"In the nineteenth century," said one man who was carrying a fishing rod and bucket, "a belief arose among sailors—who are known to be superstitious—that if you sailed to our Faial island and didn't leave a painting behind at the port, you would have bad luck at sea. Today, sailors from all over the world still decide not to tempt Fate; they leave their art marks on the walls, rocks, and cement walkway."
The subjects of the paintings ranged from fish, boats, whales, mermaids, dragons, horses, and kites to company logos and hearts.
Whalers as Artists in the Azores
I didn't find graffiti art on any of the other islands, but I did encounter striking visual expressions of the unique, wild, remote culture of the Azores. On Pico, at the Whalers Museum, I asked the museum guide how killing whales could be outlawed while a museum pays tribute to the whalers. "Locals honor the whalers, who were their fathers, sons, brothers, cousins and neighbors. They led a hard, devoted, dangerous life, " she replied, "and in their scrimshaw art we get a glimpse into their outer world and their inner life."
She showed us cases of scrimshaw art that was etched, carved and sculpted using whale teeth and bone. The subject was generally the vigorous and treacherous life of the sea—whaling, sailing in boats, braving the waves. But the art also depicted the softer side of the whalers' lives: the women and families whom they left on shore, who worried about them, and prayed for their welfare. Many of the whalers are gone, but their love and devotion to family remain forever in the art they left behind.
On the island of Terceira, I walked on the mosaic sidewalks for which Portugal is famous. I always have a luxurious, wealthy feeling when I walk across intricate mosaic art; laid by hand and made of basalt and limestone, the tile art is usually sinuous, geometric, and contains flowers, lines and the whimsy of the designers and the artists. But on Terceira, there was also a personal note: stone mosaics graced the entry to shops and bore the shops' names. An optical shop, for example, had a large pair of glasses made from mosaic pieces. Once again, the Azoreans brought their own whimsy and creativity to established forms of art.
The island of Graciosa is itself a magnificent work of art, carved by nature. In the town of Santa Cruz the wind whips across black lava rocks and aquamarine-colored waves rise from the ocean, crest and crash along the promontory. The historic center has streets that emanate out from a central plaza, and windmills, grazing cows and bulls dot the surrounding landscape.
But I didn't see any human art until I visited the main church, which was built in 1701 on the remains of a l5th century chapel; the baptismal font of the latter is still in place. The religious art in the church ranges from "popular" and naïf to highly sophisticated. What moved me most was the image of Our Lady of Concession, where a host of chubby cherubs float under a beautiful, graceful Mary. The image is executed by different artists in tile, wood, paint, plaster and stone. It is a stunning tribute to the way multiple artists interpret the same theme, and it reinforced my feeling that anyone with an eye for art will have the deep pleasure of discovery in the Azores. It's not heralded, it's not at the top of any must-see lists, most often it's not on the lists at all, but that just adds to the thrill and enjoyment.
Judith Fein is a multiple-award winning travel writer who has contributed to more than 100 publications and is the author of Life is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel. Paul Ross is an award-winning photojournalist. Their website is www.GlobalAdventure.us
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