Charles Kubilos has always loved working with his hands.
As a child, it was carving animals, such as dogs and cats, out of soap. Later he began making artwork from wood and ivory.
But the pinnacle of this Ventura man's artistic career was reached with a life-sized sculpture he recently completed for Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Ventura.
To fulfill the commission, he had more than 5 tons of marble hauled into his garage, where he spent two years carving and hammering out images of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. It was a daunting task that kept the inside of his three-bedroom home covered with a layer of dust.
Because this was only Kubilos' second time working in marble, he was nervous. His biggest fear was accidentally bumping the fragile stone, or making a false move with the chisel.
"I lost some sleep over that," said the 72-year-old retired aerospace engineer. "I figured if the hand broke off, I would have to glue it back inside the sleeve where it was not visible. Mostly, I tried not to think about it."
Earlier this month, church officials unveiled the flawless sculpture, which features a 6-foot statue of Joseph standing above the Virgin Mary, who is lying at his feet holding the baby Jesus. The artwork sits on a 3-foot-tall pedestal near the church entrance at 10800 Henderson Road.
It is one of several pieces Kubilos has sculpted for churches and other organizations throughout Ventura County. He has carved a statue of St. Catherine of Alexander for Thomas Aquinas College near Santa Paula and several 18-inch bronze replicas of the Junipero Serra statue that stands outside Ventura City Hall. He also sculpted an 16-foot-long image of the Last Supper for Ojai Presbyterian Church.
"He is an expert at his craft, and it shows," said Lynn Rastaetter, an administrative assistant at Ojai Presbyterian Church. "When you look at the expressions on the faces of the men that are depicted [in the Last Supper], they are very realistic, very lifelike."
Finding the Spirit of Each Piece
Kubilos fusses over every detail, making sure the wood looks like real skin or the marble resembles the folds of a woman's dress.
On a recent afternoon, Kubilos sat behind a workbench in his garage, smoothing out the air bubbles on a wax pattern for a bronze figurine of a nude. As he worked, he talked about finding the "spirit" of each carving, mustering the courage to put aside pieces that aren't turning out right, and the sense of relief he feels when they actually take shape.
"You keep trying and trying to get what you have in mind. You never quite get there, but you keep plugging away," Kubilos said. "That's the fun of it." Kubilos said he prefers to carve sculptures of people, mostly dancers.
His living room is filled with examples of his craft. There are ivory carvings of his grandparents, a bronze ballerina, and bronze busts of his late sister and her husband. There are also wood portraits of his three children, and a wood bust of his wife, Gloria.
The sculpture for Sacred Heart was his most challenging. His first experience working in marble was six years ago while attending a sculpting seminar in Pietrasanta, Italy. That first piece, which he keeps on a table inside his home with several wood and bronze carvings, features a 24-inch reclining nude playing with a cat.
Daniel O'Sullivan, pastor of Sacred Heart, wanted a monument that honored respect for all life. He started asking around about artists and was eventually referred to Kubilos by the local chapter of Knights of Columbus, several of whose members are also carvers.
The marble cost $7,500 and was quarried in Colorado. A trucking company hauled the stones into Kubilos' two-car garage, where he worked an average of six hours each day, chiseling images of Jesus' family.
"This kind of work keeps him busy for hours and hours and hours," said Gloria Kubilos, 62, a Spanish-English interpreter for the Ventura County courthouse. "I'm just happy for him that he really enjoys what he's doing."
A Passion for Art Yielded to Practicality
Kubilos' passion for carving began during his youth in Tulsa, Okla., and he eventually took art classes at Washington University in St. Louis, applying his talent to papier-mache figures for parades and later posters for the Army during the Korean War.
But Kubilos figured it would be too difficult to earn a living as an artist. So he pursued a degree in engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduating in 1958. The next year he married Gloria, a native of Mexico. They moved to Ventura County in the 1960s.
But Kubilos continued to dabble in the arts, once painting a portrait of Gloria, which he gave to her parents in exchange for her hand in marriage.
He didn't get back into sculpting until about 20 years ago.
In 1987, at 58, Kubilos retired and started carving full time.
Friends and fellow artists say his drive and meticulousness make him successful.
"He has the ability and the willingness," said Richard Cronin, 76, a fellow member of the Channel Islands Carvers, a local chapter of the California Carvers Guild. "That's what makes him very effective in his work. He completes things and he completes them well."