"Because it's hot here", says Juan Bustillos succinctly when I ask him why he left his native Yungas to live in Santa Cruz. "And what's the meaning behind these sculptures?" I ask, pointing to a group of bronze molded bikinis, his latest gallery exhibit. "It's summer" he answers. "And the bugs? Why do these molded bikinis have bronze bugs on them?" "Bugs come out in the summer" he replies.
Everything about Juan Bustillos is simple, direct and uncluttered with one exception - his workshop. Our first stop is his large back yard strewn with huge sculptures, pieces of lumber and scrap metal. The enormous yard is an obvious extension of his workshop which is also located here. Juan Bustillos uses wood and metal, both natural elements. There is nothing synthetic, artificial, or unnatural about his art.
As we enter the workshop I'm in awe. Here are pieces, like a life-sized wood and metal bull, that I've seen exhibited in city parks and plazas years ago. To my right are three large brick kilns used to heat and liquify scrap metal. On the floor are large half-barrels filled with water, one in which I spot a plastic mold shaped like a woman's torso. High up on the wall is a single large window over which an owl made of steel bars has been placed. "Ah, the original white owl" I think to myself. Juan Bustillos's art gallery is called the Buho Blanco. A huge white owl head greets you at the gate upon entering, but the owl in the window has obviously been here much longer.
In the center of the workshop is a 12-foot sculpture of Don Quixote riding only the back legs and tail portion of a horse, made of hundreds of pieces of scrap metal. Bustillos often leaves gaps in his works of art. "Wow", I said to Juan as I stop to admire the horse's tail, "It's amazing how something made of hundreds of tiny hard metal pieces can just flow like that"! He smiles, pleased that I've noticed. I'm feeling not a little honored to be allowed a visit to his workshop. I'm happy to see works in progress, not just finished works on display somewhere in a gallery. "Oh look! It's the wrench I lost in April" I joke, pointing to the horse's rear end made of broken steel bars, bronze locks, pieces of tools, and other metal scraps. He laughs, and this seemingly shy man opens up as he begins to explain the processes he uses to heat and mold the metal.
Finishing our tour of the workshop, Juan invites me into his gallery which occupies the entire first floor of his white adobe 3-story house. Natural elements are in everything he makes from the bamboo stalks on the walls, to the stone pebbles on the floor. To my left an open round tower extends up to the roof with a circular stairway, made of twisted wood pieces and I'm able to see up to the third floor. Here are the bikini sculptures I asked him about, along with wooden pieces, Guaraní masks and other works.
I especially admire a huge 6-foot mask on the wall and Juan begins to chuckle as he anticipates my surprise - it is now a door! Swinging it open he invites me into the entrance hall of his house. At the foot of the steps is a basket filled with slippers and shoes carefully lined up on the floor. I'm reminded of Japanese homes when he asks me to take off my shoes - in this house, EVERYTHING is a piece of art, even the wooden stairs, railings, posts, furniture, cabinet doors, and window bars (shaped like enormous spider webs).
When we enter the living room I'm immediately drawn to a thick wooden post carved with Japanese kanji. Bustillos tells me it's a poem written by his mother-in-law. And when his wife Yosuko enters the room, everything begins to make sense. The wide open spaces, the minimal amount of furniture and clutter, the simple lines...Yosuko and Juan were made for each other. Intricately simple (what an oxymoron) is how I would describe this home. Everything in it was fashioned by Juan and Yosuko, although they also collect and incorporate art by other artists.
Yosuko came to Bolivia from Japan as a "backpacker" years ago to study Andean loom weaving, natural colors, and fabric design. She met Juan and stayed. Juan has been living in Santa Cruz for the past 28 years (because it's hot here). Together, they've turned every room in their home into a gallery and they tell me it's not uncommon for visitors to tour the entire house. There are bronze statues, carved masks, steel rod window treatments, beautiful twisted wooden furniture and simple, simple lines everywhere.
Juan Bustillos never stops creating. Unsatisfied with the lack of venues to exhibit his works of art, he opened the Buho Blanco Art Gallery in his home, and a few years ago also established a second Buho Blanco gallery in
Do NOT miss a visit to this amazing semi-underground gallery when you visit the
In Santa Cruz, Juan has also taken on another large project. In 2005, along with two other artists, he founded the now well-known Manzana Uno Art Gallery half a block from the central plaza, petitioning the municipal government to help convert an abandoned hundred-year old building that was once the city jail, into a beautiful venue for artists to express themselves.
If you visit Santa Cruz don't miss the opportunity to see these galleries for yourself. You will be left in awe and quite possibly inspired (as I was) to de-clutter your days, bring natural elements back into your life, and express yourself creatively and with abandon.
To visit the Buho Blanco (getting there is a little complicated), call the TROPICAMBA taxi service (phone 353-3333 locally). Their cabs all know where Juan's house is. Phone or use the secure email form below to contact Juan Bustillos before you go for a personal tour by the artist.
Juan Bustillos BUHO BLANCO
Calle 9 Final
Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia
The second Buho Blanco in San Javier is just 3 blocks from the central plaza there, and Manzana Uno is just 1 minute walk from Plaza 24 de Septiembre in Santa Cruz.