to be discovered. He also sees his future.
Artisans at the cooperative earn according to the number of pieces they finish per month. The average artisan earns 1,200 soles (A$450) but a more experienced or skilled artisan can earn 2,000 soles. That amount is on par with what a teacher or a medical technician earns in the region.
Photo: Zenon Aguirre constructs a uniquely designed bookshelf of solid wood at the Don Bosco cooperative in Chacas
FULL STORY High in the Andes, Peruvian artisans create sacred art (CNS)