Not everyone gets to make a living by pursuing a passion that feeds their sense of history, culture and spirit. Gustavo Victor Goler knows he is lucky.
“It’s great I can do something in life that gives me an artistic outlet, supports my family, and supports my interest in history and cultures,” said the Talpa carver and painter. “I feel very fortunate for that.”
Goler, whose retablos and bultos both honor the traditional and sometimes tweak it with contemporary humor, was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award this month from the Spanish Colonial Arts Society. And he’s only 53, so he’s got a lot of achievement to still look forward to.
He’ll be making his 29th trip to the Traditional Spanish Market this weekend on Santa Fe’s Plaza, one of some 250 artists from New Mexico and southern Colorado who will present their works in the Spanish Colonial tradition, whether in woodcarving, tinwork, colcha, straw appliqué, weaving, jewelry or other works.
This is the 65th year for the market, which, besides the artist booths, will include a schedule of music and dance performances, book-signings, artist demonstrations and a special Mass at the cathedral.
In his years at the market, Goler said he has won 28 awards for his work.
“It used to be easier,” he added. “It’s definitely gotten more competitive, in carving particularly.”
But that is a good thing, Goler said. “People are moving forward with new techniques and designs.”
Still, it can be hard to compete, he said, since he has to rely on his art as his main source of income.
“Other people who have regular jobs or are retired, they can put months and months into a large carving. If I risk that, it may not sell. It’s hard to dedicate three to four months into a large work of art,” he said.
Still, he’ll probably bring only five to six carvings and 10 to 15 retablos (pictures of saints painted on wood) to the market, he said. Among them will be his two entries for prizes: “Cruising Heaven,” a bulto of the Holy Family riding in a 1958 Cadillac for the “innovations within traditions” category, and “Our Lady of San Juan de Los Lagos,” a bulto of this Mexico-based image of Mary that plays with the sense of a nicho by adding an umbrella-like canopy with carved openings over the figure.
This origin of that latter figure comes from a pilgrimage site in Mexico where the small statue of Our Lady is believed to have been brought in the 1500s and was credited with several miracles. Devotion to the figure and subsequent images were brought to New Mexico or created here, including one in a chapel dedicated to her in his small town near Taos, Goler said.
“I like to do in-depth research on a saint and pull out something you don’t normally see,” he said, although he did include the two candles traditionally seen in this depiction of the mother of Jesus.
Goler said he generally carves in pine, basswood or Malaysian jelutong, a very forgiving wood that became popular among New Mexico carvers in the late ’80s to the mid-’90s, when “everyone was jumping on the Santa Fe Style bandwagon and a lot of artists were coming in.”
While he uses water colors to paint the wood, he does make his own gessos and varnishes, Goler said. The gesso is sort of a primer that helps the wood accept the paint. It’s made from a type of glue produced from boiling animal hides – “You have to sit and cook it right. It’s kind of difficult. I teach a lot of people how to do it” – then it’s mixed with marble dust and applied to the wood. After he sands that down, it’s ready for drawing and painting, Goler said.
With roots in Argentina, but raised in Santa Fe, Goler went to work in an uncle’s conservation studio when he was only 11 and started wood carving when he was 13.
Through the conservation business, he was able to see old techniques in Spanish Colonial works and learn how to restore them, forming a base for launching his own artistic career. While he has had his own conservation studio and still does some of that work, including authenticating old carvings, the bulk of his time is spent on his own art these days, Goler said.
He does a number of works on commission and his art is found many private collections, as well as area museums and churches.
While he was raised as a Catholic and still attends church services (although not every Sunday), Goler said he started carving “for fun and for the history.”
“I like Holy Week, the processions, the Penitentes, the feast days,” he said. “My work encompasses a lot of those things. There is a spiritual and a religious side in them.”