ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Miguel Grave de Peralta spent two years in a Cuban prison for trying to escape to the U.S.
In 1992 he left for good with a group of five friends, two of whom died during a harrowing 15-mile swim from Santiago to a spot near Guantanamo Bay. Peralta and his surviving friends were flown to Miami by the American military.
The Albuquerque artist understands better than most the work done by Catholic Charities, which assists refugees and others in need.
So it seems fitting that Peralta is one of eight local artists whose work will adorn the walls of Casa Corazon, Catholic Charities’ new 22,000-square-foot hub that opens today at 2010 Bridge St. SW.
The new $7 million campus allows the agency to double the number of children it educates to nearly 100. It also will handle more than 2,000 adults, offering refugee resettlement, low-cost legal services and housing assistance to low-income families. Workers also teach English as a Second Language classes, high school equivalency classes and offer volunteer senior transportation services.
But it is the artwork that beckons visitors into the entryway. Steeped in symbolism and spirituality, the artwork of Casa Corazon captures the heart of a community of hope. Volunteers Thelma Domenici and Beth Chavez helped raise $90,000 to buy sculpture, paintings and fiber art from prominent local artists to celebrate both their talent and the agency’s mission.
“We want the building to be welcoming and be a place of dignity,” Chavez said, and “sort of not have that sterile government take-a-number-and-we’ll-be-with-you” atmosphere.
The two women commissioned the artists through what they call the HeartART project.
The artists include B.C. Nowlin, Miguel Grave de Peralta, Lisa Domenici, Andrew Rodriguez, Denise Taylor, Linda Dabeau, Mary Ann Weems and Anita Lucero. The work ranges from oil and acrylic paintings to bas relief sculpture and fine art quilting.
• Already known for canvases submerged in mystery and spirituality, B.C. Nowlin painted towering trees in oils. “It’s a forest with figures on a spiritual journey;” he said; “people on horseback. They look like Native Americans, but they could be anybody in the world. They’re moving through this big canopy of trees towards the light. It’s the journey of life.”
The imagery references the cascade of problems new immigrants confront when they arrive here, Nowlin said.
“They can’t read English and maybe they can’t read Spanish, but everybody gets this. Everybody knows it’s kind of about them.”
• Laguna Pueblo’s award-winning Andrew Rodriguez created a bas relief sculpture of a woman in prayer emerging from acrylic polymer like a flower bursting from the earth.
“It’s like a painting in 3-D,” he said. “A lot of my work is about the essence of prayer; the essence of spirituality,” he continued. “I give you a little bit of information and you interpret it the way you see it.”
• Mary Ann Weems, longtime owner of Mary Ann Weems Gallery and Framing, focused on the children’s area with a series of nine acrylic paintings centered on Noah’s Ark.
“It had to be happy,” she said. Weems painted highly stylized jungle animals reflecting her love of animation. She worked on the pieces eight hours a day, starting in July. “None of the animals is scary and they’re all smiling,” she said.
• Denise Taylor, whose stained glass work hangs in New Mexico’s churches, in the rotunda of the Bernalillo County Courthouse, at the University of New Mexico Medical School Chapel and in local homes, pieced together a 7-foot-tall, stained glass St. Francis of Assisi for the new center. The free-standing figure will greet people coming through the building’s main entrance.
“It’s not just Catholics; everybody loves him,” she said. “He’s an animal lover.”
• Both a sculptor and glass artist, Linda Dabeau created a crucifixion piece for the building entryway. The more than five-foot-tall figure was cast in bronze at Tesuque’s Shidoni Factory. The cross is reinforced steel clad in walnut.
“It’s a very spiritual piece,” Dabeau said. “Christ is looking upward. This Christ is in the transition between this earth and being received by his father in heaven. It’s not just the agony.”
• Fine art quilter Anita Lucero stitched a wall hanging from an image of Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park. The night sky, including a gossamer Milky Way, dominates two-thirds of the composition. The image symbolizes both the biblical voyage of Abraham and today’s immigrants, she said.
In the Old Testament, the Lord tells Abraham to leave behind everything he knows and lead his family and tribe to Canaan.
“It’s a fantastic story on faith,” Lucero said. “As a reward, he’s told, ‘Your descendants will be more than all the stars in the heavens and all the sand on the earth.'”
• Albuquerque fine artist Lisa Domenici created a mosaic depiction of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas and protector of families, for the center’s meditation garden.
• Miguel Grave de De Peralta, who paints portraits and landscapes in oil, also works in sculpture, watercolor and acrylics. One of his paintings at the center shows a young girl launching a paper boat toward the light. He credits the success of his American life to the help he received from Catholic Charities in Albuquerque.
“They took care of me from the beginning,” he said, “until I was able to go out on my own. Without them, we would not have survived.
“I guess God listened to me and said, ‘This is your opportunity to say thank you’,” he added.”This is a welcome from the people in the U.S. to other countries.”