Tree of God

Text and photos Gladys Arosemena Bissot

Roads in the village of La Palma, in Chalatenango, smell of pine. The peaceful colonial cobblestone streets lend a distinctive old-world charm to the place. This wasn’t always the case; more than 40 years ago the army and insurgents used this bucolic setting filled with simple homes with red-tile roofs to strike fear into the hearts of the population. Paradoxically, La Palma was chosen to host the first discussions about bringing an end to the war that cut short the lives of more than 75,000 Salvadorans. The attempt, although unsuccessful, culminated years later in the end of the conflict.

It is well known that war brings poverty and uncertainty. But in every crisis, an inexplicable other side emerges, and the human quest for survival invents ways to put its best –or perhaps best possible– foot forward. Fate had something similar in mind for La Palma when a young boy began playing in the street with the seed from a copinol, or West Indian Locust, tree.

Back then, objects from nature were often taken out of everyday contexts to create imaginative playthings. The child knew that the seed could be split in half and polished to give it a beautiful shining uniform patina, making the effort worthwhile. The boy had no idea, however, that only a few feet away a young man watched him closely and that this seed would germinate into a unique idea, the birth of one of El Salvador’s most authentic artistic manifestations. 

Fernando Llort was a young man of 23, curious and, above all, very observant. He was drawn to the priesthood and even architecture, but while studying theology in France he discovered his true vocation: that of a visual artist. His cultural uprooting and a certain rejection of the canons European of art led him to organize an exhibition of works inspired by Mayan culture. The event was a success and he knew that he had discovered his calling.

Back home in his native El Salvador, his fascination with what the boy in La Palma was doing was no coincidence. What to the child was a simple game became an opportunity for Llort to create unique miniature works of handcrafted art. He decided to rent a house and began painting every day. Some time later, now married to Estela Chacón, he founded his first artist’s workshop.

And Llort’s dream began to grow. His workshop slowly filled with other artisans, who worked in ceramics, pine wood, and copinol seeds, or colored their drawings with tempera paint or varnish to evoke the colonial village of La Palma, invariably with pre-Columbian inspiration. And so, the Semilla de Dios cooperative-school was born and the work performed there helped to alleviate the difficult economic situation at the start of the war, since those who came to visit purchased the colorful handcrafted works and they soon became a symbol of the municipality.

Unfortunately, the workshop’s success drew the attention of delinquents and Llort and his family had to leave the country. Later, in the 1980s, they returned to El Salvador and founded the Árbol de Dios cultural center, gallery, workshop, and gift shop in the Salvadoran capital.

Seeds are sometimes capable of traveling on turbulent waters, destined to germinate far from the mother tree. Thus, the Llort family’s dream changed places but never lost touch with its essence. Several of the La Palma artisans relocated along with the center with tireless resolve to learn new techniques based on simple colorful lines, but with a modern touch, and featuring scenes from daily life.

Shortly after opening the Árbol de Dios cultural center, Llort created the Fernando Llort Foundation to support the artisans of El Salvador, exporting their talent and promoting a culture of peace, productivity, and development. To date, more than 4,000 artists have benefitted from this project and continue to experiment in their own workshops with painting and silkscreen techniques.

Llort was always convinced that the eagerness to create could lead to an income for socially at-risk families and especially the young people who suffer from abandonment, violence, or poverty. His projects were aimed at keeping young people out of trouble by fostering human and economic development. He wasn’t wrong: today, 70% of the population –nearly 7,000 people– in La Palma survive on income generated by handcrafts.

A visit to El Árbol de Dios in El Salvador evokes memories mixed with hope. Juan Manuel Llort, one of don Fernando’s three sons and an extraordinary guide, begins our tour of the tiny museum, a true historical delight. During our visit, we noticed an obvious contrast between Juan Manuel’s natural humility and the pride with which he speaks of his father’s work.

Close at hand is the gallery filled with the artist’s unprecedented pieces, wrought in his inimitable style. In one corner of the museum our attention is drawn to a pile of ceramic pieces that seem to have no aesthetic value.

Juan Manuel’s gaze grows somewhat taciturn as he explains the meaning of the pieces for his family: they were part of a monumental work by his father, Armonía de mi pueblo (Harmony of My People), that at one time adorned the San Salvador Cathedral but was demolished without his consent in conditions that had nothing to do with the meaning and value of the nation’s cultural heritage. The artist’s symbolic gathering of the ceramic fragments symbolized the recovery of “dignity and respect for Salvadoran artisans” as well as marking an end to a painful episode from the past.

It is impossible not to think of the profound significance of those pieces and how each one could represent the pain of a people broken by violence. But the subsequent creation of a broken ceramic wall titled Abrazo fraterno (Fraternal Embrace) shines a hopeful light on art and culture as sources for progress and growth for all nations. 

The workshop at El Árbol de Dios is the center’s main reason for being and the highlight of the tour. The creative hands of a group of artisans demonstrate each of the painting, ceramic, silkscreen, and stained glass techniques employed. Here, artisans are both apprentices and masters; they explore new materials and resources, making sure to find ways to pay tribute to the original “palmeño” style, while sharing their experiences with visitors.

At the end of the tour, it is common for Salvadoran and foreign tourists to leave with handcrafts or even one of Fernando Llort’s works. They realize that they are taking away an object that represents the Salvadoran identity, as colorful as the designs in the artwork. These are grateful hands that help to realize the artisan’s dream of creating a gift from El Salvador to the world.