At the southern tip of Brazil, the capital city of Florianópolis encompasses 54-kilometer-long Santa Catarina Island, famous for its long beaches and saltwater lagoon. Artist Marcelo Baptista calls the island home, spending most days on the sun-soaked coast. Twenty years ago, he was walking along the beach and noticed something moving in the waves. “I couldn’t make out what it was, but it looked alive, maybe exhausted or dying,” he says. “I got close slowly, very carefully—it could jump to attack me instinctively to defend itself!—to suddenly realize that it was only a piece of wood, a branch of a tree.” He was fascinated by the illusion, and was struck by the idea to create animals from the driftwood, which he presented at a new art center that was about to open. The response was incredible: he sold two birds to a German collector, and it launched a lifelong love of crafting expressive creatures from the natural materials washed up on shore.
Baptista has been compelled to make art since childhood, often working in clay and paint before pursuing formal studies at at the National School of Fine Arts in Uruguay. He had never considered driftwood as a medium, but he thought, but “on this occasion, I was directly inspired by the sea. It was a ‘gift of Goddess Yemanjá,’ say the locals,” he says, and he thought, “Okay, why not?” For more than two decades he has focused on sculpting a series of birds called Pássaros do Sul—Portuguese for “Southern Birds”—each imbued with what the artist describes as the “soul” that comes from the organic, unique shape of the wood. Typically between 30 and 100 centimeters tall, stick legs connect to a simple base, and he often applies paint to emphasize faces, feathers, and patterns. Drawing on the close relationship between birds and trees, he emphasizes the interconnectedness of our delicate ecosystem and “the symbolic meaning of freedom, lightness, spirituality, hope, art, and life itself.”
Baptista’s work will be included in the 9ª Feira Internacional de Artesanato e Decoração (9th International Handicraft and Decoration Fair) in Florianópolis from May 20 to 28, 2023. You can explore more work on his website and Instagram.