EFEBuenos Aires

A group of sculptors spent more than a decade transforming a wildfire-ravaged patch of high-elevation ground at the northern edge of Argentina's Patagonia region into a unique open-air museum, a project they now safeguard as a treasure for current and future generations.

Marcelo Lopez, a sculptor, artisan and goldsmith, was the driving force behind the so-called "Sculpted Forest" project on Piltriquitron ("hung from the clouds" in the Araucana language), a mountain that towers over the nearby town of El Bolson in the southwestern province of Rio Negro.

More than two decades ago, while hiking on "El Piltri," he came upon the remains of a large forest fire that had occurred in 1980.

"There were a large number of fallen, charred trees. They were giant lenga trees ... A desire welled up in me to do something with that wood that was dead, burned, lying there," the artist told Efe.

Lopez, who at the time had been frequently meeting up with a group of fellow sculptors, decided to organize an event on that barren section of the mountain, saying his idea was to "take the artists there to work on all those trunks and for the works to remain there as a surprise for people hiking there."

Looking to achieve a trio of objectives - promote the exchange of creative experiences, enrich the region's artistic and cultural heritage and make use of forest resources devastated as a result of human negligence - the artist set to work on plans to finance the project.

In 1998, with the help of friends and colleagues in the area, he managed to raise enough funds for an inaugural national gathering of sculptors on Piltriquitron mountain.

The first 13 sculptures were carved during that initial eight-day gathering.

And despite the "Pharaonic effort" involved in raising funds, transporting the artists, equipment, food and tents by horseback along a steep, gravel road, he said the first gathering left the participants with a strong desire to keep going and arrange future meet-ups.

Scattered throughout that section of forest and hidden amid weeds and underbrush, elves, harlequins, pumas, boars, plumed serpents, human figures and "works of all types" gradually began occupying the space and restoring some of the vitality that had been lost in the wildfire.

During the course of five gatherings held over a span of more than a decade, groups of between eight and 12 sculptors from throughout Argentina and abroad carried out the 60 works that make up the "Sculpted Forest," a place declared part of the cultural and touristic heritage of Rio Negro province and an area of national, provincial and municipal interest.

For 18 years, a civil association formed by Lopez and the other members of his group have taken it upon themselves to maintain and protect that open-air museum located 1,800 meters (5,900 feet) above sea level, a space they have dubbed the world's highest sculpture trail.

"It's a cultural heritage that has remained for posterity and for the town of El Bolson ... It took a lot of work, but we did it with pleasure, with joy. It was beautiful," Lopez said. EFE

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