A Santero's Odyssey
by Don Toomey

Gustavo Victor Goler was born in Argentina. His immediate family came to the United States in the late 1960s when Victor was six years old. Earlier, two of his uncles, Carlos and Raúl Osona, had settled in Santa Fe where they operated a conservation/restoration studio. Since family was already established in Santa Fe this was a logical destination. Victor grew up, and attended primary and secondary schools in Santa Fe; graduating from high school in 1981. His early years in Santa Fe were financially difficult for his parents and increased when Victor's father passed away only a year after their arrival. While still a youngster, he was taken under the direction of his uncles and essentially apprenticed with them in their conservation studio.

By the time he was eleven Victor was a member of the conservation crew doing restoration and some conservation. The studio worked on a wide variety of projects, mostly connected to the conservation of religious works. Victor's responsibilities in the studio consisted mainly by stripping and cleaning of furniture, but he also helped out wherever he felt he could be useful. By the time he was thirteen, his uncles had taught him how to carve, since they recognized quite early that he had this potential. As a result he was assigned the task of restoring New Mexican santos. In essence, his work consisted of carving an awful lot of missing fingers and noses. Victor thrived within the studios artistic environment and was able to experiment with all sorts of materials which enabled him to reach new levels of accomplishment utilizing the knowledge he was developing. As a result Victor attained an overall competency in all phases of conservation and restoration.

He carved his first bulto when he was seventeen and continued doing so mainly as a hobby. All of his early carvings were given to family and friends. Victor was most interested in conservation, not in becoming a santero per se.

Victor continued working in the studio all through high school, but during the summers he went to Santa Barbara, California, to work in a conservation studio owned by his uncle Carlos called the "Santa Bárbara Art Conservation Group." Here he continued to develop his conservation and restoration skills. After graduation from high school Victor enrolled at the University of New Mexico where he studied graphics and advertising design. He did not remain at UNM very long, eventually transferring to the Colorado Institute of Art where in 1983 he earned a degree in graphics and advertising design. Upon receiving his degree Victor moved back to New Mexico in search of a job in advertising. He was searching for a job that would offer a sense of stability. However, before this was fully explored he opened a conservation studio in Santa Fe when he was twenty-three years old. He still continued to carve, though mainly as a hobby, and he coupled this with free-lance furniture making.

The Santa Fe conservation studio did not prosper, and, as Victor notes, he really didn't have the know-how to operate a business. This was a difficult time for him and it was a struggle just to survive, and living in Santa Fe tended to be expensive.

During this period he painted a number of retablos as gifts to gallery owners and to the people who were supporting him with conservation work. The gallery owners liked Victor's retablos and realized they were desirable and saleable items. With this encouragement he continued to prepare his retablos, and before long they developed into a full-time business. Desiring to leave Santa Fe, Victor bought out his partners in the conservation studio and moved to Taos. This was an important transition time for Victor and he felt that the move would be favorable for him. In Taos, Victor lived in a small room in the old Couse studio through the courtesy of Irving Couse, grandson of the famous artist Eanger Irving Couse (1866-1936). The Couse family also owned the old Joseph Sharp studio adjacent to the main house. At this time the studio was occupied by the painter Joseph Waldrum. Shortly thereafter, Victor's services were needed to help Waldrum move a very large oil painting from the studio to another location. In the interim Waldrum purchased a studio in Mountainair and gave notice that he would vacate the Sharp studio. When this occurred, Irving Couse graciously offered to let Victor use this fine studio in late 1988 and early 1989. Now, with excellent studio space, Victor immersed himself in carving bultos, painting retablos, and doing occasional conservation and restoration commissions. He remained in the old Sharp studio until 1995, when he married and purchased an old adobe in Talpa. The last eighteen months have been devoted to the husband-wife project of turning the adobe into a lovely home and studio.

Victor Goler's artistic expertise has long been recognized by his peers, collectors, and various museums. He has been very active in Spanish Market since 1987. His awards include the Spanish Heritage award (1990), the Best of Show award (1992), and First Place Painted Bulto (1993), the Alan Vedder award (1993), and the E. Boyd Memorial award (1995).
When Victor was asked which he preferred to do, carve bultos or paint retablos, the question elicited an immediate response declaring that he really preferred carving bultos. Victor enjoys painting retablos, but feels that carving is more interesting and challenging. In the last few years Victor has produced some fairly complex, multi-figured, niched pieces combining retablo-like paintings with carved bultos. He believes this is the best format that allows him to get the most out of his carving and painting skills. He spends a good deal of time thinking out and designing these larger pieces. He feels that these larger pieces allow him to create multiple themes that can represent an entire story or event. This is in contrast to retablos where the santero generally records a single person or event. Victor notes that these types of larger pieces represent the direction his future work is taking.
As to his style, some say that it is more provincial than folk. He recognizes his carving is becoming more Classical and ornate, although he is still very much influenced by the distinctive New Mexican style, which is very strong in his work. As a contemporary santero, Victor firmly believes that his work must evolve as he changes. He notes that to produce the same work over and over is the mark of a stale artist. This process of replication is one that some santeros get out of fairly quickly, while other never leave it behind. It can be rewarding to observe the works of some progressive santeros and see that each new work becomes more and more personal and more dynamic. When this occurs it can change the attitude of fellow santeros, and Victor believes this is a good sign. "Still, one must be concerned about some changes," he says, "for where do you pass that point where the changes are no longer considered traditional?" In considering the long, rich tradition of santeros in northern New Mexico Victor was asked who most influenced his work. He responded by saying that he has studied the works of the santeros in depth, and he feels that each has influenced him one way or another. He believes that Rafael Aragón was a great artist, but he also enjoys the work of the Santo Niño Santero. Of contemporary santeros, the late Horacio Valdéz was a very big influence on him. Victor believes that Valdéz' work illustrates the very best in fine craftsmanship, work that is tight, very clean, and very precise. Victor admires the work of Félix López very much, and he thinks that Alcario Otero is a tremendous carver. He says, "each time you see a new piece you can tell that he has made great strides in his carving ability. Charlie Carrillo does so many diverse things, so it is fun, and quite a challenge, to observe everything he does." Victor admires David Nabor Lucero's recent work, and notes that he is rapidly moving forward and has developed a nice personal style as well. In addition, Victor admires the work of a number of artists who are who are up and coming santeros.

When Victor was asked what awards or honors have been most meaningful to him, he surprisingly responded that the most meaningful are those that come to you as a complete surprise. To grasp this somewhat paradoxical reply, it is best to observe Victor's method of evaluating an art show like Spanish Market. He attends all the major shows and makes it a point to slowly walk around observing everyone's work consciously making comparisons to his own work. This can be very unnerving for so much of what he sees is very good and he finds himself thinking, "God! I better get back to the drawing board!" Then for some reason he wins an award, much to his amazement. Victor is very critical of his own work and he becomes a little frightened observing the work of others, and sometimes he walks away very depressed. Often, he gains experience by critically examining other's work and making those comparisons to his work. He doesn't want to be so pretentious as to think that each piece he finishes is going to win an award. He says it is not realistic to judge one's work in that context.

Restoration and conservation projects still play a role in Victor's career, mainly because he enjoys the opportunity of seeing and working with older pieces. However he will be curtailing this type of work in the near future. Victor has done restoration/conservation work on the Larry Frank Collection. He has restored all the santos in the Martínez Hacienda; and is currently working on the entire santo collection of the Harwood Foundation. He has been working on an interesting project for some time which involves restoration of the oldest wooden altarscreen in New Mexico at the Santa Cruz Church near Española.

Even though Victor Goler is a very modest and relatively young man, his career as a santero has been varied and dynamic. He apprenticed to his uncle's studio where he was able to develop and master the techniques involved in conservation and restoration, and was taught to be an accomplished carver. During his extended training, Victor developed into a superb artist and craftsman well versed in methods and materials available to a contemporary santero. All of this knowledge and training was supplemented with academic and practical experience gained at UNM and the Colorado Institute of Art. One can confidently say that Victor Goler has assiduously mastered his craft in which his wonderfully unique style has been honed to perfection.

Story by Don Toomey. Don, a retired geologist living in Placitas, is a staff writer for Tradición Revista.
First published in Tradicion Revista, Volume 1, No. 3, Fall 1996.
Copyright 2002. May not be reproduced in any form without written permission.