Violin maker straddling two centuries

by Chelle Delaney: Quay County Sun

Rudy Gonzales is known locally as a sign painter. But here in the 21st century, Gonzales is really a 17th century artist and craftsman.

When he paints signs, he does it the old-fashioned way.
You won’t find Gonzales hunched over a computer screen. There are no computer print-outs, no flashy graphic programs and no slick vinyl curtains to hang over billboards emanating from his shop.
It’s just him and the brush, the paint and the billboard, sign panel or the store front.

Over the years Gonzales’ handiwork has been seen on many Stuckey’s signs along Interstate 40.

He’s painted signs and billboards from here to Dallas to the east, and from here to Gallup to the west.

Gonzales said business usually slows down during late fall and early winter because of the colder temperatures. But when it warms up again, he says, he’s booked through August.

In Santa Rosa, when the Club Cafe was “the” place to eat, and
advertisements for the club featured the “fat man” on billboards, those billboards – which were painted by Gonzales – had a cameo role in a movie starring Chevy Chase, Gonzales said.

But Gonzales, 73, sometimes thinks he might be a man who was born too late – about four centuries too late.

That’s because on any given day, Gonzales can imagine himself on a lunchbreak, drinking coffee and chatting with craftsmen on the streets of Cremona, Italy, in the 17th century. He even knows what he’d be talking about.

“I could say to them, ‘I’m having a little trouble with this glue or problems working with this wood.’ And they could give me tips; that’s how you learn. It’s lonely not being able to talk about these things,” Gonzales said.

What Gonzales finds fascinating about Cremona and that era, he said, are the master violin makers, Giuseppe Guarneri, who was alternately known as “del Gesu” because he signed his violins with a cross, and Antonio Stradivari, maker of the famous Stradivarius violins.

In addition to his sign painting, Gonzales has taught himself how to make violins and guitars.

And for those in the area who have stringed instruments, it is often Gonzales to whom they look for repairs.

“I’m an empty vessel that should have been filled with a lot of
information about violin making,” said Gonzales, who added that he had read a book to learn how to make violins.

The book, published more than 50 years ago, came complete with fold-out diagrams. Yes, he read it, not once, but about six times.

Because sign painting is his bread and butter, Gonzales said, “I don’t have time to do violin making. Someone offered me $2,000 to make them a violin, but it still would take too much time.”
He has, however, made several violins for himself. His first was made from wood he found in Roy. Not what the masters would have used, but, “I didn’t want to pay a lot for wood, when I didn’t know if it would come out.”

Over the years, since he first become interested in making violins at age 30, he has made his own tools such as those forms needed to bend wood and his own small glue cooking contraption to get the glue at the right viscosity for joining woods.

And in 1992, he and his wife, Betty V., traveled to Cremona, where Gonzales said he finally got to see, in the museums, some of the violins created by the masters.

“I read up on violins. I knew all the history. There were about 50 families who were known for making violins. I wish I had known them,” he said.

While in Italy, he met another man who makes violins and when he couldn’t get into a museum, his new-found Italian friend arranged for Gonzales to have his own private showing of several historic violins.

Gonzales is also a musical artist. He can easily play on one of his fiddles or on a Spanish guitar he has made. He enjoys traditional Spanish music and the original twang of the country and western sounds, such as Hank Williams and Marty Robbins.

Originally from Roy, Gonzales is the son of Margaret and Diego Gonzales.

His mother taught school and was artistic, and his father, a barber, was also a musician who played the violin. He also has a ranch in Roy and raises a few cattle, Gonzales said.

But as a young man, he moved to Albuquerque to learn the craft of sign painting.

“I was 20 years old when I started. Frankly, all the guys who taught me were 10 to 15 years older. Many of them have died off,” he said.

“It’s hard to find a sign painter who has learned what I have learned. It’s very expensive now but I used to do gold leaf painting. There’s a real trick to that because you also have to learn now to control the
static electricity.”