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Inside the Collection: Manuel Guerra

In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, we wanted to highlight the work of Manuel Guerra (d. 1997), an Ecuadorian locksmith. Known for crafting chest locks, door locks, padlocks, hardware, and decorative ironwork in the Spanish medieval style, Guerra is little known in the United States, but a few good friends helped preserve his legacy. He passed on his craft to both his children and other apprentices, and his shop remains operational to this day.

Guerra lived and worked in Cuenca, Ecuador’s third largest city. Cuenca was established in 1557 and has a population of about 330,000 people. Unsurprisingly, Guerra’s blacksmith shop is located in the Barrio del las Herrerías, or the “blacksmiths neighborhood.” Blacksmiths, welders, and other metalworkers have had shops in Las Herrerías for generations. The neighborhood even features its very own “metal museum,” more specifically the Museo de las Artes del Fuego, or the “Museum of the Fire Arts,” which exhibits metalwork, ceramics, and other traditional crafts of the region.

In 1991, when American blacksmith Helmut Hillenkamp was visiting Cuenca teaching classes on propane gas forges, he “discovered” Guerra’s shop and became fascinated by the traditional blacksmithing techniques used by the Ecuadorian craftsman and his apprentices. According to Hillenkamp, “I fell in love with [Guerra’s] work and actually asked myself what I was doing, teaching forge work in a place that had its own longstanding tradition. But such is the irony of life, and while I continued giving my evening classes, Manuel allowed me to come in during the days and work with him” (1). Watch the video below, shot in 1994, to see Guerra and his apprentices working in his shop. After watching this video, Robert Fox, the editor of the Blacksmith Organization of Arkansas’s newsletter Voice, wrote, “He had a side-draft forge made from adobe brick, but did much of the lock work cold, chiseling, filing, sawing, and drilling. The shop is littered with modern industrial scrap metal, clearly a working business” (2).

Guerra and Hillenkamp forged a deep friendship, and the American blacksmith continued to visit Cuenca even after Guerra’s untimely death in 1997. In 1994, the California Blacksmith Association gave Hillenkamp a grant to document Guerra’s work and the blacksmithing traditions in Cuenca. Below is a slideshow of Guerra, his shop, and him demonstrating how to make one of his Spanish-style padlocks. If you look closely at the 2:20 mark, in an image of several locks the shop produced, you can see the lock the Metal Museum has in our collection in the lower left corner.

Guerra donated this “Spanish Colonial Padlock” to the Metal Museum’s Permanent Collection in 1994, although we are unsure how the lock came to the Museum. It was made from steel, likely between 1985 and 1994. The lock was featured in the September 1994 issue of Hephaistos and came to the Museum in November of that same year. To see more of Guerra’s work, watch the slideshow below. The color photographs in this slideshow were taken in 1997 by Hillenkamp and feature some of the last pieces Guerra made.

After his death, Guerra’s daughter Lourdes continued to run his shop with his apprentices. Today, the shop is called Guerra arte en forja and is run by Humberto Guerra. To see how Humberto has carried on his family’s blacksmithing traditions, watch the short video below!

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Dawid Brook
Dawid Brook
Feb 01, 2023

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