Carving a Legacy

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Saint-makers tend to be as humble as their subject matter. "It's a calling," says Catherine Robles-Shaw of Nederland, a santera who makes her own historically correct gessoes and varnishes to finish delicate retablos, bultos and altars carved from native woods. "It's the stuff of my life." Littleton native Jose Raul Esquibel is a carver whose work was first created as gifts for friends, and can now be seen at various churches in Colorado and New Mexico. He says his primary motivation for picking up a knife in 1992 was his Catholic faith, compounded by a desire to educate the region's lost lambs. "I saw lots of regret about having lost the New Mexico-Colorado religious heritage," Esquibel says. His intent as a santero -- and as a scholar of saint-making -- is to restore the layman's sense of community that traditionally drives the artform.

Even Taos master carver Victor Goler, who was more or less born into his craft, displays little ego about his fame in a field that's undergoing a glorious resurrection. The son of art conservationists, by his early teens he had begun helping to restore furniture in the family studio. "But I had a real knack for wood, and I was self-motivated, so they put me to work carving saints," Goler says. At first, his work was actually restricted to the fingers and toes of the saints. "But when I was in my junior year in high school, I figured out that saint-making had a whole history in New Mexico," he continues. "I began to reproduce them for fun, as a hobby." Although his first carvings were crucifixes instead of actual saints, he soon moved on, favoring miraculous images of Mary and Saint Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters and "the closest thing there is to a patron saint of carvers."

After college, Goler opened his own restoration studio but quickly moved into saint-making at the urging of his family and his impressed clients. Today, his work is renowned -- displayed in museums, publications and collections worldwide. Locally, Goler's ornate and beautiful pieces can be seen through August 25 at the Foothills Art Center in Golden, where he'll appear this Sunday with Robles-Shaw and Esquibel for a Champagne Brunch and Santos Carving Demonstrations.


Champagne Brunch and Santos Carving Demonstrations

11 a.m.-1 p.m. Sunday, August 18
Foothills Art Center
809 15th Street, Golden
$20-$25, reservations: 303-279-3922

Though art collectors have become familiar with the images of santos in recent times, they're less acquainted with the history behind them. Santos, says Esquibel, enabled poor rural Catholics to experience the sacrament on a community level without benefit of clergy: "The santeros became the link to religion: They were the ones who knew the Bible stories and the origins of saints." He'd like to see the traditional role of the santero restored along with the revived art form.

Goler, while raised in the Catholic faith, takes a more contemporary track. Delving into the religious history of the saints has taken him beyond the confines of Roman Catholicism and into the rest of the Latin world. "I'm always looking up saints," he says. "I try to follow the correct iconography. But I also moved on to studying saints from all over the world -- from Mexican tin retablos to Russian icons." Currently, his favorite carvers are late medieval Germans.

It's all in keeping with the new, cosmopolitan work being done by modern saint-makers, who began to be taken seriously by the fine-art world in the mid-'70s. "Now there's a whole range of saint-making encompassing everything from folk art -- very simple pieces -- to some that are much more ornate: not Baroque, yet very stylized, so you still get a New Mexico feel from them," Goler says.

"In the beginning, a lot of people worked in the traditional mode, but it's now mushrooming beyond that," he adds. "Some are leaning more toward a fine-art look, while some are branching off toward social commentary. And some are still complete traditionalists. Even my own work changes all the time."

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