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Faithful to her art: Renowned Venezuelan artist completes project at St. Mary's

Primi Manteiga poses near the tabernacle that she created for St. Mary's Catholic Church in Worthington.(Brian Korthals/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON -- Primi Manteiga may not be able to verbalize her faith without the help of a translator, but she gets the message across -- despite the language barrier -- through her artwork.

Manteiga, a native of Spain who spent most of her life in Venezuela, moved to the United States two and a half years ago and settled in the Chandler area with her daughter, Marcia Carrera, and family. She plans to take English language lessons, but so far has been too engrossed in her work and relies on her daughter to translate her story.

Last week, Primi was installing her most recent religious work, a tabernacle flanked by two angels, in the sanctuary of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Worthington.

Artistic spark

Primi moved from Spain to Venezuela when she was just 17 years old. Her own artistic skills surfaced when daughter Marcia began taking an art class.

"I told my mom when I was 7 that I wanted to go to a painting class, so she brought me to a teacher," recalled Marcia. "I was working on a painting and I couldn't make it look right. I didn't know what to do. She started fixing it."

Soon, Primi was studying art with prominent professors in Venezuela, and her talents flourished under their tutelage.

"She has a big résumé of teachers," said Marcia. "She studied in Spain, too. She worked in Venezuela, had a school there, where she taught stained glass, sculpture, painting.

"When I was 12 years old, my mom had the best teacher in Venezuela," Marcia continued. "He had this idea to make a collection (of paintings) of all the Indians of Venezuela. There are 47 different groups of Indians, and he started to do it, but he could not finish. He said, 'Primi, I think you will be the person to finish it.' So she did all the research and did these paintings and sculptures. That collection came with a book with the history of each group. We want to now put the book in English."

Because of her work with the Indian tribes, Primi received commissions from the government of Venezuela to create five sets of collectible postage stamps, and her prominence in the Venezuelan art community continued to grow.

"Three years, it was of the Indians, one year was of the Nativity, and the other was with a special place in my country," related Marcia about the stamp collections. "She stopped working with the stamps because the government doesn't want to respect the terms of the contracts. They were limited editions, and would go all over the world to collectors."

The paintings of the Indians and subsequent stamp editions required extensive research, in order to get all the details work, and Primi got a bit burned out.

"She was working seven days a week, but she would go to church," recalled Marcia, adding that her mother also participated in a Bible study fellowship following Mass. "At one of these, they tell her to write down on a piece of paper what she would want to tell God. She was tired of painting Indians. When you paint history, you need to know everything, and it takes big investigation. The bodies have to be right, the animals, the horses need to be perfect. She was tired of that. So she wrote, 'God, please tell me to do something different so I can do the best for you, what you want.' The next day, she got a call from a church to make a sculpture, and she started doing that."

Coming to America

Due to the political situation in Venezuela, Primi decided to follow her children to the United States. Her husband, Jose Fernandez, is still in Venezuela, trying to sell his business before he, too, moves to Minnesota.

"My brother moved to the U.S. almost 30 years ago," explained Marcia, who now has two young sons. "He came here to study English, and he stayed. He lives in San Francisco. I came also because of the political situation, came eight years ago. I marry here, and my husband has family here in Chandler. We decided to come here because it's more safe, especially if you want to have kids."

When Primi followed her children to Venezuela, she left her school and students behind, although she was able to smuggle most of her artworks out of the country. But she was anxious to get back to work.

"She was bored," said Marcia, "and she didn't speak English at all. So she decided to start a little sculpture."

The "little" sculpture became a large statue of an angel, "Los Arcangeles," that guards the end of the driveway at the Carreras' rural home between Lake Wilson and Chandler -- and has become a tourist attraction for people who venture off the beaten path.

"We like angels. She was thinking what she could do, and the idea came for the angel. She had in her mind to do a collection of archangels," Marcia explained.

The angel drew attention to her work and word that a renowned Venezuelan artist was living in the area began to spread. Instead of seeking out work, she began to get commissions.

"When my mom first came here, I tried to find a Mass in Spanish," Marcia explained about how Primi became connected to the Worthington parish. "The only one we could find was in Adrian -- Worthington was too far; Adrian was closer. There we meet Father Jose (Morales). He's from Columbia, so he's a neighbor, and we talk. When he moved (to Worthington), then we meet Father Jim (Callahan). They know about my mom and what she do, so they asked her to make a tabernacle."

"We had seen some of her work at her house in Chandler," explained Worthington priest, the Rev. Jim Callahan. "The tabernacle that we had, when you walked into the church, you didn't see it. We wanted something expressive of the summit of our faith, coming from the Eucharist and the tabernacle, and we asked her to design something."

The new tabernacle also celebrates the 125th anniversary of the church, which will be celebrated in August, Callahan said.

Primi collaborated with the Worthington priests and drew out what she envisioned. She then created a form from wire and rebar that was covered in clay. The final product is composed of "artificial marble," using a method that creates the look of the stone without the expense. The tabernacle was funded through donations from parishioners, with Primi giving the church "an incredible discount," for the amount of work that went into it, Callahan noted.

Because of the sculpture's size and weight, Primi sculpted the tabernacle in three pieces: two angels and the box in the middle that will house the Eucharist.

"It was only one piece at first," Marcia explained. "She decided to put it in three pieces to make it easy for transportation. It weighs 1,400 pounds -- it's solid."

The work took about six months to complete, according to Marcia, with her mother working seven days a week.

The tabernacle was moved into place early last week, and Primi began the work of connecting the pieces and making it look like one solid piece of stone.

"We never thought it would be that magnificent," said Callahan. "People all week have been coming in and looking at it. They can't believe how beautiful it is. It really grabs your attention as soon as you walk in the church."

Primi is also pleased with how her vision was brought to life in the Worthington sanctuary, and she's ready to move on to her next project.

"She's going to San Francisco now for two months," said Marcia. "She's going to do another (sculpture) out there for a church."

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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