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Jemez/Jicarilla artist Felix Vigil veers from literal interpretation

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Felix Vigil conjures the spirits of his ancestors in broad sweeps of mountains, mesas and skies.

“Holy Realm” by Felix Vigil. (SOURCE: The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center)

“Meditations on the Journey,” an exhibition of the Jemez Pueblo/Jicarilla Apache artist’s work, is open at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center through Oct. 30.

Vigil crafts his compositions with delicate layers of handmade papers like skin, carved figures and saturated colors.

Sometimes a horizon line or a mesa top will skim across his canvases. But he veers from literal interpretation.

“All my ideas are from ceremonies, dances or traditional (ways),” he said. “But I like to use modern materials like handmade paper, acrylics and oils.”

The cross-like spirit beings he carves from aspen and poplar wood and attaches to some pieces resemble Hopi kachina figures, he said.

Untitled painting by Felix Vigil.

“These are embodiments of our spirit beings or our ancestors.”

“Corn Pollen Way” captures a critical ceremonial component.

“It’s almost like a sacred being in and of itself,” he said. “All of our prayers that we send out to the universe are embedded in that pollen.”

The landscapes sometimes come to him as he drives across New Mexico’s vast expanse of mountains, mesas and sky.

“I think about all the connection we have with our land,” Vigil said, “All our ancestors and their ceremonies we carry on today. This is my reflection of all that has happened on this land. Today we have computers and all this technology. But the land is so constant. When you go out there to the landscape, you find a pottery shard or an arrowhead that cements you to your past.”

“Corn Pollen Way” by Felix Vigil.

As a child, Vigil watched, mesmerized, as his father painted in watercolor. His first formal inspiration sprang from old masters such as Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Vermeer. He graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art.

“It was a whole different world; it was culture shock,” he said. “It was hard at first, because I was homesick. But after that, it helped me so much.”

Vigil painted portraits for about 10 years until, he says, he “couldn’t paint another eyeball.” He quit painting for two years. From 1986 to 1995, he taught painting and drawing at Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Art.

When he began meeting with a Jemez elder, his world exploded into traditional language, ceremonies and songs.

“It just opened up my thinking,” he said. “How I thought about the world around me totally changed.

“He passed away,” Vigil said of his mentor. “The same day that we buried him, I went back to Santa Fe. I took out my box of paints. I had no preconceived ideas of what I was going to paint. All these ideas appeared like a flood in my brain.”

“Holy Realm” is a memorial to his late son, who died unexpectedly at age 36 in February.

“That was the first painting when I got back to work,” Vigil said. “The painting is about my memories of him and things we did together. He’s a part of that world now.”

Vigil boasts a galaxy of ribbons from the Santa Fe Indian Market. His work hangs in the Heard Museum in Phoenix, the Eteljorg Museum of American Indian and Western Art in Indianapolis and at the Buffalo Thunder Resort at Pojoaque Pueblo. Nearly a dozen of his short films are on permanent display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

The artist lives in Dulce on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation.