Magazine article Sunset

The Passion of Frederico Vigil: As Albuquerque Turns 300, a Gifted Artist Celebrates Hispanic Culture in Plaster and Paint. Matthew Jaffe Explores a One-of-a-Kind Work of Art

Magazine article Sunset

The Passion of Frederico Vigil: As Albuquerque Turns 300, a Gifted Artist Celebrates Hispanic Culture in Plaster and Paint. Matthew Jaffe Explores a One-of-a-Kind Work of Art

Article excerpt

Sitting at a draftsman's table, Frederico Vigil is surrounded by paints, brushes, and the other tools of his trade. He's surrounded, too, by Madonnas, spirits, elders, philosophers, and scholars--some still pencil sketches, others glowing with brilliant, beautiful color--that seem to whirl skyward above him.

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Vigil is at work on a monumental fresco, depicting centuries of Hispanic history and culture, inside El Torreon, the 45-foot tower at Albuquerque's National Hispanic Cultural Center. From the outside, the terra-cotta-colored tower appears modest in size. Inside, the skylit cylinder's concave interior seems a vast space to fill. But Vigil is less intimidated than inspired.

"This is a dream wall, an unbelievable space," Vigil says. "It reminds me of those spaces I have traveled to in Mexico, Spain, and Italy, the national buildings and chapels. Walls covered in fresco."

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Vigil is completing his masterwork at an important time in the life of Albuquerque: The city marks its 300th anniversary in 2006. Vigil's work gives the city and its people a powerful new symbol that incorporates very old traditions.

Since he began work in 2002, Vigil has painted about 900 square feet of the 4,300-square-foot fresco. Near the tower's top, enormous hands, painted against a cobalt background, seem to reach inside through a skylight. Halfway down, a Madonna in gold-trimmed vestments stands beside a blazing sun, and nearby, a newborn infant is lifted toward the heavens.

The rest of the fresco remains a work in progress, curving walls covered with charcoal outlines. These depict imagery that will trace millennia of Hispanic civilization. Other sections will focus on the history of New Mexico. Vigil thought he would finish in three years; now he says he may not be done until 2009.

"Life has its own rhythm, and so does fresco," he says. "Try to speed it up, and it doesn't work. I can't rush it. And I'm not going to rush it."

Vigil, 59, grew up in Santa Fe, in the barrio along Canyon Road. Today Canyon Road is a major gallery center, but in his youth it was still unpaved, flowing like a river when it rained. His father, a barber, was always involved in building projects and encouraged his five sons to learn carpentry and masonry. Vigil believes that fresco's physicality drew him to the art form. "Fresco is manual and tactile," he says. "You have to use your body a lot."

A technique that dates back 5,000 years or more, buon fresco--or true fresco--involves the application of five layers of plaster made from a mixture of slaked lime and sand. The first three layers can take 10 days to dry. …

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