Fine art

Twenty-five years in Taos

'Kateri' artist Giovanna Paponetti celebrates with exhibition in Ranchos

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Even in a town where unbroken creative lineages can be traced back across a thousand years or more, a quarter-century of exceptional, ever-evolving work in the arts is still rare enough to warrant a celebration.

Artist Giovanna Paponetti will be celebrating 25 years in Taos on Cinco de Mayo, Friday (May 5), with an exhibition at the Trading Post Café and Gallery, 4179 State Road 68 in Ranchos de Taos. There will be an opening reception with live music from 5-7 p.m.

The Trading Post Café opened in Ranchos de Taos in 1994, the creation of Swiss chef and artist Rene Mettler (who died in January 2016) and his wife, Kimberly Armstrong.

Armstrong told us that the couple’s shared passion for art lives on in the venue. “What the Trading Post is all about is our local artists and talent here. We’re not taking commissions as a gallery would. We’re just glad to provide a backdrop. It’s all about community support. This is the second time Giovanna has shown her beautiful work with us, and this opening on Cinco de Mayo is very exciting.”

“It’s a wonderful environment, just a great place for a show,” Paponetti said.

People visiting Taos Town Hall have had the opportunity to enter into Paponetti’s work through her “Taos Historical Timeline Murals,” commissioned by the town of Taos for an exterior wall of the building. The four panels depict specific periods in Taos history, ranging from the years 1300-1696. She put painstaking research into the work, eliciting advice from Taos Pueblo elders along the way for everything from particulars of dress to how hunters would have been carrying a deer in that era.

Her portraits of notable Taoseños and others bring the subjects to life with compassion and skill. Her oil painting of the late Ben Luján, then speaker of the New Mexico House of Representatives, was presented on the last day of his final legislative session in 2012.

“It is in Taos that I have really found my voice,” Paponetti said. “Living in one place for 25 years is a long time for those who are accustomed to moving around. Many, if not most, of Taos’ natives have lived in Taos all of their lives. This is one of the things that attracted me to Taos.”

Of course, neither her work nor her curious, activist spirit have allowed her to stay planted in one spot for the entire 25 years. While maintaining her home base in Taos, her adventures have included speaking at the state Legislature in defense of wild cougars, volunteering at the Wildlife Center in Española and a stint in the Civil Air Patrol.

Perhaps the greatest adventure, one she acknowledges she never envisioned being so far-ranging and all-consuming, came in the form of a 2005 commission from St. John the Baptist Church at Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo.

The commission asked for 21 oil-painted panels depicting the life of the 17th-century Algonquin-Mohawk woman who, at the time of the commission, was called Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha — having been beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980. Since her 2012 canonization by Pope Benedict XVI, she is now Saint Kateri, the first Native American to be recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church.

The commission ended up taking Paponetti on a five-year journey, accompanying Ohkay Owingeh members as far as Canada to find and photograph models. “We went on a Kateri pilgrimage to do these 21 paintings,” she said. She devoted herself to the project, taking responsibility for years of organization, research and travel, as well as the logistics of achieving the paintings’ startlingly vivid and realistic historical accuracy and lighting.

“They had a makeshift longhouse, and I was working in there, but I needed the look of firelight, which was what they had in the 1600s, and we weren’t allowed to make a fire in the longhouse,” she recalled. “One of the ladies had a battery-operated lamp, and she kindly held it up from underneath for hours as I was posing models – to simulate the firelight. The whole time I was there, I would stay up late and write about the scenes. It felt as if I was making a movie.”

The extraordinary paintings can be seen on an 18-foot-high altar screen in the church at Ohkay Owingeh. They are also reproduced in Paponetti’s book chronicling the work, “KATERI Native American Saint: The Life and Miracles of Kateri Tekakwitha.”

She found the Kateri commission a life-changing experience and developed a profound connection with the sensitive young woman whose 24 years on earth have had such impact across the centuries. “She has led me on a journey and it’s ongoing. There’s no end to her.”

Paponetti showed Tempo some of the new work she’s been creating for the Trading Post show. A portrait of a very young ballerina stood out for its beauty and intricacy. Every detail radiates attentiveness and aliveness — the focus and concentration in the child’s face, the rug under her feet, the curious cat gazing up at her, the warmth of the wood floors and the homage to artist Edgar Degas in a painting on the wall behind the dancer.

“I began researching [Edgar] Degas and found out that he would go over and over his sketches, making changes. I’m inspired to do that," Paponetti said. "I’m actually working on doing some looser sketches before moving to paint. I feel I need to do more compositional design.”

Paponetti is also an acclaimed educator, a vocation she says helped her overcome childhood shyness when, as a second-grader, she was asked to help other children with their reading. She will be teaching a summer art class in portrait illustration at University of New Mexico-Taos for the month of June, as well as an eight-week private Tuesday art class at St. James Episcopal Church beginning May 9.

Looking back over her decades in Taos, she expressed gratitude for the changes she’s experienced here. “I’m a lot more mellow. I don’t get as upset about things as I used to. I’ve slowed down. I’m not painting as fast, but to me, that’s a good thing. Back east, I painted to sell. Now, I paint for me. I’m learning to trust my instincts more.”

The Trading Post Café show will remain on view through July 9. For more information, call (575) 758-5089 or visit giovannapaponetti.com.

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