Religion is the only entity that keeps and protects real art," the late Rudolph Vargas once said. "In religion, I can grow and create."
The internationally known wood carver from East Los Angeles found the sanctuary he sought at Santa Teresita Hospital in Duarte. The Carmelite sisters there possess the largest collection of his work, more than 50 original woodcarvings, and are now making it easier for the public to view it.
In response to numerous calls from educators inquiring about tours, the hospital this fall plans to publish a brochure to guide the curious through the hospital's lobbies and hallways that are adorned with Vargas' religious works.
Although many of the pieces are in cloistered areas, 27 of them, including one in bronze, are part of the tour.
A map of the grounds and photographs identifying the pieces will be included in the guide, along with brief descriptions of scenes depicted and the history of each work.
One of the most popular pieces at the hospital portrays the disciples expressing wonder and awe as they recognize the risen Christ breaking the bread. One woodcarver called the 4-by-10-foot African mahogany panel a lesson in perspective.
Known to other wood craftsmen as "El Maestro" for his sculpting genius, Vargas' credits include the Vatican Gallery of Art, where a Madonna carved of old English wood is displayed. The sculptor also created the cherubic children and jolly villains for the Disneyland rides, "It's a Small World" and "Pirates of the Caribbean."
Vargas died at Santa Teresita in 1986 at the age of 82. He was commissioned to do the works at the hospital by Mother Margarita Maria, who founded the facility as a women's tuberculosis sanitarium. The two met in 1932 after Mother Maria saw Vargas' work at another church and contacted him. Both were natives of Mexico, according to hospital spokeswoman Michele Dulin, and the pair became fast friends until Vargas' death.
Mother Maria said she wanted classical art, "not something just semi-artistic" on the hospital grounds, to serve as therapy and inspiration for her patients, and the young Vargas was eager to oblige.
The sculptor worked on the religious pieces in between commercial assignments and viewed the carving he did for the hospital as "the one opportunity he had of leaving something behind where he felt it would be cared for and appreciated forever," said his son, Rudolph Vargas Jr., an electrical engineer in Chatsworth. The artist more often than not was paid only for his materials.
According to the pamphlet, Vargas' relationship with the sisters "took off strong in the 1950s," when Mother Maria commissioned him to create an 8-foot crucifix for the hospital's chapel over objections from the architect, who wanted to order a piece from Europe. The riveting figure of Christ still hangs over the altar. It was Vargas' greatest pride, said his son, and one of his best works. The 500-pound piece is said to be Vargas' first major work in which the wood was left in its natural state, and took over a year to complete.
A patio with a waterfall outside the hospital's intensive care unit was designed by Vargas just before his death. "Here he was in the hospital, supposed to be sick, and he was up at 9 a.m. in the cellars" giving classes to the nuns on how to make ceramic molds, his son recalled.
On the day before he died, Vargas presented Mother Maria, now 85, with two notebooks containing his autobiography, handwritten in Spanish during his hospital stay. "This is my life that I give to you because you have been my inspiration. . . . I am leaving for home tomorrow," he told her. The books remain in a drawer in her office as part of Vargas' legacy. On July 10 and Aug. 14, nuns will lead "Vargas Excursions" through the hospital, and Vargas' son and his daughter, Christina Vargas Rosine, will share anecdotes about him.
The grounds are open to the public for self-guided tours during the day and early evening, Dulin said.