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Artist Leaves Pious Legacy in Sculptures

Times Staff Writer

Rudolph Vargas seemed to leave a trail of artworks in his wake, much like one of his beloved religious figures transforming water into wine or making flowers bloom in the desert.

“Things just kept flowing from his hands,” said Vargas’ son, Rudolph Jr., a few days after the sculptor’s death on Nov. 7 at the age of 82.

Vargas was a short, smiling man, with gnarled, over-sized hands. They were sculptor’s hands.

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Nothing could make Vargas happier than to be in his studio, pounding away with an assortment of chisels, gouges and mallets at a block of wood. As the chips piled up on the floor, the block of wood would slowly take shape as a pair of exquisitely expressive hands, a luxuriantly flowing robe or a face with an expression of divine tranquility.

Cherubs on Table Legs

He fashioned wicker-like flowerpots out of clay, he carved cherubs on the legs of tables and he painted meticulous imitations of the Renaissance masters on canvas. Even the oak doors on his studio in East Los Angeles were touched by his talent, their panels carved with leaves and petals.

But his mission in life, he would tell you during intimate moments, was to carve out powerful New Testament scenes from large, unyielding blocks of wood.

“His purpose in life was to glorify God and his images,” said the son, an electronics engineer from Alhambra.

Vargas, who had struggled with heart disease for the past eight years, left a legacy of religious statuary in churches all around Los Angeles--opulently clad madonnas, riveting portraits of Christ, frieze-work scenes from the Bible, with subjects often captured magically mid-stride in the wood.

Large Collection in Hospital

The largest collection of Vargas works is at Santa Teresita Hospital in Duarte, adorning the walls of lobbies and meeting places, making the hospital somewhat of a tourist attraction even before Vargas’ death.

The chapel of the hospital is perhaps his greatest accomplishment, a virtual monument to Vargas’ inspired skill.

There are panels showing the Nativity and St. Joseph in his carpenter’s shop. There are depictions of St. Therese and St. Theresa of Avila, patronesses of the Carmelite Order, which administers the hospital. There is a dramatic rendering of the crucifixion of Christ in the 14-panel Stations of the Cross.

And there is, above the altar, the centerpiece of the chapel: the striking figure of Christ on the cross. The figure is, said doctors from the hospital, “anatomically perfect.”

Vargas’ work brims with eye-catching details. The grapes being proffered in one panel by the child Jesus to his father seem to sag with juicy ripeness. The hand of an angel in another panel is suspended daintily above her harp as the baby Jesus falls asleep.

In the Stations of the Cross, the face of Simon of Cyrene, who was selected from the crowd by Roman soldiers to carry the cross for Christ, evolves dramatically from from bitter reluctance to inspired sympathy.

“For Lent, there are many, many people who come here to make the Stations, because there is no other like it,” said Mother Margarita Maria, the founder of Santa Teresita Hospital, who commissioned most of Vargas’ religious work, working out the scenes through a kind of dialectic with the sculptor.

“I would say, ‘Let us look in the Bible and see how it was,’ ” said the elderly mother superior, who founded the hospital in 1930 as a small tuberculosis sanitarium. “I would have a Bible and he would have one. Nothing was invented. Nothing was caprice.”

Just as art seemed to spill from Vargas’ hands, the stories about the elderly sculptor spill from the lips of those closest to him.

An unassuming man, bald, high-domed with a far-seeing look, Vargas earned his living doing what his family called “commercial” work.

“He would work all day in his studio, doing the commercial things, then come home and work till 12 or 1 o'clock on religious figures,” said Vargas’ wife, Margaret.

An immigrant from Mexico in the 1920s, during an era of religious persecution in his native country, Vargas became first a furniture carver, then a mannequin maker, before being discovered by Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme-park designers. Disney used him extensively to model the plaster figures of history and fantasy displayed in the theme parks.

“Because he was a professional mannequin maker, he had the ability to understand and anticipate where clothing goes on the body,” said Blaine Gibson, who retired recently as director of sculpture for Imagineering. “Most sculptors overemphasize anatomy.”

Between the 1964 New York World’s Fair, for which Vargas created figures of President Abraham Lincoln and the characters of the “Small World” display, to the opening of the Epcot Center in Florida, Vargas was a regular Disney contributor.

But he always craved loftier pursuits.

“I once asked my father what his favorite song was,” said Vargas’ daughter, Christine. “He said right away, ‘Vaya con Dios’ (Go With God). Leave it to my father. Even his favorite song is about God.”

According to Margaret Vargas, her husband was impelled on his mission as a small child, when his father was “miraculously” saved from execution by revolutionary soldiers in his native Uruapan, Mexico.

‘Don’t Let Them Kill Father’

“His sister prayed to the Blessed Mother, saying, ‘Please don’t let them kill my father,’ ” said Margaret Vargas. “Shortly afterwards, an Indian came to the family and said, ‘Your father wants to see you.’ And they saw their father dressed like an Indian, ready to flee. Rudy said then that he would someday make an image of the Blessed Mother.”

One of Vargas’ proudest moments was when one of his wooden figures of the Virgin Mary was presented to Pope John XXIII. It was an elegant rosewood depiction of Our Lady of Talpa, commissioned by a Los Angeles Catholic congregation.

“My father went to a lumber yard in Los Angeles which handles rare wood,” said Rudolph Jr. “When he asked for English rosewood, they said they hadn’t seen any in a long time. My father was describing what he was looking for, and he picked up a piece of wood on the ground in the mud. ‘About that size,’ he said. The people said that my father could have that piece of wood, that it was junk wood to keep other pieces of wood away from the dirt.”

When Vargas got the block of wood home, he planed it down. “It turned out to be English rosewood, exactly the size that he was looking for,” said the sculptor’s son.

Divine Inspiration

The wooden figure, with a broad triangular robe adorned with carved rose buds, is now in the Vatican collection.

Vargas’ son contends that his father was divinely inspired in his work. He shows visitors the old sculptor’s chisels, their handles splintered from the blows of the mallet, their blades burnished silvery bright from the collision with hard wood.

“Nothing fancy,” says the son. “But in his hands, they created miracles.”

It only seemed that his work was miraculous, Vargas himself would tell you. Making sculptures was mostly hard work. He studied as a teen-ager at the Academy of San Carlos, in Mexico City, working assiduously at learning the human anatomy.

“I worked on hands alone for six months,” he told one interviewer.

‘No Shortcuts’

Nothing is easy in sculpture, he often said. “There are no shortcuts,” he told another interviewer. “One wrong cut and you can ruin the whole work. Sometimes when I don’t feel good, I don’t carve.”

To maintain his standards, he never allowed himself the luxury of self-praise.

“If you ever think you are a master,” he said, “you won’t succeed. Always find some way your work may have been better.”

The goal is virtually unreachable, he suggested.

“The trick,” he said, “is to put human expression into dead wood.”


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