“It’s a lovely place for me to ride over to and have a little quiet time inside,” said Kirwin, 66, a printmaker and art teacher.
Enfolded in a soothing, sacred space removed from the fuss and flurry that make up much of Old Town, Kirwin is free to think through whatever might be on her mind at the time.
Often, however, her thoughts drift back to the mid-1970s, a time just after she had earned an art education degree from the University of New Mexico, a time when she helped build the very chapel she is sitting in, a time when she was a student and friend of Sister Giotto Moots.
New Mexico roots
Giotto Moots, a religious sister with the Dominican order of the Roman Catholic Church, passed away in Albuquerque on April 20 at the age of 90. The Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which boasts a brilliantly colored liturgical calendar created by Sister Giotto, is her memorial, a testament to her talent, vision and determination.
From the early ’70s into the 1980s, the chapel and other buildings tucked into Patio Escondido, 404 San Felipe NW, were part of the Sagrada Art Studios, a school of sacred art founded by Sister Giotto.
She was born Evelyn Moots in Chicago but Sister Giotto grew from New Mexico roots. Her paternal grandfather settled in southeast New Mexico before statehood. Her father was born in New Mexico but moved to Chicago as a young man.
It was while she was a student at the Art Institute of Chicago that Evelyn Moots decided she had a religious vocation. After joining the Dominicans, she continued her art education at the University of Wisconsin and at Villa Schifanoia, a Catholic graduate art school in Florence, Italy. In the late ’60s, she received permission from her order to start a school of sacred art.
“They said, ‘Sure go ahead and do that if you want to as long as you find a way to pay for it,'” Chris Sandoval, Sister Giotto’s nephew, said.
She may not have been certain of how she was going to fund the school, but she knew where she wanted it to be. Members of her family had started trickling back into New Mexico, so she chose Albuquerque as the site.
“… we are offering a course to encompass all fields of the religious arts … emphasizing the use of contemporary materials and innovative concepts in presenting the word of God,” Sister Giotto told a Journal reporter in May 1970.
Mixing mud, baking bread
By the summer of 1971, five Dominican sisters, volunteers sent by Sister Giotto’s Mother House in Wisconsin, were in Albuquerque, making adobe bricks for the school’s art studios.
Albuquerque’s Eileen Sandoval, Giotto’s sister, recalls that one of those Dominican volunteers ended up in traction.
“Those adobe bricks are heavy,” Eileen, 89, said.
Since every nickel mattered, students in Sister Giotto’s school were as involved in creating and sustaining Sagrada as they were in learning from courses in Christian iconography, liturgy and the arts, sacred scripture, festival dance and sacred song. They helped construct and renovate school facilities and worked at Joseph’s Table, a restaurant whose profits went to the school.
“I learned how to build with adobe there,” Kirwin said. “We were all involved in laying the adobes and mixing the mud (for the chapel). I made the bread in the restaurant.”
Eileen Sandoval said Giotto herself worked alongside students and volunteers, building and baking.
“She would get up at five in the morning to bake break (for Joseph’s Table),” Eileen said. “She also made a special gazpacho soup and Key lime pie.”
Round table education
By the early 1980s, Sagrada’s complex included the chapel, a library and classroom, Joseph’s Table, a gallery, an earthen dance circle, four studios in what had been a soldiers garrison in the 19th century and six apartments for students and staff. At that point, more than 400 students from around the country and from different religions had worked and studied at Sagrada.
Chris Sandoval said students and teachers gathered around a huge round, wooden table to share meals, ideas and each other’s company.
“The idea (of the school) was to create good religious art,” said Chris, 63, a wood craftsman and designer of fine furniture in Albuquerque. “(Sister Giotto) taught Christian iconography. Symbolism was important to her.”
Giotto’s brother, Richard “Dick” Moots, 80, of Rio Rancho, said that while Giotto was faithful to her Catholic religion, she was also open to new ideas and other ways of worship.
“She even did (a painting of) the Virgin Mary as a Buddha, Mary in a lotus pose,” he said.
Despite the support of benefactors and proceeds from tuition, Joseph’s Table and twice-a-week bingo games, funding for Sagrada was always a challenge. By the late ’80s the school was closed.
Sister Giotto taught for a time at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and then settled in the Sandoval County village of San Ysidro. There she renovated the village’s Catholic church and started construction, never completed, on a retreat center.
Today, a salon and a guitar store are among the businesses located in what was once the Sagrada Art Studio’s buildings. The chapel is privately owned and available to rent for weddings, memorial services and other events. But most times it’s open to the public, to tourists who come upon it by accident or to those, like Kirwin, who seek it out for quiet, reflective moments. Dick Moots said Sister Giotto found comfort in that during her last days.
“When (people) need a place to pray, they can come in here,” she once said about the chapel. “Every place has a certain vibration it gives off. This place is peace and prayer.”