Puerto Rican Migrant Becomes Prominent Local Art Collector

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Hector Puig has always had a knack for art. Yet Puig would have never imagined he would be one of Gainesville’s most well-known art collectors.

Puig grew up in Utuado, Puerto Rico. When he was 13, he and his family left the islands for Gainesville. After graduating from Gainesville High School, Puig was offered a full scholarship to Santa Fe College to study art in 1985. Then Puig got an itch for collecting art.

He started collecting pieces in 1986, focusing on regional artists who were nationally and internationally known. One day, a friend of Puig’s showed him his collection of New Mexican santos, or carved religious figures — he was intrigued.

Puig said santos, which means “saints” in Spanish, began as copies of 17th century sculptures made by priests. People in small villages used them to pray at home when they didn’t have access to a priest or couldn’t go to church.

As Europeans crossed the waters to Latin America, the santos were used by settlers in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti to teach natives about Christianity.

Puig said he was initially attracted to the aesthetics of the sculptures, which inspired him to look for Puerto Rican santos during a visit back home in 1993.

“When I moved here in ’81, I really had no concept of the tradition of santos in my own country in Puerto Rico,” Puig said.

Puig found a new meaning for the art in 1997 when he returned to Puerto Rico for his father’s funeral. During this time, Puig decided to meet the men behind the art — the santeros. During this time, he felt a spiritual connection with them and grew more interested in the history of the practice.

Puig wondered what was really behind these wooden sculptures and what kept the santeros carving this folk art after over 500 years. Puig said he went to several galleries and saw the figures.

“I was really compelled by them, and they took on a whole different meaning for me,” he said.

Year by year and piece by piece, Puig’s collection grew to include thousands of santos, which he keeps in his own home.

He said guests are usually overwhelmed when they walk in. Pictures and figurines mask the interior walls, some carvings in glass cases and dozens of others cover a large dining room table.

Puig laughed at suggestions that he might be a hoarder and said there is still room to eat on the dining room table. He said his daughters and his girlfriend have had to get used to living with so many saints.

People have asked Puig why he doesn’t sell part of his collection or when he is going to stop collecting. For him, neither is an option.

“You know, if I was to do that, I would feel lost,” he said. “I would feel like someone literally cut me in half or I wouldn’t be me anymore. It really defines who I am as a human being. It also defines who I am as a father. It defines so many aspects of who I am that it is impossible to put a value on it.”

Some of Puig’s massive collection is currently  being featured at University of Florida galleries. More than 400 of Puig’s pieces are being displayed in “Come Home: Selections from the Collection of Hector Puig” at the University Gallery. The exhibit will be on display until Nov. 7.

Hector Puig’s exhibit featured more than 400 art pieces.

(Left to Right) Eric Saunders, Hector Puig and Olga Vygovskaya pose outside of the University Gallery.

Pieces from Puig’s extensive art collection are currently displayed at the University Gallery.

“Come Home: Selections from the Collection of Hector Puig” will be on display at the UF University Gallery until Nov. 7.

Puig grew up in Utuado, Puerto Rico, where people in small villages used them to pray at home when they didn’t have access to a priest or couldn’t go to church.

Puig has been asked whether he may ever sell his pieces or stop collecting. “You know, if I was to do that, I would feel lost,” he said.

About Renee Beninate

Renee is a reporter for WUFT News who may be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news @wuft.org

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