Amado Peña grew up on a south Texas ranch doodling sketches of cows, corrals, windmills and animals.
Born in Laredo, Texas, that drawing impulse has led him to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the U.S. State Department’s Art in Embassies collection.
This weekend, fans can see his work in person at the Rio Grande Arts & Crafts Festival: Balloon Fiesta Show at Sandia Resort & Casino. He’s also this year’s poster artist.
The annual festival features works by 200 artists from across the U.S. running from Thursday, Sept. 30, through Sunday, Oct. 2, and Oct. 6-9. Shoppers can choose from painting, sculpture, woodworking, textiles, glass, pottery, leather and photography. The festival’s big white tent runs along the Sandia Resort & Casino golf course. Visitors will find live music, cocktails, a food market, kids’ activities and more.
Peña’s instantly recognizable artwork can be defined by vibrant color and forms arranged in dynamic composition. He counts places such as Canyon de Chelly, Spider Rock, Monument Valley, Enchanted Mesa, Acoma Pueblo and Black Mesa as inspirations. His stylized paintings and prints often feature bold portraits of Native people, horses and pottery.
Born to an Hispanic father and a Pascua Yaqui (Arizona) mother, Peña refers to himself as Mestizo. He worked as a teacher for 16 years in Texas before taking a leap of faith and opening his studio in Austin. He began showing his work at local festivals and fairs.
“My students were always asking me if it was possible to make a living as a professional artist,” he said in a telephone interview from Austin. “Of course, I hadn’t done that.
“I wanted to be more than an art teacher,” he added. “I always thought I was an artist.”
Six months later, he was selling well. Forty years ago, he moved to a ranch outside of Santa Fe, where he lives with his wife Judy Boles Peña, a textile artist and the owner of Handwoven Originals.
“I started as printmaker,” Peña said. “I had the capacity to do multiples. It was a medium that was unique. It was a medium other people didn’t do.”
“I actually did my own” printing he said, as opposed to working with a master printer. “I went from seriography to intaglio to lithography. “
By the mid-’80s, Peña had established studios producing all three mediums.
“I am just enjoying creating fresh, exciting new images,” Peña said. “They don’t have to have a story; it’s already there.”
Rio Grande organizers chose his painting of a woman on horseback for this year’s poster.
“That’s my niece on one of our horses,” he said. “I was surprised that they picked that one. There were a lot of other images that were very strong.”
His paintings of Native women and their pottery are an homage.
“They’re portraits of who they are; the fact that they are artisans,” Peña said. “The pottery is a tribute to pueblo pottery. It’s a composite of a lot of different resources.”
Peña taught in his hometown of Laredo as well as in Crystal City and Austin, Texas. He continues to teach as part of the Studio Art League program at Alexander High School in Laredo and is also an adjunct professor in the College of Education at the University of Texas. He has been a presenter at many national education conferences.
Peña’s art celebrates the strength of a people who meet the harsh realities of life in an uncompromising land, and his work is a tribute to the Native Americans who survive by living in harmony with an adversarial, untamed environment.