'I pushed through it': Golden Gate sculptor carves new life from tragedy

Andrew Atkins
Marco Eagle

Gilbert Sanchez wouldn’t be creating art in his backyard if it wasn’t for the accident that nearly killed him.

Sanchez, a 47-year-old living in Golden Gate, was the superintendent of a construction site in Tampa in 2016 when he was walking on the roof for an inspection. He doesn’t remember much about the day; most of his knowledge of what happened came from what others told him. One moment, he was walking on the roof. The next, he had plunged down four stories. He spent months in the hospital.

Gilbert Sanchez works on a sculpture titled "Goddess" at his home in Golden Gate on Thursday, March 12, 2020. Sanchez sustained a head injury during his accident in 2016, and he sometimes struggles with short-term memory. As a result, his process is less focused on planning and is more informed by what seems right for his art piece in the moment. "I just follow the flow," Sanchez said.

But, if you ask him, he keeps it frank.

“I pushed through it,” Sanchez said.

“It” doesn’t quite encapsulate the extent of his injuries and subsequent complications: respiratory failure, liver lacerations, pelvic fractures, skull fracture and severe sepsis, to name a few.

An immigrant from El Salvador, Sanchez was working in construction for years before his incident. But after his injuries, the possibility of returning to work in construction collapsed. As it is, he deals with chronic pain, loss of muscle control in his abdomen and numbness on his right side.

Various sculptures by Gilbert Sanchez decorate the backyard at his home in Golden Gate on Thursday, March 12, 2020.

It’s lucky, then, that he stumbled on the wealth of his sculpting abilities.

Sanchez realized when he was restoring a sculpture of a cat that he could probably create something similar from scratch. So he did. He creates sculptures in his back-yard for about eight hours a day at least five days a week. He’s self-taught, too.  

“I had no idea I could do this,” Sanchez said.

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His medium isn’t traditional by any means: Sanchez starts his pieces with a Styrofoam base to build the basic shape of the sculpture. He covers it with aluminum foil to prevent shrinking from the heat of the other mediums, chicken wire for strength, and then works with Bondo putty and Pal Tiya. Bondo is an automotive body filler and Pal Tiya is a weatherproof sculpting medium. He shapes his sculptures as if he was carving wood.

Sanchez’s backyard is the closest one might get to an artist’s paradise. Under a pop-up canopy he’s anchored with cinderblocks, rolling cart after rolling cart overflow with the tools of his trade. His sun conure, Tweetie, chitters away on his lanai while he works, wind blowing through the lush fruit trees and vegetation in his yard. His two dogs whine for attention from inside the house.

On a Thursday morning like this, he’s working on his latest sculpture, “Goddess.” He said he had reworked the hair a number of times and redid the arms when somebody pointed out they were too short. Sanchez said it’s because he often uses himself as a reference and made the mistake of basing the sculpture’s proportions off his own.

“Goddess” is a study in detail; dips in her skin are taut against the muscles of her back, care poured into even the pads of her fingers and the curve of her toenails, near indistinguishable from reality if not for the all-white color of the piece.  

“If she wasn’t happy with the way it looks, she would complain,” he said. “Once I stop working, I’m still working.”

He doesn’t work from sketches and sometimes struggles to remember what he was doing after he mixes the medium. Sanchez gets frustrated, now and then, when his memory fails him and the medium hardens before he can apply it. Somehow, Sanchez said, he always manages to make the sculpture look just like what he thought of in his head.

One of his sculptures, “Such is Life,” is emblematic of the honest, matter-of-fact view of his world. From the side, the sculpture appears to be a large, radiant fish, curved atop a base. Look into its mouth, though, and you’ll see a frog, swallowed whole, peering out. In a way, the sculpture is a metaphor for Sanchez’s life.

“It can be beautiful when you look at it, and sometimes terrifying,” he said.

Since he began sculpting in 2018, Sanchez has only sold a handful of sculptures. He sold one of them, of a turtle walking a snail titled “Going For a Walk,” to Kristine Gill. Gill discovered Sanchez’s work when she was browsing Facebook marketplace.

“I was like, ‘Oh, wait, I kind of have to have that.’” Gill said.

Gill shared the post advertising the sculpture, which cost $500, on her Facebook page. She posted her Venmo, initially as a joke, and asked for donations so she could buy the sculpture. To her surprise, people donated, and she was eventually able to raise enough money to purchase the piece by pitching in $44 of her own money. (Sanchez, unrelated, had lowered the price of the sculpture by $100.)

Gill was impressed by Sanchez’s professionalism, as he drove the piece to her home in South Naples to deliver it.

“He was really sweet and super smiley,” she said. “When I tell people now about this sculpture, and they ask me or they’ve seen It … I don’t just tell them about the sculpture. I tell them about Gil, too.”

Patty Shaffer met Sanchez when she worked at the Naples Art Association. She took immediate notice of the detail in his work.

“I was awestruck,” Shaffer said.

She later grew to know him as tenacious, dedicated, honest and considerate.

“I can’t say enough about him,” Shaffer said. “I just love him to death.”

She also noted that Sanchez isn’t interested in fame or attention.

“He just wants to have people look at things and change their lives… And make people happy,” she said.

Beyond the joy Sanchez finds in creating art, it helps him manage his pain. When he’s working, he’s able to put his chronic ailments to the back of his mind and focus on his sculptures. 

“This is as good as it’s going to get,” Sanchez said. “I’m okay. I’m alive.”

If you didn’t look too closely, you might think his sculptures are, too.

Andrew Atkins is a Naples Daily News features reporter. Contact him via email at andrew.atkins@naplesnews.com or on Twitter at @andrewjatkins. To support work like Andrew's, please consider subscribing: https://cm.naplesnews.com/specialoffer/