The saints come calling: Master artist Victor Goler
MASTER ARTIST VICTOR GOLER
This year’sMaster’s Award winner talks about his inspiration, his development as an artist, his techniques and the rich history of santero carving in NewMexico. By Daniel Gibson
Victor Goler did not want to be an artist, but the saints called him. The renowned creator of bultos (three- dimensional wood carvings of Catholic religious figures also known as santos) and retablos (religious figures painted on wood panels) and other devotional arts initially resisted his career but eventually embraced it wholeheartedly and is now one of the world’s preeminent figures in the field.
His work has been shown widely in museums and galleries, is included in many notable private and public collections and has taken him from the marble halls of the Smithsonian Institution inWashington, D.C., to the leafy realm of Puerto Rico. Examples of his santos, bultos, relief carvings and other works are found in numerous books, and he is constantly being asked to present lectures, to teach and to write on the subject of New Mexico santero traditions. He was first juried into Spanish Market in Santa Fe in 1988, where he has shown and sold his work ever since, winning more than 24 awards, including two Best of Show awards, the Archbishop’s Award and the People’s Choice Award. Now, at age 53, he has been chosen by the Spanish Colonial Arts Society to receive its Master’s Award for Lifetime Achievement, sharing the title of the youngest ever so designated with his brother-in-law Lawrence Baca, with whom he grew up in Santa Fe.
It was all almost not to be. Victor’s father died when he was eight, so his mother raised him. Two uncles in Santa Fe ran an art conservancy studio and art gallery, and by age 11 Victor was spending a lot of time assisting them. As he explained recently in his studio
in Talpa, near Taos, “They worked on a wide variety of materials, from furniture to restoring New Mexico devotional arts, making gold leaf frames and on and on. They taught me how to use chisels and carving tools, and by the time I was 13 I showed a knack for it. They put me to work on restoring saints, carving fingers and such. They taught me the basics, but generally I was selftaught through trial and error and challenging myself. I was really motivated and came to recognize the long history of saint making in New Mexico. By my junior year of high school, with the family’s encouragement, I began to make santos and paint retablos. I did it for fun and gave them away.
“I was very artistic. In high school I was also freelancing, painting birds on kitchen cabinets and decorative designs around doorways. I was carving and painting signs, building furniture — anything I could do with my hands. It all taught me how to deal with people and work on my own. But I didn’t aspire to be an artist. We knew a lot of artists and they were often destitute and living hard lives.”
Instead, he enrolled at the Colorado Institute of Art in Denver and focused on graphics and advertising design, thinking it would blend income security with creativity. He came back to Santa Fe and interviewed for a job in the field but was drawn back to art conservation and the making of santos. “I jumped back in, not really knowing where it would lead.”
In 1988 he moved to Taos, where he spent the first year working in the historic Couse Studio and then the Sharp Studio, thinking he would return to school and focus on a conservation career. “But I was immediately immersed into the rich history of the Taos artists, and good things began to happen.” He was hired by a major santero collector to help restore his collection and to identify the makers of the older works, which were not signed in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Deep studies of the field
This led him to begin his study of New Mexico’s devotional arts history and its practitioners, materials and styles. Through his conservation work, he says, “I got a really close and intimate look at a lot of devotional artwork and became an authority on the historical styles. I continue this today, studying both historic works and artists, as well as the contemporary field. It would be difficult to repeat this today because much of the early work is now dispersed in private collections or museums; it’s no longer around to study. It was a different time, and I was lucky to have that experience.”
While this work provided a good income, the saints continued to appeal to him as a creator. “I’ve committed to being an artist; that is my focus. At that time I had to choose what I would concentrate on — scholarship, conservationist or artist. But the occasional lecture I do today and teaching keep me sharp.” And the art inform his insights into the medium. “Once I became immersed in it, I wanted to be really good at it. I am a motivated person, and I have ambition. I don’t struggle, as some do, with coming into the studio every day and getting to work.”
And work he does! He’s organized, inspired, determined, principled and energetic, and his studio is a whirlwind of projects, materials and works in progress. Detailed drawings for future endeavors lay alongside rough initial carvings; others are being sanded, others gessoed and varnished; and a conservation project on an old bulto is underway in the paint area.
“A number of the santeros are pushing the art form, doing work that might have a bit of social or political commentary, bringing out certain aspects of a saint that might not be well known,” he says about other carvers but might well be speaking of himself. For instance, sitting on one worktable is the beginning of a carving of Joseph and Mary in the front seat of a 1958 Cadillac convertible, with a young Jesus in the back seat. He will enter the piece in the InnovationsWithin Traditions category at the 2016 Spanish Market — one of four categories he has been juried into.
He often works in themes; the Cadillac follows his depiction of St. Francis of Rome, the patron saint of car drivers, and St. Columbano, the patron saint of motorcycles. His favorite subject over the years has been the crucifixion. “They are very passionate, more emotional pieces, and central to Catholicism. I became known for
them but put them aside for several years. I am now coming back around to them.”
Enjoys a challenge
Goler is a man who enjoys a challenge, whether it’s playing soccer, racing bicycles, raising his two teenage daughters or tackling a new form of art. He notes, “Many artists will plateau. They will find a place that is comfortable, and they stay there; it sells, it’s good enough, let’s leave it there.” But Goler’s work continues to evolve. His carving has become more and more detailed and realistic, revealing dexterity in fingers, turned bodies, flowing capes. “Some carvers don’t take it to the level I do; one silly hand can take me three or four hours, and I’ve had people tell me they like my older work better; that’s fine! But I’m moving on.”
As for how he works, because of the strict standards Spanish Market enforces to maintain the traditions of Spanish colonial art, and his own respect for historical techniques, Victor employs many of the original materials and tools his predecessors would have used hundreds of years ago. This includes making his marble- dust gesso, a smoothing agent used to prepare the wood surface for painting.
In the old days, he explains, santeros would have had to make their own paints and cut the trees they used for carvings. He buys his wood — pine, American basswood and the Malaysian wood jelutong — by the truckload and ages it for three years. He also is allowed to use watercolor paints, has grinders to keep his tools sharp, and uses band saws and other power grinders to help him create basic shapes. While the older carvers used piñon sap for varnish, it yellows over time, so he prefers commercial varnishes. But each work is still a laborious process, and the amount of work and steps involved even with modern materials has only increased his admiration for New Mexico’s devotional artists of the past.
Their four centuries of production, and the growing body of new artists, have elevated the state as the nation’s leading center for such work, says Goler.
In addition to his making of bultos, retablos and deep relief carvings, Goler has produced more affordable lithographs, having been asked twice to work at the worldfamous Tamarind Institute in Albuquerque, and he makes and hand colors woodblock prints. He also has taken on some large commission assignments, building, carving and painting entire altars and other monumental works. He was a key team member on a two-year project to restore devotional art in the historic Santa Cruz de la Canada church and is now providing free design work and carving services on the church in Questa.
As if that weren’t enough, Goler serves as a consultant to numerous museums that have devotional art collections. He worked as a curator for the exhibition NewMexico Carvers at Taos’ Harwood Museum, which included works by anonymous artisan known as the Laguna Carver of 1795 and modern pieces. He also teaches occasionally, freely sharing his hard-won skills and knowledge. His work has been included in numerous books and is occasionally featured in shows at Blue Rain Gallery of Santa Fe. It can also be found on his website, www.victorgoler.com.
Now 30 years down the road after his decision to pursue life as an artist, Goler has carved out a major niche in the field. He notes being an artist is not all fun and games; it includes accounting, public relations and marketing tasks, and drudgery like sanding, shop maintenance, packaging and shipping. “There’s more to it than most people realize, but I’ve been very fortunate in that what I do fulfills so many aspects in my life — my spiritual and religious side, but also the creative calling, and my interests in culture and history. It pulls it all together.”
It is also physically demanding. His side interests in skiing and competing in triathlons have helped him stay fit, but he has dealt with carpal tunnel problems and notes that many carvers succumb eventually to arthritis. “My segue to old age, I hope, will be teaching, lecturing and maybe writing.” The saints are still calling and showing the way.