Mission San Xavier del Bac - The White Dove of the Desert

As you drive along the highway - ten miles south of Tucson - a magnificent white mission church appears mirage-like out of nowhere. Its' Mexican Baroque facade beckons, and as you drive toward this wonder - tucked onto the Tohono O'odham San Xavier Indian Reservation - you're transported back in time to the 18th century.

AND from October 18th through January 8th, 2017 there will be TWO of these extraordinary mission churches - the original (above), created by Mexican Architect Ignacio Gaona and the hand-carved and detailed miniature (below) created by Santa Fe Artist/sculptor Roberto (Bob) Cardinale for an exhibit - Churches of the Southwest - Wood Sculptures - at the Mini Time Machine - Museum of Miniatures in Tucson, Arizona.

I have been an admirer of Bob's work for some time - SEE PREVIOUS POST HERE - and when he told me about this exciting project, designing a dozen or so miniature replicas of beautiful old mission churches in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, I had to visit his studio for a look-see. 

When you step into the beautiful Cardinale home (he and artist-wife PJ have been married for 50 years), you know immediately that they embrace beautiful things and have a gifted eye for placing them just so. Their wonderfully-curated collection of Folk Art and Contemporary Art  fills every room. But Bob is quick to point out that PJ is the one with the decorating prowess, he only holds the ladder.

T H E   S T U D I O

Q. How do you describe your studio?

A. A messy and stimulating place to go to every day!

Churches, churches everywhere - all finished, with just one  being nuanced with a bit of gold leaf or a decorative element and aged patina here and there. They are remarkable, and what made this visit so special was to not only photograph the work so intimately, but to hear Bob describe the history of each church and all the exquisite work that went into creating them. 

The tiny bells & crosses are all handmade...

He first draws each church to scale before beginning  the process, but for finishing, a photograph of the actual church helps with the final details.

Almost finished...

The detailing is remarkable. The tiny figures tucked into niches on the church above were all hand carved. And the replica of the Alamo Mission in San Antonio (below) has a charming flag pole that Bob made to scale with the exact mechanism for lowering the flag. 

Bob was a metalsmith before being wooed by wood and churches, and he still uses those skills to create miniature door handles, bells, crosses, and other details on his churches. Some of the churches have secret drawers in their bases that hold charming miniature assemblages created by PJ using vintage devotional ephemera, particular to the age and location of each church. 

Tools, wood & assorted materials - Bob uses a combination of white pine and corrugated paper - are everywhere...

And an award tucked here and there...


Q. Why were you drawn to creating your beautiful churches?

A. I fell in love with ecclesiastical architecture as a young Benedictine monk and as a sculptor; the forms found their way into my art.

Q. If you could place a collection of your churches anywhere, where would that be?

A. My work is in a number of museums, but I would be very happy if there were a few pieces in the Museum of Art here in Santa Fe as I feel this area stimulates and nurtures my art.

Q. What great  church designer/architect, would you like to meet?

A. Le Corbusier, the architect of my favorite church, Ronchamp, outside of Paris.

Q Who or what inspires your art?

A. I have a holy trinity of artists: Matisse a the top of the triangle, Robert Motherwell at the left corner and Richard Diebenkorn at the right corner.

Q. What is the collaborative process like with PJ?

A. Like our 50-years of marriage, wonderful, sometimes trying, but one of the best experiences of my life for which I am very grateful.



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