Sculpting an Artistic Community on the Border: Urbici Soler

By on August 10, 2012

If you know about Urbici Soler at all you probably know him as “that guy that built the statue on Mount Cristo Rey.” While this is without a doubt an impressive feat and perhaps the highest achievement of a prodigious career that spanned three continents, several decades, and potentially hundreds of works, Urbici Soler’s legacy here on the border stretches beyond the monument he left behind.

Something about the Southwest must have captivated Soler during his first stay in El Paso from 1937 to 1939 because he returned to El Paso in 1945 to establish his own art school to be called “The Workshop of the Southwest,” but instead Soler joined the faculty of the College of Mines on August 24, 1945 to offer the school’s first sculpturing course.

Born in Spain, Soler spent the earliest part of his career studying and practicing his craft throughout Europe in some of the greatest art schools on the continent. Yet, the restless Soler eventually slipped the constraints and politics of the Old World for the freedom and opportunities of the New World, and exported himself to Buenos Aires in Argentina. From there Soler traveled the Western Hemisphere, kept aloft by various commissions and exhibitions until he ultimately returned to El Paso in 1945.

Then Soler did something altogether unexpected; he stayed in one spot. Soler made the Southwest his home. He befriended the small but wildly talented artistic community, including Carl Hertzog and Tom Lea. He became an American citizen. He even built a home at the foot of Mount Cristo Rey.

Soler, an internationally respected sculptor, made the dusty border city of El Paso his home and the technical College of Mines his workplace. Such a decision may seem strange given the possible alternatives available to such a talented artist, however, Soler’s decision to stay in El Paso illustrates the substantial change taking place in the public and academic community on the border. The frontier town had grown into an industrialized city, but it continued to change still. The College of Mines transformed beyond its original vocational and technical focus towards the university that UTEP has ultimately become. The deliberate addition of an artist of Soler’s quality was designed to facilitate the growth of El Paso’s burgeoning artistic community.

Unfortunately, Urbici Soler’s influence on the artistic community was cut short when he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1953. Although people remember him best for the statue atop Mount Cristo Rey, he left a substantial number of works at UTEP some of which remain within UTEP’s Special Collections department in addition to the more intangible contributions his tenure had on the school and surrounding community. However, even more than this I would encourage you to investigate “A Philosophy of Art by Urbici Soler” found in Appendix B of Urbici Soler 1890-1953 by Jesus J. Rubio that reveals this exceptional artist’s unique perspective.

Soler in the classroom

Artists Lea and Soler’s works of each other

Urbici Soler and friends, Tom Lea and Carl Hertzog, judging cartoon entries for the newspaper

Note: See Urbici Soler Collection, Paul Dean Daniggelis Papers, Tom Lea Papers, and Carl Hertzog Papers in UTEP Special Collections for more about Soler.

Andy Klooster served as an assistant in the C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department of the UTEP Library. He is currently an MA student in History at UTEP.