DARAGA Albay – How do you breathe life into a stone?
For lava rock artist Vicente "Enteng Bato" Ajero, all it takes is a hammer, a nail, and a healthy dose of imagination to transform nondescript and ordinary volcanic stones into stunning works of art that prove that one can find beauty in nature's fury.
The Making of a Local Legend
Known by his moniker, "Master of Mayon Art Stone," Ajero has become a fixture in the local art scene for his statues and ornaments, which he carves out from lava stones found at the foot of Mayon Volcano.
Originally from Camalig, Albay, he moved to the nearby town of Daraga, particularly in Busay, in the early 2000s, when he put up his store near the entrance of Bicol’s iconic tourist spot, Cagsawa Ruins.
As a lava rock sculptor, Busay has become Ajero’s mecca.
"Pag naga-erupt ang Mayon, sabi san mga taw didi, buhay na naman si Enteng Bato (When Mayon erupts, people here would often say, Enteng Bato is alive again)," he said in jest, referring to how his neighbors would often tease him about his supposed economic gain every time the lava starts rolling down the slopes of the world-famous volcano.
One of his closest friends, Mariano Redoblado, 45, recalls how Ajero, in his heydays, would scour the areas near Mayon early in the morning in search of the perfect boulders for his craft.
A self-taught sculptor, Ajero admits that he is very particular with the stones he uses, adding that he can sense the hidden artistic potential beneath the porous and often rugged texture of the lava rocks simply by looking at them.
It is this deep connection with the natural world and his innate ability to see the beauty in the mundane that has put him in a league of his own.
“Artist ako. Makaptan ko sana an bato, aram ko na ko na kung uno ang pwedeng magibong art sa bato (I am an artist. As soon as I touch the stone, I know what art can be made with it)," he said.
Ajero has been carving and chiseling away massive chunks of lava rocks into spectacular works of art for more than 20 years.
But it was during the aftermath of the deadly Typhoon Reming in 2006 that he was catapulted into local celebrity status.
Amid a tragedy that has claimed so many lives in his native village in Busay, Daraga, Albay, he became the epitome of strength and hope, the embodiment of the proverbial phrase that “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
Asked how he was able to recuperate from the tragic calamity, Ajero said his gratitude for his gift of life was enough to stir him to still pursue his art despite the setback, even joking that Mayon provided him with unlimited “art supplies.”
With the majestic Mayon providing a stunning backdrop to his artistry, Ajero’s sculptures, which hold so much cultural and historical significance, have attracted the attention of national and local media.
In 2013, he was featured in a national television program for his unique craftsmanship, which is a testament to the power of art to carve together the stories of nature’s fury and human resiliency.
Some of his notable sculptures include a miniature Mayon Volcano and Cagsawa bell tower, an Easter Island-inspired giant stone figure, some garden and outdoor sculpture, a mythical dragon, and a massive turtle-shaped masterpiece, which was purchased by a local resort owner here in the province.
In 2015, he was handpicked to carve the medals of the podium finishers for the Xterra Albay off-road triathlon, which was participated in by world-class athletes.
The heart of an artist
Now past his prime, Ajero prioritizes carving small stone figures for health and economic reasons.
“The problem with carving big lava stone statues is their salability since my customers can’t carry them home,” he said in the vernacular.
Today, much of his earnings, which he uses to provide for his son, come from resellers who purchase his volcanic rock scrubs.
In 2017, he was diagnosed with a lung condition, which greatly affected his mobility and muscle strength.
Four years later, another storm, Super Typhoon Rolly, would wreak havoc, burying his house and his famed store under a pile of rubble and sand. The massive flash flood also washed away most of his treasured lava rock creations.
“Siring sana yan san, kung wara kang hanap-buhay, gutom ka. Nagalipas and panawn. An mahalaga, buhay pa kita (That's life; if you don’t have a job, you will go hungry. Time passes by. The important thing is that we are alive)," he said.
Amidst all these challenges, Ajero’s sunny disposition remains unwavering.
On Sunday, Daraga Mayor Carlwyn Baldo visited Ajero in his humble abode, promising to give him tools and equipment and provide an art stall for him at Cagsawa Ruins where he could display his works and give lava rock sculpture lessons and workshops for those interested in learning the craft.
“Enteng Bato is a local icon in our town. Let us support, promote, and ensure that his art lives on,” the mayor said. (PNA)