The Michelangelo of New Mexico

I am so happy to share that The Believer has just published my profile of master frescoist Frederico Vigil in their November/December annual arts issue. Writing and publishing this essay was a year-long endeavor, which seems daunting until I realize that’s only one-tenth of the time it took Vigil to paint the fresco in the first place. It was a deep honor to pay tribute to an artist I profoundly admire. Here is a taste of the essay:

Frederico Vigil is afraid of heights.

“When I first went up here to paint the ceiling, I would clench the bottom with my toes como chango, like a monkey. I clenched so tight, my two big toenails popped off.”

A scissor-lift ascended through the middle of the watchtower. The enormity of Vigil’s latest work—a four-thousand-square-foot fresco depicting three thousand years of Latino history—became even more apparent from an elevation. There was Benito Juárez. A steam train blazing out of California. Oxen pulling carts along the Camino Real. A smirking Cervantes. Each image gleamed as if painted a moment ago, in bold, gestural brushstrokes.

At thirty-seven feet, the lift began to sway.

Vigil was fifty-five when he started this project. Good timing, he said: he might not have the stamina to do it today. It’s been a rough decade. He divorced for the second time. His baby brother died, and Vigil, while grieving, developed Bell’s palsy. Although the fresco has been deemed a “million-dollar project,” with most funding provided by the state ofNew Mexico, only a fraction found its way into Vigil’s pocket. He received about four hundred thousand dollars over nine years, and a fair portion was funneled into supplies, materials, and honoraria for his assistants. (And in March 2011, the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs would demand back nearly the same amount from the foundation that funded the fresco, claiming it had been spent on “impermissible” expenditures, such as administrative fees. Vigil’s share, however, would remain uncontested.)

In the past decade, Vigil has been levied by the IRS. He has hired lawyers. He has fired lawyers. Twice, he grabbed his brushes and threatened to quit.

Yet the wall kept luring him back.

Despite these trials, Vigil remains handsome and gallant, with slick brown hair, a Don Quixote goatee, a paint-splattered smock over jeans, and Fluchos sandals over socks. His hands resemble a carpenter’s, callused and capable. Friends call him Miguel Angel, the Michelangelo of New Mexico, and this is his Sistine Chapel: the interior of the forty-five-foot-high watchtower, or torreón, guarding the front gate of the National Hispanic Cultural Center (NHCC) in Albuquerque.

In May 2010, five months remained before his fresco’s grand opening, and entire stretches of wall bore either charcoal outlines or nothing at all. The notion of meeting his deadline seemed quixotic, at best. But the same could be said of the entire enterprise…..

Intrigued? Click here for the issue or, even better, visit the masterpiece yourself at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Que viva Frederico!

One Comment

  1. Congratulations, Stephanie! Can’t wait to read the full article & see this masterpiece. Imagine, I live part-time in NM and I have heard nothing about this!!

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