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Friendship inspires sawdust art

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Alfo-Conce — an ever-expanding group of artisans from Guatemala with a knack for creating beautiful religious iconography out of sawdust — began prep work for their Holy Week art during a meetup in Arlington March 30.

Layla, a husky, German Shepherd mix and Alfo-Conce’s de facto mascot, surveyed the various tools of the trade before she sprinted past the more than half dozen men gathered around buckets of wood shavings, plastic packets of dye, masonry trowels and plywood sheets arrayed with geometric-patterned cutouts. These instruments haphazardly marked the perimeter of an 8-by-8-foot stake of well-trampled lawn — or, as the men saw it, a clean slate for their art.

“Get out of the way, Layla,” shouted Jorge Cabrera, one of the founders of Alfo-Conce, as his friends took turns trying to lead her back into an adjacent single-family house sandwiched between a residential area and a mechanic shop on South Glebe Road in Arlington.

Inside this unassuming gathering place, paintings by Cabrera lined the hallway that links the living room with the kitchen where three women prepared lunch over two gas stoves. Plucking a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe from the wall, Cabrera smiled and described the process of using the sawdust and dye to make the alfombras, Spanish for carpets.

“I am a carpenter and home remodeler and my friends do similar work, so the process goes quickly for us,” Cabrera said. 

Plain wood shavings were placed in 1-gallon plastic buckets with water and dye kneaded in with a power drill fitted with a bit that looked like an oversized egg beater. The sawdust was then spread over the ground, tamped-down with even-faced trowels and the wood cutouts used for creating intricately inlaid borders. Other ingredients included sand and rice used for other ornamental shapes. 

The process lends itself to fellowship, said Carlos Fuentes, one of the members.

“I like Alfo-Conce because there is no discrimination — young, old, men, women — we are as good as family here,” Fuentes said.

The group’s task was to test out potential depictions from Jesus’ life that will grace, however ephemerally, the walkways outside the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington on Palm Sunday and St. Anthony of Padua Church in Falls Church on Good Friday. 

 In their hometowns of Concepción Chiquirichapa and nearby municipalities, the sawdust carpets are a tradition that serves to deepen the faith not only of those who see them, but also of those who create them. 

“I started to make the carpets with my friends when I lived in Guatemala. It helps me with my faith because the process is a form of penance. As humans, we all make mistakes,” said Gustavo Perez, one of the original founders of Alfo-Conce. 

For Kimberly Calderón, the secretary of the group, the alfombras preserve tradition.

“It reminds us of what we have left behind. But just because we have left Guatemala does not mean that we have forgotten where we are from,” Calderón said. “The alfombra keeps alive a tradition that represents here in Arlington what we do in our country every single year. It represents our nation, our faith and our culture.”

There was one friend not present, however: Henry Hernandez Lopez. It was his death in a car accident that inspired Cabrera and his friends to start the group in 2005.

“The fellowship of Alfo-Conce is a way for us to celebrate his life,” Cabrera said.

Alfo-Conce will begin creating a sawdust carpet Palm Sunday, April 14, outside the cathedral at 7:30 a.m. and finish by 1 p.m. Work on another sawdust carpet on Good Friday, April 19, at St. Anthony will start at 7:30 a.m. and be completed by 3 p.m.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019