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Gardener rooted in his art

SACRAMENTO -- With no previous academic training, Juan José Cárdenas considers himself a creative artist who can create a structure with tree branches to writing a book about purgatory.

Since childhood in his native Jalisco, Cárdenas started showing signs of his talent as an artist, but due to his family's bad financial situation, he was only able to finish 6th grade. Yet that was not a road block for his talent.

Cárdenas, 53, has lived more than three decades in California and is one of the workers in charge of the Capitol's garden area, a job he has performed for the last 30 years, and has allowed him to show off his talent to many people with structures made from tree branches, roots and other items.

"By being in constant contact with nature one day I felt inspired and said to myself, 'why discard all those trimmings when I can create art so people can enjoy.' That is how I started making small structures, all of them have a special meaning to me," said Cárdenas, who is married, and the father of three.

Cárdenas tries to convey a message, his purpose is to get a reaction or inspire a feeling in people. The topics of his art can go from domestic violence, to religion and machismo, among others.

"I try to have a story behind every sculpture I make. About a topic that people can talk about and have a collective interest. This is the reason why people are so astounded when they see my sculptures and they tell me I am an artist; they have said it so many times that I can almost believe it," Cárdenas said laughing.

His most important work is being shown in one of the rooms at City Hall in downtown Sacramento, it is a depiction of purgatory and it's something that really gets attention due to its good artistic production.

This structure clearly shows how people are waiting their turn in purgatory to go to heaven or hell -- for instance a man who used to beat his wife, a politician, a machista, and even a duck carrying flowers to God.

"All of these things are a product of my imagination and I only use materials from nature, like tree branches or roots and other things. The duck, for example, I found its structure some time ago near a lake; I picked it up, I added some branches and it was ready. This is the way I express my art," he said.

In another structure you can see God and the Devil together waiting the arrival of the souls that are waiting in purgatory, while at the same time you can make up the image of a Virgin (female saint) under a tree holding a cup in her hand.

Cárdenas explained that his designs also express signs of protest against a society that many times don't see humans as people, but simply judges them in a way that is equal to placing them directly in purgatory.

Another skill that Cárdenas practices is the creation of animal shapes in trees and plants in the same way he saw them while visiting different towns in his native Jalisco when he was growing up.

"I was always amazed by the way parks were decorated with animal shapes in many small towns in México. It's fascinating to see how a small bush or plant can be shaped any way you want," Cárdenas said.

Cárdenas has been doing this work in some of the gardens he has worked, leaving a very good impression with all people that see his work. His most recent work can be found in one of the offices where he is employed. People can appreciate butterflies, cats, dogs, flowers, and some human shapes.

"This is a kind of art I learned through practice, observing since childhood the designs of gardeners in my hometown. It's really not that complicated, it's a matter of creativity," he said.

But one of the projects that he is most passionate about and interested in, is the publication of a book in which he plans to write his ideas, in prose style, about different topics like making fun of religion, society, and human fears regarding their beliefs in general.

Send e-mail to: mmartinez@vidaenelvalle.com

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