Santero Gustavo Victor Goler
Taos-based artist Gustavo Victor Goler came into his own as a master santero slowly, helping out around his uncle’s conservation studios in Santa Fe. At the age of eleven he began an informal apprenticeship, learning by observing family members carving wood while simply hanging out. By thirteen, he was helping out with conservation projects, working on wood frames and furniture. “Eventually, they taught me to work on saints,” he said. Goler didn’t yet know that becoming a santero would become his profession, but a fire had been lit. “I didn’t necessarily go out and pursue it per se,” he said. “It sort of just happened.”
As teenager, he made a few pieces of his own as gifts for friends and family, copied from older originals. In 1988, two years after opening his own conservation shop in Santa Fe, he was juried into Traditional Spanish Market for the first — but not the last — time. He has won more than 30 awards at market over the years, the most recent being the Spanish Colonial Arts Society’s Masters Award for Lifetime Achievement, the organization’s highest honor.
Goler’s conservation work has focused on historic Spanish colonial-era bultos and retablos, and he made an in-depth study of New Mexico santeros as well as of the history and iconography of saints. His clients have included Larry Frank, whose formidable collection of Spanish colonial art is housed in the Palace of the Governors. Goler was privileged to make a survey of the collection. “I basically had this museum at my fingertips that I could study,” he said.
In terms of style, Goler’s practice embraces old and new forms of saint-making. In his early years he was a traditionalist, carving popular saints and using natural, hand-gathered pigments and sizing, but he now borrows from contemporary imagery as seen in his carving with its figure of Joseph piloting a propeller plane high over the pyramids and Mary and a young Jesus seated behind him. “I like to add a little bit of humor to my pieces, but it’s never sacrilegious. I would never do something to insult the Church,” said Goler, who was raised Catholic. His polychrome bultos don’t really deviate from historic depictions of saints. Rather, he adapts contemporary iconography to the older forms, embellishing them and giving them a more up-to-date feel without negating their Spanish colonial roots.
Goler began working in a contemporary vein when he saw pieces by fellow carvers, including Nicholas Herrera and Luis Tapia, that inspired him to try something new. “As I evolved and grew and studied different santeros, I kept abreast of what they were doing,” he said. “I enjoy challenging myself and progressing with my work. After all these years, it helps to reach a broader audience where you can appeal to people who are not necessarily devout Catholics.”
— Michael Abatemarco
Gustavo Victor Goler: Doña Sebstiana, 2008, carved wood, gesso watercolors, natural pigments, and beeswax
Gustavo Victor Goler