Painter Frederico Vigil Is Helping to Keep a 5,000-Year-Old Artform Alive

Courtesy Lucy Reyes

Frederico Vigil is the creator behind the largest fresco in North America—and his teachers were Diego River and Frida Kahlo’s pupils.

Painter Frederico Vigil has only one degree of separation between Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Lucienne Bloch and Stephen Pope Dimitroff, apprentices to Mexico’s most famous artists (and world-renowned artists in their own right) taught Vigil the art of buon fresco—a painting technique dating thousands of years. Vigil, best known for Mundos de Mestizaje, the largest fresco painting in North America, is halfway through year two of Historia de Vino y Agricultural Systems, a 2,500 square-foot fresco inside the Albuquerque Convention Center, exploring New Mexico’s past as the first purveyor of winemaking in North America

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“I worked in Spain many, many years ago,” says Vigil. “I got to appreciate their respect for how they enjoyed wine. Not to get drunk or inebriated but to use it as a form of communication and celebration. I pitched [the Albuquerque City Arts Board] on this concept. People were unaware of the history and found it educational enough to approve.”

Courtesy Lucy Reyes

Vigil’s interest in wine, history, and a curiosity for exploring the roots of his culture sparked the Santa Fe native’s interest in seeking out this little known piece of the past. While California is typically synonymous with winemaking, New Mexico is where the craft really took hold—Franciscan friar García de Zúñiga and a Capuchín monk named Antonio de Arteaga planted the first wine grapes in the region in 1629—and Vigil is dedicated to spreading this knowledge.

Frederico Vigil with his fresco painting Mundos de MestizajeCourtesy Lucy Reyes

This is not the first time Vigil has taken on the arduous task of exploring, understanding, and translating history into art. His Mundos de Mestizaje, a 4,000-square-foot fresco depicting pre- and post-Hispanic history, required the consultation of seven Mesoamerican and Spanish scholars. It also took nearly three years to be approved and 10 years to complete. The artwork is on display on the concave ceiling of the Torreón at Albuquerque’s National Hispanic Cultural Center. 

Vigil learned the laborious complexities of fresco painting in 1984. Fearing the artform was on the verge of extinction, the Dimitroffs partnered with the Santa Fe Council for The Arts and sought out people interested in learning the craft. Vigil was approached by the organization and accepted an internship, in part because as one of five boys, it was a way to stay busy and out of trouble. Lessons on technique came paired with the couples’ memories from the past and featured not just Kahlo and Rivera, but friends like Leon Trotsky. 

Frederico Vigil with his new fresco painting. Courtesy Lucy Reyes

The process of making a fresco painting begins with rough plastering a surface with a sand, cement and lime mix. One layer of plaster application takes an average of 10 to 12 hours to dry and Vigil typically begins painting on the fifth layer. A complete design requires seven to nine hours of work, and then 7 to 10 days of drying. If an error is made, the artist must scrape the layers off and begin the process all over again. The art of making fresco is believed to be more than 5,000 years old, with the first popping up in Crete, Israel, and Egypt to adorn palace walls and tombs.

Related: Looking to the Past for Art Inspiration

“It's an ancient art,” says Vigil. “An individual who learns and creates frescos is keeping a tradition alive. This technique goes back many, many generations and will continue, hopefully, for many, many more.”

Courtesy Lucy Reyes

Vigil is an integral part of fresco’s renaissance in the U.S. and due to conservation efforts sparked by the Dimitroffs, the technique has seen a revival that has led Vigil to teach workshops from California to Michigan.. The opportunity to pass on his knowledge drives Vigil. It’s one of the things he enjoyed the most about painting his latest fresco inside the convention center—visitors often stopped to inquire about his work. Today, things are a bit more quiet. He misses the interactions convention center guests provided him, but says the upside is he now has more time to create without disruptions.

“There’s pros and cons to everything,” says Vigil. “Who knows what will happen in the future. Things will one day open again. In the meantime, buy art and New Mexico wine.”