On a large public terrace in Santa Eulalia beneath soaring palm trees a little old man sits in the doorway of a ship's chandlers bent over intently studying the piece of wood he is holding. He turns it gingerly in his hands then starts whittling away at it again with a small knife. The piece of wood is a 'gaiato', which is Ibicenco for what we would at first glance call a walking stick. A 'gaiato' is that and a great deal more. It is made from Sabina wood, which is renowned for being extremely tough and incredibly knotty. The numerous protruding knots were each sharpened, making it into a painfully effective weapon, although in reality it was far more likely to be used on those long daily hikes for keeping the flock of goats on the move to fresh pastures, while checking the olive trees for windfalls. A fundamental and essential piece of equipment for an Ibicenco farmer in days gone by.
The old man's name is Vicent Juan Albanell, but locally he is known as Vicent d'es Cas Ferrer Vell de Santa Eulalia. He was born in 1918, 'The year of the Grippe' or Spanish flu which killed millions globally. Lucky to survive he was in fact born in Cala San Vicente, so the locals there know him as Vicent de Can Toni Maians de Sa Cala.
Although 88 next June, he can still occasionally be found on that terrace with his cigarette of 'pota ibicenca' carrying on what is nowadays a dying art. He confides that there was another 'gaiato' artist in San Antonio called Hormigo, but he became an internationally renowned sculptor and doesn't make 'gaiatos' any more.
So that leaves just Vicent, self taught and still practicing his hobby. He considers himself late to the art, although he has been carving for almost fifty years and has made something approaching 2,000 'gaiatos', many of which have found their way to the four corners of the world. Many of his works down the years were made to order, with the client's individual wishes carved into their individual stick.
It all began when Vicent saw an ornately carved example at the age of 40, and borrowed it. The original sticks were no longer required as weapons as the munitions industry had been created and warfare had moved on, so the previously sharpened knots were re-modelled into faces of people and animals.
Vicent himself has a large collection of small scraps of paper, which he refers to as his 'archive'. There are minute sketches on these scraps of paper to which he refers when he finds a piece of wood, or an individual knot in a piece of wood, that begs for a particular design. Two knots very close together inspired a beautiful buxom mermaid, which inspires amusement in the viewer. Other carvings include a map of the island, animals, flowers and insects of the Pitiusas. The fish and the boats that they used to pursue them are also portrayed, even the twin cherries of Pacha fame find a place on one of his 'gaiatos'. As many as thirty different carvings can be found on a single stick - a chronicle of life over the past century and the various parts of that tapestry. Not surprising then that it can take as long as a month to complete such a work of art.
Vicent works mainly with Sabina. His darker sticks are made from the heart of the Sabina, although he also has a beautiful olive piece with the head of a podenco hound engraved as a handle and 'Man's best friend' (in Ibicenco) carved into the neck.
The Sabina is cut in April, May or June while the sap is still rising and the bark can be easily peeled off "much like skinning a rabbit" he jokes. It then has to be dried in the shade for two months otherwise it would split and be useless. Thereafter it is ready for the artist to get to work. Many 'gaiatos' feature a spiral created by wrapping one young branch around the stick. This serves two purposes. Most obviously it creates a handle at the top of the stick, but it also strengthens it, giving it a little more natural spring and support.
Vicent also turns his hand to more intricate bracelet decorations made from the wood of oleander, which grows abundantly around the terrace where he works. He has also built miniature 'Paylebots', which are typical Ibicencan fishing boats made only on the islands. The few remaining full size examples are rarely seen as the very few left are very much the boat equivalent of cherished 'classic cars'. They differ from the more common 'llaut' in that a llaut has a prow at either end and only one mast. The Paylebots have two masts and therefore more sail options. In much the same way that the Paylebot is a piece of history and few of these beauties still exist, the same will soon be said of the 'gaiato', so savour this artistic transformation of a former weapon into a beautiful work of art while you still can.