1991 Florida Folk Heritage Award
Mario Sanchez was a remarkable memory artist whose creations are decorative yet derive from traditional carving skills. A quiet man whose humor, honesty, and clarity are apparent in his many carvings, his life spanned a century that brought incredible change to the places that he loved. Yet his work draws us back to an earlier world. As Sanchez said, “We like to talk about our heritage. We were taught to appreciate our ancestors. Every generation should tell the next one about its ancestors.”
Sanchez’ story mirrors that of the many Conchs with Cuban ancestry. In the late I 860s, the first war for independence and the stiff Spanish tariffs on cigars impelled many Cubans relocate their families and businesses to nearby Key West. Sanchez’ grandfather and great-grandfather settled on the island in 1868. His paternal grandfather was a local musician who owned a grocery store at the corners of Whitehead and Southard Streets—then known as Sanchez Corner. His father was a lector—an employee who read newspapers, novels, and other works to the cigar workers throughout the day. One of Sanchez’ paintings, El Lector, portrays his father reading to the cigar rollers.
Sanchez was born in 1908 in the upper floor of his family’s bodega (grocery store) at the corner of Duval and Louisa Streets in Key West. He lived most of his life in the neighborhood called “El Barrio de Gato” after the prosperous cigar manufacturer Eduardo Hidalgo Gato. Sanchez studied at a business institute in Key West and worked in various clerical positions in Key West and Tampa during his adult life.
In 1930 Sanchez began carving life-size replicas of fish living in local waters on discarded boards from tobacco crates. Eventually, he sold some of these pieces through Thompson’s Hardware Store. When his mother-in-law suggested that he depict life in Key West, Sanchez tried his hand at carving such scenes. At first, he painted them with colors he made from such materials as egg yolks and coffee grounds. He sold his first piece of this type, “Manungo’s Diablito Dancers,” to a local store manager in 1946. The first public exhibition of his work was held at Key West’s East Martello Gallery and Museum in 1961. Since then, Sanchez’s work has received acclaim in Key West, Tampa, and throughout Florida. In 1970, he quit his job to devote all of his time to his art.
Sanchez began his works by drawing a scene in pencil on a brown grocery bag. He then used chisels to carve the image on a pine, cypress, or cedar board. When the carving was completed, he painted the scene with vibrant colors characteristic of Key West. Much of his work was created in his “Studio Under the Trees,” part of an extended family compound in Key West. His carvings illustrate the places and events that made old Key West distinctive: Bahamian funeral parades, children flying Cuban kites and playing games, diablito dancers, the daily catch, cigar factories, the Cuban piruli (lollipop) vendor, Boza’s comparsa dancers, and other local activities, buildings, docks and businesses. He also carved scenes of the Cuban community in the Tampa/Ybor City area, where he resided part of the year until the death of his wife Rosa in 1996.
Until his recent death, age did not dim Sanchez’s extraordinary memory. When he closed his eyes, he could view again the streets of his childhood—remembering each house, tree and person just as they were.