Crumbling Cultural Treasure, Garden of Gesthemane, Needs Help

September 17, 2014

Artist Felix Lucero started work on his the Garden of Gesthemane sculptures in 1945. He died in 1951.

Artist Felix Lucero started work on his the Garden of Gesthemane sculptures in 1945. He died in 1951.

by Brad Poole

Tucked away in the shadow of Interstate 10 near Congress, a Tucson treasure is crumbling at the hands of time, vandals and the elements.

Since the late 1940s, the Santa Cruz River has been home to a group of white plaster sculptures now known as the Garden of Gesthemane. The life-size statues of Jesus, the apostles and Joseph and Mary started as one man’s expression of faith, but the figures, now maintained by the city Parks and Recreation Department, have become a part of Tucson’s cultural heritage.

“A lot of people really love the garden,” which is a popular spot for weddings and quinceañeras, said Peg Weber, the administrator for the Tucson Parks and Recreation Department West District.

The Garden of Gesthemane includes an altar with a kneeling bench.

The Garden of Gesthemane includes an altar with a kneeling bench.

The small park is hemmed in by a tall fence to protect it from vandals who have often damaged the artwork over the years. It is further protected by a dense ring of trees and bushes, all of which give the space a cozy, out-of-the-way feel despite its location less than 20 feet from west Congress Street.

Inside the gate is a bigger-than-life bust of artist Felix Lucero, who started his work in 1945. Beyond the bust are four life-size pieces – the Last Supper, a crucifix, Jesus lying in his tomb, and Mary, Joseph and a baby Jesus. There is also a small altar with a kneeling bench.

In 2012-13, a $51,000 grant from the Colorado-based Salvador Foundation covered the cost to renovate most of the sculptures, but the grant only covered part of the work. The crucifix is still crumbling. Longtime Tucson artist Greg Schoon restored the feet on the crucifix a few years ago and later restored many of the other figures, he said.

“At some point, that figure will need to be restored, and it will be a very involved process. It will have to be taken down,” he said.

Tucson artist Greg Schoon restored several of the heads and all of the hands and feet on the last Supper scene at the Garden of Gesthemane.

Tucson artist Greg Schoon restored several of the heads and all of the hands and feet on the last Supper scene at the Garden of Gesthemane.

Schoon couldn’t estimate the cost of that restoration, but the money won’t come from the city, county or state, because the government can’t fund religious works. Another private grant will be needed, Schoon said.

Last year’s restoration was a collaborative effort. The Salvador Foundation donated the money to the Knights of Columbus, who then asked the Pima Arts Council to find an artist. Schoon was hired after the council vetted his work. The city bowed out of the process, because the sculptures are religious.

The installation was crafted by Felix Lucero, who promised God that if he lived through a World War I battlefield ordeal, he would dedicate his life to religious sculpture. The native of Trinidad, Colo. stayed true to his word. From 1918 until he settled in Tucson in 1938, Lucero criss-crossed the nation, leaving behind art.

“He has several works in several states, but the Garden of Gesthemane and Tucson is where he settled,” Weber said.

Tucson artist Greg Schoon restored four of the heads on the Last Supper scene.

Tucson artist Greg Schoon restored four of the heads on the Last Supper scene.

He started the original sculptures in 1945 by scraping together sand and gravel from the Santa Cruz River bed, where he lived at least part of the time he worked on the piece, Weber said. He died in 1951.

Ironically, the first piece Schoon repaired is the one that now needs the most help – the crucifix. When the feet on the crucifix were smashed by vandals a few years ago, the staff at El Rio, where he was working on a separate piece, asked him to take a look. He proposed a restoration for the entire garden, and the arts council hired him.

To rent the Garden of Gesthemane, contact the City of Tucson Parks and Recreation Department. For information about the Salvador Foundation, see their website.

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