One of what I feel is the most beautiful stretches of tarmac in the Algarve is the twisty-turny road along the mountainsides between Monchique and Aljezur. It's a breathtakingly beautiful drive, but you have to keep on your toes and not get too carried away taking in the epic views lest you accidentally go flying off the side of the mountain.
You just never know when a bus coming around a tight corner might give you that extra little nudge needed to send you off into oblivion.
Indeed, as José Maurício, owner and artist of the ‘Galeria - Spirit of Wood’, later told me, you might even come face to face with a pack of ‘GIANT’ wild boar, as they regularly roam these roads in the twilight hours.
José’s place is located just outside the town of Casais and it simply can’t fail to pique your curiosity as you drive by. The place, despite its signs that promise a wood gallery, is also filled with an abundance of succulents and cacti, as well as a huge collection of rocks. “What is this place?”, I wondered to myself as I strolled in, waving up at the owner.
José came down to meet me with a beaming smile and, noting my bewilderment at seeing such an eclectic collection of things, explained that he likes to do “Um bocadinho de tudo”. Not only does he like to do ‘a bit of everything’, but he also does it all “Com muita calma e paciência”. Indeed, the more I got to know him, the more I think he may just be the most ‘calm and patient’ man I’ve ever met (and with that in mind, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a little while longer to find out why…).
José is a true ‘Monchiqueiro’ and was born and raised up here in the mountains. He opened this place 30 years ago, but at the beginning, he was just raising his cacti and succulents. It was very successful but despite that, he would always find time to indulge his passion for creating things with wood. He kept all his sculptures to himself for a long time though, until he eventually decided to show his family and friends who were very impressed. This gave him the encouragement he needed, and 14 years ago now he decided to open his own gallery.
Of course, he had to build it first. And this he did with a lot of time and patience and, as he proudly told me, all on his own. Again I was bewildered as I moved from the rural garden area outside and suddenly found myself inside this super flash gallery. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but I will say that once you think you’ve seen it all, it seems (in what could be one of those mirror effects) to stretch on into eternity.
On display were his many different artworks. All made from the most beautiful wood that José finds deep in the heart of a fallen tree or one that, on the outside at least, has been burned to a crisp in a fire.
José cuts to the core and carves out these incredible and intricate shapes. The wood feels amazing and they all have their own distinct character. José likes to experiment, and on some you can see the colour difference between the outer and inner wood, and he even sometimes leaves a little charred bit to tell the story of the fire the tree went through.
As I stood and looked more closely, my imagination ran wild as I could see all sorts of faces and monsters hidden in the wood. I do tend to see ‘faces in places’ but I had to ask José if this was on purpose? Or am I just crazy? I was relieved to find out that he sees them too, and indeed, that’s how he thinks of some of them. There’s fish, dragons and even a homage to a rock formation on Jose’s favourite fishing beach. But he keeps this to himself. He says they are open to interpretation. He doesn't want to tell you what to see. As a lovely lady who randomly decided to stop (as people do often) brilliantly observed, it's a bit like seeing things in the clouds.
But this is why he doesn’t name his creations, he simply tells you what kind of wood they are made out of. José works exclusively with native species, such as olive, juniper, oak and alfarroba trees (which he told me are particularly beautiful on the inside).
If you made it this far, I’ll now explain why I think José is so patient. You see, he treats his wood in a variety of inventive ways, but one of them is to soak them in extremely salty water for ten years. He showed me a barrel of some that have just passed the six year mark and this he says is a wonderful way to preserve the wood and really bring out its natural colours.
José's whole philosophy is that he doesn’t force or rush with anything.
From the foraging and finding the right piece of wood, to the moment he decides what it's going to be, he just waits until he feels it. And then, when the idea does come, he says he doesn't know how to describe it, it's like it comes from within and he puts his soul and, indeed, ‘spirit’ into the wood. The initial idea may come in a rush, but it's a matter of goodness knows how many hours of work (even if you forget about the barreled time) before they are a reality.
If you would like to get in touch with José, then, I have some bad news for you... He doesn’t like the internet and despite having a Facebook page (Wood Spirit) he’s rarely online. Quite honestly, I don’t blame him. He lives in the most beautiful of places with the most wonderful view and he's far too busy in the real world. So, if you want one of his pieces (or plants), I’m afraid there’s nothing else for it, you’ll just have to go for a lovely little drive up into the mountains and find him yourself.