Albuquerque Journal

Spiritual connection
July 22, 2001
Section: Arts & Culture
Page: F1
   Story by David Steinberg Photographs by Rose Palmisano Of the Journal
Furniture maker and santero's greatest love is creating pieces for churches

Albuquerque native Roberto Gonzales has received major prizes for his work as a furniture maker and santero. He won, for example, the Distinguished Artist Award Judge's Choice at last year's Spanish Market for a carved meditation table and two chairs with the images of saints painted on them.

And he will show his artistry, done in a traditional New Mexico style, at next weekend's 2001 Spanish Market in Santa Fe, hoping to earn more prizes.

But the award that carries the greatest meaning for him did not come with a ribbon, a plaque or a roll on the drums: Gonzales was awarded the job of making the furniture for St. Paul the Apostle, a Roman Catholic mission church in the West Texas town of Kress.

"I think I'm the only living santero who has done (the furniture for) a church by himself," the 50-year-old Gonzales said.

The genesis of the church job occurred when Gonzales was exhibiting his work at an Albuquerque arts and crafts show about 10 years ago.

A man came up to his booth while Gonzales was painting a retablo and said, "That's a nice Our Lady of Guadalupe."

Gonzales thanked the man and returned to painting the retablo.

The next day the man returned to the booth. This time the man was wearing a priest's collar. "I was shocked to see he was a priest," Gonzales recalled.

The man introduced himself as the Rev. John Salazar-Jimenez of West Texas and the two began to chat.

"Father John said 'That's my parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Amarillo.' I had just finished signing the retablo and I handed it to him. He didn't want to take it, but I insisted," Gonzales said.

A few years later, the priest came back into Gonzales' life. He and members of the priest's parish council reviewed Gonzales' furniture designs and soon invited him to make the furnishings for Salazar-Jimenez's home in Tulia, Texas.

After that work was completed, Gonzales said, the priest told him, "Some day you're going to do my church. And I thought, 'Yeah, right.' ''

Salazar-Jimenez's prediction won out over Gonzales' skepticism.

In December 1999, the priest, plus members of the parish council and the Kress church building committee, visited Gonzales' workshop near Downtown.

They looked around at the work and told Gonzales that he was being considered for the job of making the furniture for a new Kress mission church that parishioners were building.

Two months later came the news. The priest told Gonzales that the bishop approved hiring him for the job.

Then came yet another surprise for Gonzales. "I asked Father John if I was working with an architect or a designer. And he said, 'No, you're it.' I had carte blanche," Gonzales said.

Among the pieces he has carved are the doors, the pews, the baptismal font, the podium, the chairs for the presider, the deacon and the altar server, retablos representing the Stations of the Cross and bultos.

A retablo is a religious painting on a wood panel. A bulto is a three-dimensional wood sculpture with a religious theme. Both are types of santos.

Though it's been almost two years since Gonzales started on the project, he is still making some furniture for the priest's office.

(Gonzales said that four other New Mexican artists are involved in the Kress church project. Ted Arellanes of Albuquerque is doing the tinwork; Angel Ramos is making the hardware; Debbie Carrillo of Santa Fe is making the pottery; and Ralph Sena of Bosque is making the silver pieces, such as the chalice and candleholders.)

An early start

Gonzales painted his first retablo at the age of 7 and made his first piece of furniture a nightstand several years later.

"The nightstand was ugly but my parents let me keep it," he said with a laugh. "My dad didn't get mad at me because I used the wood that he had for an add-on to our house."

Gonzales said he began making furniture and art in earnest in the 1970s and sales helped get him through college; he received a bachelor's degree in university studies from the University of New Mexico.

Gonzales pursued a career as a geologist and consulting geologist, but in his spare time he made furniture, santos and sculptures.

"I gave most of it away," he said.

In the early 1980s, Gonzales said the minerals business dried up and soon oil prices plunged. Those economic downturns triggered his decision to become a full-time artist.

Gonzales works out of a nondescript building near Downtown. His shop is bursting with works in progress and the walls of his small office are blooming with other people's art bultos, retablos and paintings that he has bought or traded.

Gonzales said his bread and butter is selling his furniture, retablos and santos at arts and crafts shows.

"I like to do stuff for the State Fair because of the number of people who see your work," Gonzales said.

"But with Spanish Market I think you can consider the artists the best of the best. It's not an easy show to be juried in."

Most of what he has made for this year's Spanish Market is in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He is doing that in response to the recent controversy over the Alma Lopez photo-collage of a scantily clad Virgin de Guadalupe at the Museum of International Folk Art.

"I am making a plea to artists: If they do Catholic art, have reverence in doing it. If the art hurts a spiritual community the artist should take it down. The museum should have known better, especially hanging it coming into the season of Lent," Gonzales said.

Besides the Kress church project, Gonzales also has made retablos and bultos for Holy Rosary and St. Charles Catholic churches in Albuquerque, Farmington and Little Rock, Ark., as well as for churches in Poland, Germany and Australia.

For the San Felipe Catholic Church in Old Town, Gonzales made the offertory table and chairs, raised the altar to the proper height and re-stabilized the pews.

The Vatican, Gonzales said, has an Our Lady of Guadalupe retablo that he made; it was a gift of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe to the pope.

His eventual goal is to just do work for churches.

"It was an honor to do the Texas church. It's a strong, spiritual community. For that reason, I put a lot more into the work than what they paid me to do," Gonzales said.

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