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.

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.

Vigil is at work on a monumental fresco, depicting centuries of Hispanic history and culture, inside El Torreón, 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.”

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. Then come the last two layers.

Vigil paints onto the final, fifth layer, known as the intonaco, while it’s still wet. He grinds pigments to a fine powder, then brushes them onto wet plaster, following the outlines of his sketches transferred earlier. The paint is absorbed into the damp wall, resulting in luminous, durable hues.

The project’s scale means that Vigil can use a wider range of brushes and strokes, often working with his whole arm rather than his wrist. Still, fresco is unforgiving. Make a mistake and the section must be completely scraped off, replastered, and repainted. And El Torreón’s height and concave walls mean that perspective changes. More than once, Vigil has stood on the tower’s floor after completing sections near the ceiling only to realize that they didn’t work when seen from below.

In the project’s early days, Vigil had to rely on ladders and scaffolding to reach the upper tower. Now he also uses a lift outfitted with a weight bench, on which he can recline comfortably as he paints. But his lift is wobbly too, and for a while Vigil didn’t notice that he was gripping with his feet, putting such pressure on them that the nails on his big toes fell off. 

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; or 505/766-9858).

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