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.

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Vigil first learned the buon fresco technique in the 1980s from disciples of the great Mexican painter Diego Rivera. "By then they were in their 70s or 80s and they wanted to pass the tradition on," he says. "I was intrigued by the mystique … and the fact that fresco is public art. People don't have to go into someone's home to see it."

Faced with the project's demands, Vigil moved from Santa Fe to the Albuquerque neighborhood of Barelas to be closer to El Torreón. He says that Barelas reminds him of old Canyon Road. He loves to listen to the neighborhood elders' stories about picking wild asparagus along the Rio Grande or running moonshine up to Santa Fe. He's also focused on younger generations: the high school art students who assist on the project and the local university art students who have studied with him and produced their own frescoes. He ties these students to a tradition that reaches back to the 15,000-year-old paintings on the limestone cave walls at Altamira in Spain.

"The individuals who work with me know that they want to do this," Vigil says. "They understand that this is something special, that they are working in a sacred space."

El Torreón is currently open only during scheduled receptions ($5 members, $8 nonmembers; call for details). National Hispanic Cultural Center (10-5 Tue-Sun; museum admission $3; 1701 Fourth St., Albuquerque; www.nhccnm.org or 505/766-9858).

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