Etsuro Sotoo cuts a distinguished figure on the Barcelona culture scene. As the Sagrada Familia’s only official sculptor, he exudes old-world style in his felt fedora, flowing scarf and manicured goatee.

Yet his life’s work of turning Antoni Gaudi’s art nouveau cathedral visions into stone has more humble origins — in a plate of sardines and a pile of rocks.

It has been a nearly 40-year adventure that began after the end of the Franco dictatorship and whose final act is not in sight. Along the way, the 64-year-old sculptor from Fukuoka has carved some of the most celebrated artworks of the cathedral, including the sculptures of the Nativity Facade, granted UNESCO World Heritage status.

The cathedral is expected to be completed in 2026 — Gaudi’s centenary — but there is no time frame for finishing the statuary.

“I plan to keep working as long as the Sagrada Familia needs me,” Sotoo says.

In 1978, Sotoo was a young man seeking a purpose in life. He had graduated from art school in Kyoto, and was working as an art teacher. He yearned for something more. But all he knew was that he wanted to work with stone. He quit his job and jumped to Europe — with little money, no prospects and only the vague notion that Europe was where he’d find his answers.

Sotoo tried Paris first. But Paris was no place for a man whose dream was to break stones: “The whole city is so solidly built — as if you can’t touch anything,” he says. “You can’t take a hammer and chisel to that — it’s perfect!”

Sotoo next planned to see if Germany held the answers he sought. But first he decided upon a detour to Spain for a bit of Mediterranean sunshine — to cheer himself up from the Paris blues. He arrived at Barcelona’s Sants Railway Station at 10 p.m., exhausted, dusty and starving. A random stroll led him to a street lined with bars that sent out tantalizing fumes — he stumbled into one.

Even before Gaudi, the taste of sardines, tomatoes and wine was Sotoo’s first Barcelona revelation. Half-joking he says that had he turned right from the station toward a deserted park — instead of left into a bustling neighborhood lined with bars — he might not be where he is today. The simple food and warm atmosphere made Sotoo feel at home.

“Whatever your work,” he says, “to perform well, you should have some good things to eat and warm, close friendships.”

A few days later, Sotoo was walking near the area where he had that late-night meal, and chanced upon a building site where there was a mountain of stones.

In 1978, the Sagrada Familia was nowhere near the state of completion it is in today, nor did it enjoy the global fame that attracts millions of visitors a year. Sotoo’s first impression of the cathedral that was to become his life’s work was not glorious spires, but a huge pile of “dirty, badly cut stones.”

However, it was the answer he was looking for.

Sotoo was filled with a powerful sense of something new being born — and that Gaudi had been pursuing what he had been seeking all along, on a much grander scale.

“I felt these stones had been waiting for me,” he says.

From there, however, life was far from an easy one of wine and tapas. Sotoo joined the building site as a stone-cutter thanks to the introduction of a Barcelona sculptor. The breakthrough was only the beginning of his hardships.

His fellow Spanish stone-cutters treated him with a mixture of suspicion and outright hostility. They disliked the fact that he worked hard and kept him apart by calling him “Japones, Japones.”

Mornings began with an ordeal: “At 7 a.m., all of the craftsmen would get together and drink. They’re rough guys and it’s a macho world — and I had to drink to fit in. It’s hard stuff and not just one or two shots, but a lot. If you say you won’t drink, you’ll be ostracized.”

Sotoo won true acceptance not by downing shots but making himself indispensable. After impressing cathedral architects with his first sculpture, he was entrusted with the restoration of the Sagrada Familia’s Rosary Portal. The quality of work launched his career. Today he sees his hardships as a blessing, and urges young Japanese to embrace such challenges as well.

“This is possibly a somewhat dangerous invitation, but I’d like to tell young people to dive into a new environment,” he says. “A great endeavor is not staying in the same old place in a spirit of gaman and putting up with things. It means plunging into raging rapids and flailing about. Soon you start swimming.”

Even today, Sotoo says he encounters daily culture shocks. When speaking in a foreign language, for example, an innocent comment can come across as a criticism. And misunderstandings constantly dogged his early years as a Sagrada Familia sculptor.

“I was under pressure to finish a job, and co-workers would come chatting,” Sotoo recalls. “I’d engage in the banter, but after a while it got on my nerves, so I said, ‘Let me work!'”

That made them talk even more. In the end he became angry — and threw his hammer to make them go away. The men would leave Sotoo alone, without understanding why he was angry. And Sotoo could not grasp why they kept pestering him.

“Then it dawned on me,” he says, “it was kindness. The kindness of people who saw somebody working too hard, and wanting to let him take it easy.”

The experience got him thinking about the nature of happiness.

“In Japan, people work too hard,” Sotoo says. “And I think that’s a good thing. But if you ask me, is that true happiness? I don’t think so.

“In Spain, one perhaps tends more to think — people weren’t born to work, but to enjoy life. But if you ask me, is that true happiness? I’d say no.

“So we should all be able to take some of the good things of the other culture — yet also be able to say, vive la difference!”

Has Sotoo been able to strike the right balance?

“I can’t say if I have found that,” he says. “But I can say this — every day I am very happy.”

Name: Etsuro Sotoo
Profession: Sculptor
Hometown: Fukuoka, Fukuoka Prefecture
Age: 64
Key moments in career:

1978 — Leaves Japan for Europe
2000 — Completes Sculptures of Nativity Facade
2013 — Appointed Sagrada Familia official sculptor

Memorable Quote: “The longer you live in a foreign land, the more you feel like a foreigner, not the other way around. But if you turn that into your strength, you can be of some use to people.”

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