Unsung Heroes – The Artwork of Antony Vassulo
A post from Gozo, the smaller cousin of Malta.
Just after Christmas Day of 2011, I spent ten days on the charming island of Gozo, until early in the new year. Malta and Gozo are very different places, materially and culturally. The Maltese are very proud of their heritage and customs, as are the Gozitans, but other than the shared language they have little in common. Malta has hustle and bustle, and is a more crowded place where people like to work hard, party late and drive boy-racer cars. But the laidback Gozitans pride themselves on taking the time to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. Like their wild island rabbit – it’s slow-cooked with onions and spices, and complimented by a glass of Isoletta, the local red. Their cuisine is very similar to their life philosophy – things worth doing, are worth doing properly, so don’t rush them.
There are three main islands in the archipelago of the Maltese Republic; Malta, Gozo, and Comino (their even smaller cousin). Over the centuries they have been attacked, conquered and ruled by many of the emergent Mediterranean powers, because of their strategic location and tiny stature. It’s only in the last two or three generations that the local populations have been able to relocate from the central old-towns to the cooler coastal areas. Before that, the danger of opportunist marauders arriving by sea was high, so most people retreated to the safety of a fortified Rabat after a day working the land.
Being on Gozo over the Christmas period was very, very quiet. The only company in my large labyrinth hostel were two Polish scuba divers and the priest running the place. I had plenty of time to stroll around the port, cycle out along the cliffs, and drink coffee in Rabat. It was there I noticed the subject of my post, not far from the central bus stop. A little out of place against the tired building façade, two metal signs on either side of a doorway state simply ‘Exhibition – Crib Made From Wax’. I’d probably passed it a few times before noticing it, but it caught my interest when I had.
The mention of a crib was not what made me look twice. Signs for various nativity scenes and Christmas displays were everywhere in Malta and Gozo, and continued in Sicily when I got there later. It was the fact that this one had been made from wax. I was just in the middle of writing a (tongue-in-cheek) post on ShockAndOrr about people stealing my ideas, and this is another example that almost went on the list. I’d wanted to experiment with coloured wax as a sort of painting medium (when melted) for a few months, and then I discovered…
The Waxwork of Antony Vassulo
Antony Vassulo, a sixty-something born and bred Gozitan, is the first person in a series of ‘Unsung Heroes‘. It’s just a simple feature, about the incredible people you can meet as a traveller. I call them Unsung Heroes because they aren’t celebrities or bigshots or well-rewarded for what they do. But they are people endeavouring to do something unique or individual, entirely for the love of it, to the benefit of us who encounter them.
The photo’s of Antony’s work do most of the talking, but I was so taken by the scale of his hobby that I visited his nativity scene twice, returning the second time to find out more about him, with a tripod for better photos.
He worked for the electricity board of Malta for 25 years before he retired, installing and fixing domestic meters, and has rarely ventured from Gozo. He visited Italy by boat once, but that’s all. His son lives in the US, but Antony hasn’t ventured that far – his son sometimes comes back though. Trying to explain about my website, he was at ease with me spending some time snapping at his creations, but he doesn’t have email so I can’t send him the write up. A local magazine clipping stuck to the door also raves about this waxy hidden gem, with a shot of the old dear himself inset.
He has a record of his work on a photoboard too – with the nativity scene preserved on film in various stages. Now that he is retired, he spends up to 3 months a year adding to his wax work, and has done for the last decade. He opens up his street-side cubby around October, and closes it again at the end of January. The detail of the individual items is not fine art but they are impressive viewed as a whole, like well placed daubs on an oil painting combining into something more.
We chatted intermittently as I re-position my tripod and debated using the flash (urgh). Antony flicked a switch, turning on a few lights and starting a hidden water pump that slowly brought a stream to life. I quite fancy making a model myself some day, when I’m done living out of a backpack and snapping the world. Maybe not from wax though. His delicately placed lights help the shepherds keep warm at night as they look after their sizeable flocks. I didn’t think to ask how many sheep there are – it’s lots, and they’re in every conceivable situation, from sleeping and eating to navigating crags.
Even angels are present, watching the froth.
I took a couple of shots of Antony before I left, and put a few euro’s in his collection tin as a thank you. Our broken-english conversation meant missing a few tricks – I can’t tell you why in any depth that he has made his wax exhibition. Presumably he is religious, like most of Malta and Gozo, and has chosen to express it creatively. Whatever his reasons – its an impressive work. But I’d love to know the answer if you’re passing that way!
As I left, he gave me a couple of wax sheep from a herd he keeps separately for children and other big kids. Five months and many escapades later, they made it safely back to the UK in my rucksack, and this Christmas they’ll be sitting proudly in a British nativity scene.
You can visit Antony’s place just off the square of St George (San Gorg) on Gozo Island – if you’re looking at the central fountain with St Georges church in the background, he should be just a few feet behind you, on the street towards the Citadel.
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