Religious art in New Mexico may snatch your wallet!
My first trip to Albuquerque and Santa Fe in early May of this year was a new adventure. I am fascinated by the desert, and I’d never visited an area known as “the high desert.” Me being me, I dined out a lot, drank some good wines and played tourist in churches and museums.
I enjoyed the old stuff in both cities, and the xeriscaped yards and public areas I found quite beautiful. But it was the art that caught my attention.
The Arts of New Mexico
A trip to Albuquerque, Santa Fe or Taos, New Mexico will undoubtedly capture your imagination as you ferret out and experience the area’s folk arts and religious traditions. Galleries and studios abound for tourists and art connoisseurs alike.
Many of us travel to New Mexico for turquoise jewelry or Indian pottery. Art collectors may be following rumors of a new artist’s stunning canvases that experts say should be snapped up now while still affordable. Objets d’art, like pieces of colorful hand-blown glass or metal sculptures, are also among New Mexico’s collectable arts.
One religious-art tradition that intrigued me was the wooden sculptures of saints displayed in the area’s centuries-old Catholic churches. These sculptures and other works are called Santos, Bultos, or Retablos, and there are several present-day artists who have devoted their careers to creating modern versions of these artifacts.
The definitions of each of these terms vary depending on the county, even Caribbean island, where they appear:
- Retablo: a devotional painting on a flat piece of wood (two dimensional)
- Bulto: a devotional carving generally done on wood (three dimensional)
- Santo: Can be any devotional image either two dimensional or three dimensional
For this story, I mostly use the plural term Santos.
Hors d’Oeuvres With an Artist
I was fortunate to meet one of these artists and to spend nearly two hours chatting with him.
Getting out of town, up off the High Road to Taos from Santa Fe, on the edge of New Mexico’s high desert where the winds may throw dust (or snow, in season) in your face, sits the sun-struck studio of master, devotional artist Gustavo Victor Goler.
With a wall of towering windows cuddling up to the majestic Sangre de Cristo mountains, Goler has situated his studio with a northern, mountain exposure to capture a more consistent light intensity throughout his workday. Though he does not have a set schedule for visits to his studio, appointments may be arranged in advance; all subject to his personal (busy) schedule, of course.
The artistic genius of Goler has summoned the traditional Santo art and (un-sacrilegiously) transformed it into a modern tribute to the diversities with which today’s Catholic Church coexists; i.e., every-day life. Goler, promotor extraordinario, is continually honing his craft in the dusty village of Talpa outside Taos.
The Santo art form has existed in the Hispanic Catholic community for hundreds of years. Goler’s methods approach the commonly styled Santo sculptures with an eye on history and a contemporary slant; sometimes whimsically. He’s created representations of San Cristóbal, the patron saint of surfers (a.k.a. St. Christopher) standing on a surfboard being swept forward on a wave. Another Santo that I observed in its formative (gesso) stage was of St. Joseph of Cupertino standing in Heavenly clouds as patron saint of airline pilots. A small jet wings its way past St. Joseph’s feet.
On commission, Goler created a contemporary political-commentary Santo of “Adam and Steve.” Another Goler Santo that we all can relate to is St. Apollonia, patron saint of dentists, dressed as one would expect of a 249 AD biblical character, and clutching a set of dental pliers that hold a large molar just pulled from a patient’s mouth. (To the right in Goler’s photo above.)
Goler’s works maintain the basic attributes of Santo sculptures and Retablos , but his edgy, yet thoughtful understanding of the 21st century’s daily conflicts of human existence are sure to snare the interest of art aficionados who may have previously sneered at the creativity and history of these religious artifacts.
Gustavo Victor Goler’s bio’ is one of family. He learned carving skills as a child when he assisted family elders with restoration of historical artifacts from private or museum collections and from older Hispanic Catholic churches in New Mexico and Latin America.
Goler developed his skills and supplemented them with intensive research focusing on the history of individual saints. For many years, he stubbornly adhered to using manual tools exclusively in carving his Santos. Only recently has he “discovered” modern (i.e., electric) tools. (He grins at his admission of overcoming his stubbornness.) These appliances permit him to more quickly form the pieces of wood (frequently basswood or pine) into the shapes which he then attacks with the customary tools that his family mentors taught him to skillfully apply.
Working with people knowledgeable in Santo art, Goler has mastered and in some ways enhanced Santo styles (improving three dimensional aspects of each piece, for example). Today his own work can be found in private collections, museums and even churches.
Observing Goler’s Work
I hope that you may be fortunate enough to meet Goler at his studio, as I did. However, if you cannot arrange a visit, you may find some of his pieces for sale at Blue Rain Gallery in Santa Fe or the annual Santa Fe Spanish Market.
Typically Goler is so busy carving that his Blue Rain Gallery exhibits and the Spanish Market appearance are the only public shows he does each year. Occasionally he schedules a third in December, but that’s not on his calendar (yet) for this year.
Goler has earned such a respected reputation in his field that today that most of the Santos, Bultos and Retablos that he creates are commissioned by individuals or churches.
He says “It takes me a while to produce my work, so it is hard to supply more than one gallery. … I sell directly to my collectors so my work goes from my studio straight to the buyer and is not always seen by the public.”
This year, Goler will personally be on hand for the 2012 Santa Fe Spanish Market July 27 – 29. He promised me that he will have something special on display, but he’s not divulging what that may be. (Perhaps it’s time for a Spanish-American themed “Amanda and Eve!”) The Blue Rain Gallery exhibit will open July 27.
Otherwise, in 2012, Goler’s work will be on display in the “Taos Contemporary Exhibit” at The Metropolitan State College of Denver, Center For Visual Arts from May 31 through August 11.
Dedication to Our Community
As a community service volunteer, Goler participated in the 2012 Paint for Peaks, a Taos Breast Cancer Awareness event. He created a Santo/Retablo snowboard painted with the image of St. Bernard of Montjoux, patron of mountaineers and skiers, for auction. (I assume that if St. Bernard of Montjoux has a dog breed named in his honor that he will appreciate that some snow-sport enthusiast is navigating the slopes on a snowboard bearing his image. Saints gotta have a sense of humor!)
Additionally, committed to improving the public understanding of Santo art, Goler provides museum docent training lectures at his studio in August and September.
Visitors who have the opportunity to talk with Goler may be pleasantly overwhelmed by his exuberance for the art that he can honorably call his own. What’s more, Goler’s outgoing personality, his remarkable knowledge of the Santo’s and saint’s histories, combined with his enthusiastic presentation skills will mesmerize you.
If you find the Santo devotional art art interesting, you probably will find no other artist with whom you would want to spend an extended period of time.
Planning Your Trip
The opportunities to observe Goler’s work are limited (unless you use his website), so to update your collection with an outstanding, unusual, definitely one-of-a-kind art piece for that special place in your home, one that you’ve seen with your own eyes and held in your hands, plan your trip today to New Mexico and include a visit to Blue Rain Gallery or the Spanish Market in Santa Fe.
If your trip to Albuquerque and Santa Fe does not provide the opportunity to schedule a visit to Goler’s studio, an online search may locate an arts event in the area where Goler is a guest speaker.
To enhance your New Mexico arts and culture experience, consider staying at one of the several hotels in the Heritage Hotels and Resorts (HHR) group.
Renouncing the cookie-cutter chain hotel experience, the public areas and guestrooms of each HHR hotel are warmly decorated. Guests will appreciate the distinctive New Mexico styled furniture, discriminating wall hangings and even major architectural structures creating a relaxing atmosphere that provides them with a sense of being immersed in the community’s American Indian and Hispanic cultures.
And you can sleep well in your big fluffy bed knowing that HHR helps fund various New Mexico groups and institutions that are promoting and preserving New Mexico’s history.
Thanks to Gustavo Victor Goler for photos of Saint Pascual, San Cristobal, and St. Bernard Snowboard.
Other photos by the author.