Those who have visited “Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns and The West,” the traveling exhibition organized by the Harwood Museum of Art, will have the chance to learn about yet another aspect of this eccentric visionary — her impressive collection of Hispanic devotional art and how many of her santos ended up at the museum.
Award-winning santero Victor Gustavo Goler will give a talk Sunday (Aug. 28) from 2-4 p.m. at the Harwood Museum of Art, 238 Ledoux Street in Taos. “Community Dialogue: Collecting Hispano Religious Art and the Santos of Mabel Dodge Luhan” will consist of a conversation between the exhibition curator, MaLin Wilson-Powell, and Goler, about the contentious subject of collecting Hispanic devotional objects, especially during Luhan’s times.
Goler has been working with the Luhan exhibit since its beginning.
“I curated all the santos for the show and did a lot of research about Mabel and her collection of the Hispanic devotional art,” he said.
As the story goes, Luhan’s collection of santos was showcased in a 1919 exhibition in New York City. Later on, in the mid-1920s, she donated 85 bultos and retablos to the Harwood after an uproar by the Hispano community over an essay she published about the objects in an art journal.
“She did say some rude things about the Hispanic people,” Goler admits. “But she brought in many artists that became interested in both Native American and Hispanic art forms. So we will talk about how the santos went from being objects of veneration to pieces of art, how they were looked at in a different way and how they were often bought without a full understanding of what they meant and what they represented. I will also explain how the coming of the railroad influenced the santeros’ style and work.”
The conversation will be open to the public for discussion.
Last June, Goler received the 2016 Master Award for lifetime achievement from the Spanish Colonial Art Society — the organization that sponsors Spanish Market.
The award is conferred by a committee of former winners. This year, committee members made the unanimous decision to recognize Goler, who has devoted the last 30 years to his art. His santos and retablos have garnered him many other awards — best of show awards, the Archbishop’s Award, people’s choice and others, but he considers this one “very special.”
‘It solidifies my work for the last three decades,” he said. “I have worked hard. As a full-time artist, I have dedicated all my time to my art. Many other artists have regular jobs and they work on and off. For me, it has been a serious commitment. I feel proud of joining the club of Master Award winners.”
To be given a Master Award for lifetime achievement, artists should meet a number of requirements. Since it is given at the Traditional Spanish Market, artists must have been part of it for at least 18 years — Goler has been participating for 29. Eligible artists should have won at least a couple of major awards. Goler has won 32.
Other requirements include being an influential artist, particularly among the younger generations, and doing community outreach.
“The artists are supposed to be involved with people, teaching and giving lectures, not just creating their own art,” Goler said.
Goler has been part of Taos Municipal Schools’ Visiting Artist Program, helping elementary school students create retablos and other traditional pieces. He has mentored many developing artists and also serves as a consultant and conservator with several museums and private collectors.
As a scholar and a historian, he often offers lectures like the one at the Harwood Museum on Sunday.
He also designed the altar screen, did technical drawings and took part in the restoration of the St. Anthony de Padua Catholic Church in Questa. The church reopened with a dedication Mass, which was celebrated Aug. 14.
“That was a very rewarding project,” Goler said.
One piece that won him two blue ribbons at this year’s Spanish Market is “Cruising Heaven,” a piece that was purchased by the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art. It is a contemporary depiction of the Holy Family – Jesus, Mary and Joseph – riding in a lowrider 1958 convertible Cadillac.
“It turned out to be very popular because it is a crossover for many generations and groups,” Goler said. “Kids enjoyed it, but adults also identified with the piece, particularly car lovers. Getting the two blue ribbons for it punctuated the [Master] Award.”
Goler acknowledges that it is hard to give advice to other artists, whether they’re young or old, but he always recommends that aspiring santeros study the tradition and strive to maintain it.
“The way we make santos and retablos in New Mexico is a cultural art form that has lasted for hundreds of years,” he said. “It is a very important aspect of our history that needs to be kept alive.”
As for showing their work, artists younger than 18 can easily enter Spanish Market.
“The Youth Market, which is also featured at the Summer Market, was created to inspire young people, from 7 to 17 years old, to learn about the traditional arts,” Goler said. “It is a great space for many promising young artists, and I am constantly encouraging them to be part of it.”
This event is free with museum admission. It is made possible by support from the New Mexico Humanities Council and the Charles Redd Center of Brigham Young University.
For more information, see harwoodmuseum.org or call (575) 758-9826.