Roberto Garcia, Jr. has wanted to teach a sculpting class in Pagosa since he moved here with his family in 1997. He finally got the opportunity at Shy Rabbit – a contemporary art space and gallery.
“The whole set up was great,” Garcia says. “And I worked well with Michael and Denise [Coffee].” The Coffees are the power couple behind Shy Rabbit.
“Our goal is to provide master level artisans who can teach professional workshops at all levels,” Michael Coffee says. “It’s great when you can find these people in your own back yard.”
Garcia is a rare sculptor who not only models his own work, but also creates his own molds and pours bronze at his foundry in Aspen Springs. As a young sculptor, Garcia was forced to learn the multi-layered process of lost-wax casting because he couldn’t afford to pay anyone to turn his clay models into bronze. So, he took his B.F.A. from the University of Texas at Austin and went to Princeton, N.J. to study at the Johnson Atelier Technical Institute of Sculpture. Then, he worked commercially as a foundry assistant at Shidoni in Santa Fe, N.M.
As a young artist, Garcia apprenticed with Charles Umlauf in Austin, an internationally-known and well-respected sculptor. Garcia even cast some of Umlauf’s later work. He also taught a similar beginning sculpture class at the Johnson Atelier.
“Some things cannot be learned from books,” Garcia says. “You have to do them. It is trial and error.”
Garcia speaks English with a lilting accent. He is clearly a happy man who smiles often and laughs regularly. His brown eyes twinkle and his charcoal-black hair is beginning to gray. We are sitting across from one another, a black metal desk with a laminated wood top between us, at his Crucible Gallery in downtown Pagosa Springs. The space is long and narrow and crammed with bronze sculptures along both sides. A huge plaster piece hangs in the window-a female form in a circle. She is called “La Luna” and is finished with a patina that makes her look like a bronze.
Much of the work on the left side of the gallery is by Garcia’s wife, Anna. He taught her to sculpt several years ago and she is now quite prolific. He shows me an elephant she completed recently and I am enthralled with the texture on a clay model of a buffalo head that sits at the end of the long wall. In an alcove, Garcia keeps examples of the process – the silicone mold supported by plaster, the hollow wax copy, the ceramic shell, and the completed bronze with patina – to share with his customers. Behind Garcia is a large frame with images of him and his monumental work. An unfinished oil painting sits on an easel. His paints and brushes rest on the desktop.
“It’s overdone,” he says of the painting. “I’m just so inspired by this place – the beauty, the sun, the light. I want to capture it somehow.”
Garcia built his first foundry in Texas and created several large monumental installations throughout South Texas before leaving his limited artistic fame to live in Colorado. “I am a modern day pioneer,” he says explaining that he built his house from the trees he cut down on his property, that he still hauls water in the back of his truck. Yet, he’s not about to leave. He turned down an offer to teach sculpture at a university in Texas because he didn’t want to leave Pagosa.
“One of the things I really miss is having apprentices from a college. I could pay them minimum wage and they helped out in the foundry,” Garcia adds. He realizes that, someday, he will not be able to do it by himself; that he is getting older and he wants to share what he knows with those equally as passionate about the complicated journey known as sculpting.
“I’ll meet every student and take them as far as they can go,” he says. “If they surpass me then good for them.”
Garcia is pleased with his first workshop in Pagosa. He feels he learned a lot and that he worked out some bugs and the next time he offers the workshop it will run even more smoothly. He is hoping to work with Shy Rabbit and offer another six-week beginning workshop in the fall and possible a shorter mold-making workshop.
“What I was looking for, Shy Rabbit provided it – that avenue. I had been planning to do (the workshop) at my own studio, but this worked out better. We are both happy with the results and want to continue,” Garcia says.
As for Shy Rabbit, he says he admires the Coffees for their vision and their incredible plans. “They have a more contemporary approach to helping artists make a living.”
Garcia has been making a living as an artist for 30 years.
“I don’t know what the secrets are. I feel I’m as good as many who are more famous or more successful than me. I just don’t have the advertising campaign or the marketing machine. It’s the story of my life. I’m a simple person. I always knew I didn’t have the wealth or the resources to make it in New York,” Garcia says.
He admits that living as an artist is like a roller coaster ride wondering how to pay the bills until a commission or a sale happens.
“I miss the security of having a stable job,” he says. “But it’s too late. I would never be happy.
“I admire the artists in my field who are successful because they’ve suffered,” Garcia continues. “They’ve asked the same question I do – how does bronze translate into bread?”
He pauses and explains the metaphor in case I didn’t understand, then continues: “I don’t do enough PR.”
His most recent commission to create a life-size sculpture of a congresswoman came via a friend who helped put the pieces together. All of his public art projects have come from networking and relationships. “I’m limited to my persuasion abilities,” Garcia says.
“Roberto is just one of those guys you want to help,” Michael Coffee says. “I don’t know why, but I want to help him. And I don’t feel that way about a lot of people.”
“I don’t feel I’m underprivileged,” Garcia adds. “I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me.”
When you meet Garcia you know you are meeting a committed artist. You know you are meeting someone who is living life on his own terms. You know you are meeting someone passionate about his work and you can’t help but honor that spirit and do what you can to help him succeed. If you work as an artist, you understand how hard it is to survive doing only your art and you admire him for his choices.
“To be an artist you have to be prepared, not only for rejection, but failure. You are going to stumble. You have to be able to turn it around. You may fail three times and finally, on the fourth try, something will click,” Garcia says. Then, he adds: “You may have a masterpiece and people will look at it and no one will recognize that it is a masterpiece until some famous critic or some famous person says it is a masterpiece. Deep down we have to listen to our little souls. That is something you can’t teach in art. We all have the power to make our own decisions, but it requires originality.”
The students in his sculpting workshop echo this idea. They reacted to the initial p
roject, which was sculpting a woman’s head, copying a sculpture Garcia did years ago from a live model. Many struggled with learning how to sculpt, the mundane copying, measuring the dimensions, creating the armature. But once they were allowed to create a sculpture from their imagination, the work flourished.
“I didn’t think I was going to get to sculpt something I wanted to sculpt,” Miki Harder says. Harder never completed her female head, but when given the freedom to explore her imagination, a sculpture of a raven took flight.
“Everybody’s head looks like a beginner,” Coffee says. “Everyone’s other sculpture doesn’t.”
“If you missed out on the recent sculpture workshop conducted by Roberto Garcia (at Shy Rabbit), you missed some great times,” sculptor Lucy Wiley wrote recently on ArtsNetwork, a Yahoo group for artists. Wiley, a Houston-based artist, is represented by Wild Spirit Gallery in Pagosa Springs and spends her summers in the San Juan Mountains with her husband, Gale, and their dog.
Wiley continued writing in her message: “I’m not one to gush but Roberto really knows his stuff and his teaching methods are positive yet challenging. Roberto brought out the best in every one of us. Even people who had never before sculpted, created works that made them justifiably proud.”