The Michaelanglo of San Luis

Local Sculptor Huberto Maestas is nationally known for his larger-than-life sculptures. Visit his spectacular Stations of the Cross series dotting a hillside in the tiny town of San Luis, Colo. 

By Tori Peglar

If you turn down an alley in San Luis, the oldest continuously inhabited town in Colorado, you’ll find nationally-known sculptor Huberto Maestas working in a simple, unmarked adobe garage. His studio sits amid a dirt parking area interrupted by bales of hay and an aluminum-covered storage building, its northside covered in a mountain-themed mural. 

But it’s the pinon-pine-topped mesa rising behind his studio that brought Maestas, 59, international recognition 30 years ago. Fourteen of his magnificent nearly life-sized sculptures dot the gentle pathway up the mesa forming what is known to Catholics as the Stations of the Cross. Each sculpture captures different moments from the day of Jesus’s crucifixion, with the final station being Jesus’s resurrection from the dead. 

When you take the short walk past the sculptures, you’ll find yourself captivated by the way the bodies and faces frozen in bronze reveal the vulnerability, strength, grief and compassion of the human experience. They proved so moving that the Vatican in Rome owns a miniature collection of Maestas’ Stations of the Cross. What’s equally as fascinating is the way in which their grandiosity contrasts with the humble sculptor working below them at the bottom of the hill. 

With a thick white beard, red-and-black checkered flannel shirt and a worn brown leather newsboy cap, he moves between casts, metal wire concepts of new sculptures and his disheveled shelves of tools, creating his next works of art. In the 30 years since sculpting the Stations of the Cross figures, Maestas has created dozens of sculptures across the country for cities, churches and more. But he’s remained rooted in the San Luis area. It’s where he first fell in love with sculpture, an unlikely profession for the son of farmers. 

“Being an artist is who I am,” says Maestas while sitting on a stool casually in his studio. “It’s not what I did to make money. I’m fortunate enough people like my work enough to support it.” 

Stumbling on Sculpture

When he was 10, Maestas rode his bike, shovel in one hand, to help clean out the acequias, the communal irrigation canals in San Pablo, Colo. It was early spring, and the valley’s farmers were getting the water canals ready for growing season. In the distance, he saw a house with an elderly man working on the porch. As he pedaled closer, he saw the man was carving something out of wood. 

“He was an old santero, a wood carver,” recalls Maestas, gently smiling at the memory of it all. “I asked him if he would teach me. I found it fascinating.”

The elderly man did teach the young Maestas, and the lessons sent him off to the library devouring books on wood carving and sculpture. Before long, he was carving reliefs in his bedroom out of discarded planks of wood he found. His mom used his wood shavings to start fires in the family’s wood-burning stove in the mornings. With his hands constantly creating, he drew on his clothes and jean jackets, the designs of which caught the attention of a student named Dana. They were married when she was 18 and he a 17-year-old senior in high school. 

“I supposed we met by me checking out his artwork on his clothes,” recalls his wife Dana Maestas, a writer. “He would say I was stalking him because I was trying to see what drawings he had on his clothes next.”

Huberto’s first art studio was in a decrepit chicken coop, which he renovated and expanded with wood scraps from other buildings on his childhood property. He managed to put a wood stove in it to keep warm on cold days. Two of his wood carvings ended up in a gallery in Taos, N.M. 63 miles south of San Luis. Before long, he graduated from high school and headed to Alamosa State University where he majored in sculpture, design and ceramics.  

 
 
 
 
 
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Finishing touches

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Community Effort to Create Stations of the Cross Shrine

Back in San Luis, Amos Bernal, a member of the Knights of Columbus, had an idea to build base relief bronzes of Stations of the Cross for the Sangre de Cristo Parish courtyard. Father Pat Valdez, the priest at the time, looked up at the prominent mesa teetering over downtown San Luis, Colo. Carpeted by sagebrush, pinon pines and wild grasses, the wind-blown mesa offers 360-degrees of the seemingly infinite San Luis Valley. 

A vision emerged to buy the mesa and formally create a path that would be dotted with the Stations of the Cross. At the top would be a grotto to the Virgin Mary, a white stucco Mexican-style chapel and a shrine to the 25 Mexican saints and martyrs who were executed for continuing to practice Catholicism after the 1920s revolution. 

But San Luis, which had about 800 residents, was not a wealthy town. In fact, a fair share of families lived below the poverty line. To fund and build such a complex would be a bit like trying to turn water into wine. There was a silver lining. Father Valdez knew a sculptor who could create the Stations of the Cross: it was Maestas. When Father Valdez and Maestas walked the mesa to plot the path for the project, Maestas imagined what base reliefs would look like on the hill. Then he threw out an idea to the priest: with such an expansive outdoor space, three-quarter life-sized sculptures would be far more impactful, with the Crucifix and Resurrection scenes life-sized. Father Valdez agreed. 

Miraculously, the entire project came to fruition. The magical-looking Mexican-style chapel, designed by local architect Arnie Valdez and Boulder, Colo.-based Michael Bertin, on the hilltop serves as a beacon. Its huge white dome and two stone bell towers draw you up past Maestas’ sculptures to explore the mesa. 

“When you see the little town there, you think, ‘How could this little town have something so beautiful?’” says Father Valdez who was born 15 miles away in Capulin, Colo., on land that has been in his family for 130 years. “The town doesn’t have those kind of resources, but as I have said, God wanted it. We never ended up with any debt. As we worked on it, money came in.” 

At the intimate Chapel of All Saints, you can attend mass at 7 a.m. during the summers from Memorial Day through Labor Day. But Father Valdez’s vision was for it to be a place of prayer and reflection for everyone, not just Catholics or religious followers. If you want to arrive by car, you can reach the chapel by driving north of San Luis and taking the dirt road marked by the Stations of the Cross sign up the mesa. 

A Family of Artists

The complex could not have been built without hundreds of volunteers who lent a hand. The pathway up the shoulders of the mesa was built by a number of volunteers, including residents, members from the local and national chapters of the Knights of Columbus and visiting youth groups. Even Maestas’ four children played a role. 

To create the figures for the Stations of the Cross, Maestas asked his kids to carry a cross, or items that would have resembled a cross, across the yard and he’d observe the way the muscles in their arms were activated or how their shoulders slumped with the weight. He also had a good friend come over to pose for other scenes. Today, his four children and three grandchildren all share his love of the arts. His daughter Bianca is a professional artist in Denver. His son Aubrey works in the foundry with him and son Dyami creates cosplay costumes and masks. His grandson is a sculptor who has exhibited nationally. 

“It is a blessing to see your children and grandchildren interested in the arts,” says Dana Maestas. “After all, they have spent all their lives in the studio and in art galleries and museums. We all became a part of what he did as an artist and that was our life.”

If you’re in Maestas’ studio, you can see the mesa rising up through the glass windows in the garage door. Ironically, it is the mesa that keeps Maestas, at times, disconnected from the world. The cell phone reception in his studio is non-existent, an issue he blames on the mesa. To get in touch with Maestas, you either have to call his wife or knock on his studio door. 

And maybe the sense of solitude Maestas experiences in his adobe studio at the foot of the mesa is the same feeling Father Valdez experienced as he looked to the mesa and envisioned a place for prayer. It’s a connectedness with the sacred, set apart from but a part of the landscape of pinon pines and sagebrush that rustle in the valley’s winds. 

“No matter how much I do this, I enjoy it as much today as the day I started,” Maestas says. “I really cannot imagine doing anything else. I am always there with a sketch pad or little bits of clay. My hands are always busy and if they are not, my mind is busy creating things.” 

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Tori Peglar is a travel writer who covers national park travel for National Park Trips. She was inspired by her conversation with Huberto Maestas and by his spectacular sculptures that make up the Stations of the Cross in San Luis, Colo.

 

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