About the Nativity Scenes
Frank Chaffee and Councilman C.E. Petersen visited San Diego to view a series of scenes they had on display. The scenes had been designed by the well-known East Los Angeles artist Rudolph Vargas. Vargas was contacted by the committee in late 1959. They inquired as to the cost for building scenes of biblical like size figures for display on Euclid Avenue. The committee, in talking to various service organizations, church leaders, and citizens in Ontario, received the backing of the Ontario Kiwanis Club in October 1959. They paid for the cost of the first Nativity crèches. Shortly thereafter, the Soroptimist Club donated the second scene for the Christmas season of 1959.
The first crèche built was Nativity at a cost of almost $1,500 and the second scene, Shepherd’s Adoration, cost $1,304.50. Vargas was helped by his wife and two Hollywood scenic artists, Leslie Sandford and Jose De Soto, who painted the back drops to have an almost three-dimensional effect. Wooden cutouts were made by Vargas to plan for each display. In this way he could bring the best qualities into play when working on the actual display. The wooden display cases were built by the California Youth Authority. Vargas took a personal interest in setting up the first displays.
Over the years, the committee and community placed ten additional crèches on display in the median on Euclid Avenue during the Christmas season, bringing the total number of crèches to twelve. In 1980, citizens and organizations donated funds to have Mr. Vargas place a plastic-type finish over each of the biblical figures to “protect them for a lifetime”.
“Christmas on Euclid” has become an annual event every holiday season. The funds to maintain the crèches come from the proceeds of Christmas on Euclid. Now sponsored by the Kiwanis Club of Ontario, this craft fair draws residents and visitors from all over to purchase homemade crafts from over 100 vendors. Food and musical entertainment were added to this community-involved project, thus keeping with the original ideas of the committee so long ago.
The restoration of the twelve Nativity Scenes are not only beautiful art, but an important part of Ontario’s history dating back to 1959. On Thursday, November 13, 2014 Ontario Heritage had the pleasure of meeting with Kim Pretti who is the Art Director for the restoration of the Scenes which include over 50 statues. Kim was asked and enthusiastically said “yes” and became the Art Director for this project. She was given pictures of how the scenes first looked which were included in a 3-ring binder full of information about the scenes and the original artist, Rudolph Vargas. He was born in Mexico, began carving at the Age of and eventually moved to Southern California.
Kim came to Ontario to look at the statues and assess them. She put a team together which included master sculptor, Walt Wilkey of Pacoima, California and fine artist and main painter Ms. Andy Doherty of Los Angeles. In June 2014 the actual work began on the statues. They are not made of paper mache as some people might think. Rather, they are carved from wood, resin and plaster molds of woodcarving. Also, different weights of muslin were used. Only one statue was originally a mannequin. Two of the lost statues were replaced with mannequins, but they have been redone and the original mannequin has been restored to be as much like a Vargas as possible. The team discovered that very fine to heavy grade muslin was glued or resined on and then painted because the primers back then were not as good a quality as they are now. Although some of the statues were in good enough condition that they didn’t need to be stripped, the majority had to have several coats of paint and old repairs stripped off. Some had been previously repaired with plaster but due to poor conditions they also had to be stripped. Stripping was done with either sand paper, grinding, or peeling off.
Underneath some of the statues the main structure had to be completely redone. Walt cleaned those out and put in fiberglass and steel reinforcements underneath to restore them while keeping the original artwork intact. Some of the statue bases were made of wood, which had rotted so they replaced that wood. An angel, a few shepherds, and a Jesus statue had wood rot which was replaced.
Over the years the statues suffered various damages. Some statues had broken necks, fingers, arms, and toes. A boy statue with a broken neck had previously been repaired by being given a turtle neck. As the repaired neck was not and did not look original, Kim had repairs done to bring it back to its original appearance. Angels with a cracked arm and a broken finger were repaired. Several silicon molds were made of both male and female hands and feet. A sitting Mary statue was given a new left hand made from a silicon mold which was then attached to the statue. They made some extra molds of hands and feet to have available for future repairs.
Kim and her team took the Jesus statue in Scene 12 (“Light of the World”) and cast a new head, made a mold, and fixed Jesus’ hair to go down. They put that new head on a brand new sculpted body and that is now in Scene 11 (“Come Unto Me”). The Joseph statues were extra hard to repair as they were in such poor condition. One had a 6” plaster type band aid on its face that had to be carefully scraped off and the face repaired.
To make the Rabbi statue they took a head of one of the bigger shepherds, cast it and Walt gave it more hair and a bigger beard. It took a lot of work but was well worth the effort. The baby Jesus statue from “Flight to Egypt” was very challenging but Walt got it done. They recently completed baby Jesus in the manger by casting from the original baby Jesus in “Flight to Egypt”. In addition, a silicon mold was made of an existing child statue and a new child statue was molded with a raised arm, then finished and primer applied. Grapes were created to place in that child statue’s right hand.
Regarding the lamb statues, there were only two left. Originally there were three standing lambs and three lambs lying down. Walt made silicon molds of an existing lamb. He made one standing lamb and custom posed the legs to lie down just like an original lamb had been. He also made two lambs lying down from the combination of the first mold and the leg molds. After Kim did much research she decided to use the highest quality grade of exterior house paint for the final coat on the statues to protect them from the weather.
Except for a few touchups Kim and her team are done with this major project. They had been working long hours day and night to get all of the statues completely restored before they were put up on the Euclid Avenue median November 22.
Now to the Crèches: Photographer John Edwards shot the backgrounds for the crèches and digitally manipulated them to look like the original backgrounds. As two of the original 12 backgrounds were missing, local painter and Ontario resident, Rick Caughman was hired by Kim Pretti to paint them.
They are 4’ x 8’ and Rick completed them on November 14. John has photographed them and they have been reproduced to the original size. Then those two scenes that Rick painted will be coated, framed and housed at the Museum of History and Art in Ontario.
Progressive photography has been taken of all the statues and the 12 backgrounds and all the work is being documented. Since all of the statues are restored to original pristine condition, plans are being made to house them in individual protective containers. When asked if she had any personal favorites out of all the statues, Kim said the Wise Men as “they just look really good!” Kim has been very passionate about this restoration project. It has been an intensive labor of love and she has felt very lucky to be a part of it.
The work continues – we need your help to maintain the restoration, provide proper storage, and to ensure that every holiday season the Nativity Scenes will be placed along Euclid Avenue in Ontario for many generations to enjoy.
(CLICK HERE) to donate.