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How Art Shapes Our Lives: The Mission Style

By Sal Maccarone —

Within the realms of art and architecture the word style can refer either to the values followed while considering what will be created, or to the physical techniques employed during the actual process.

In order to begin a study of the Mission style, one needs to go all the way back to 18th century Spain. At that time the desire of the king and founding Spanish priests was to emulate notable buildings from within their homeland.

Here in unsettled America they were limited to the construction materials that existed naturally on the mission sites. As in the architecture of Spain, the California missions exhibited a strong Roman influence in terms of their design and building techniques. The Priests, who were not academically trained in design, did their best to recreate the buildings that were depicted in the Spanish paintings of the time. During the design phase for Mission Santa Barbara, works of 1st century B.C. Roman architect Vitruvius were consulted.

While the twenty-one mission complexes built between 1769 and 1823 are each unique unto themselves, they all employed the same building techniques. All things considered, the Padres did an amazing job, and it was all achieved through the helpful efforts of unskilled laborers. These factors coupled with the use of only three basic elements — timber, stone, and adobe — all contributed to this rustic yet graceful style.

In the late 1870s an illustrator named Henry Chapman Ford, who had settled in Santa Barbara, began creating a portfolio of paintings to do with the California Missions. His renderings, done in both watercolor and oil, were in part responsible for renewed interest in the missions, and what is now known — especially in architecture — as the Mission Revival style.

This trend also carried over into art, furnishings, and stained glass as a number of national publications began to glorify the style. The movement was most popular during 1890s and lasted until about 1915. Where furniture is concerned, the mission revival style coincided with the international Arts and Crafts movement. Both styles advocated simple forms, use of the best materials, and above all traditional craftsmanship. Sharing the same values at essentially the same time, it is sometimes hard to differentiate between these two styles.

A visit to any one of the California missions is always a great experience. These are some of the oldest buildings that are still in existence here in the west. Much can be learned about art and architecture each time that you go. Many of the mission churches still function as Catholic parishes and some — which have been beautifully restored — are designated as California State Historical Parks.

Photos of Mission San Juan Bautista by Sal Maccarone

Mission San Juan Bautista, the 15th mission, is both a functioning parish and a state park. This is the closest mission to where we live, 100 miles, and is a wonderful example. Make sure that you go at a time when the chapel is open because it is full of period paintings, sculpture, and furniture.

The mission settlements are situated approximately thirty miles apart from each other — what used to be a one day journey by horseback. Folklore has it that the Padres sprinkled mustard seeds along the historic California Missions Trail so that it would be marked with bright yellow flowers.

Sal Maccarone is a foothills-based artist and craftsman

About Sal Maccarone

Sal Maccarone is an American author, furniture maker, and sculptor. He is best known as a master craftsman, and for his internationally distributed woodworking books such as Tune Up Your Tools, and How to Make $40,000 a Year Woodworking, both published by F & W publications, Betterway Books, in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is also known for his woodworking technique articles published both online since 1994, and by the national magazine Popular Woodworking. Sal attended San Jose State University and achieved a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Art History, and in 1974 a Masters degree in sculpture. In 2009 he began a syndicated newspaper column called, "How Art Shapes Our Lives". The column is published once each week in the California central valley, Sierra foothills, and the Yosemite area. The column is designed to help build an awareness of the fine arts and the "Bigger Picture" of art, while pointing to something local that can be observed. In 2010 Sal designed and built the two wood & glass display cases which reside as part of the permanent collection in the Great Lounge of the Ahwahnee Hotel. These furniture pieces were the first new additions to grace the Great Lounge since 1927. Both matching cases are made of native California walnut and are used to display the historic baskets made by the Miwok people who once lived in Yosemite Valley. In 2011 the display cases were designated as "Reserve Property" of the hotel and are now part of the United States national heritage. He has been in the business of designing and building cabinets, furniture and sculpture since 1972. His woodwork and kinetic sculpture can be viewed in many public, and private collections throughout the United States, and British Columbia. As a member of the American Institute for Conservation Sal has also served as a conservator of furniture for the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park, and has helped to preserve such National treasures as the three Craftsman style harvest tables which were built in 1926 by L & J.G. Stickley especially for the hotel.

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