Immigrant Stories: Sometimes a painting paints itself
Intro: Fred Haberlein is an artist who has devoted his life to making art more accessible to people. His sweeping landscapes adorn towns across Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. His murals remind us why we live here.
Over the years, as he has painted his way across the region, Fred has earned a reputation for his openhearted generosity and his loving spirit. His Native American friends have named him Lightning Heart.
Haberlein: I grew up at Conejos Ranch on the Conejos River, down in southern Colorado, on the east side of the South San Juan Wilderness. Our ranch was one of the last places on the road to the wilderness. We were at 8,500 feet, so winters could be long and cold.
Town was 15 miles down the road, but it was a wonderful way to grow up, with the animals and the horses.
Gallacher: How did your family end up there?
Haberlein: My dad discovered it on a hunting trip, back when he was a petroleum engineer and we lived in Texas. We moved up there two years later, when the ranch came on the market.
My dad was a quiet, outdoor-oriented guy who loved horses and discovered that he was in a job that didn’t suit him. I learned so much about animals and geology from him.
Gallacher: What about your mom?
Haberlein: My mom was a highly intelligent woman who didn’t like the corporate life either, so she was excited about the move to the country. But I think she was brave to make the move to a culture that was largely Native American and Mexican in a place where we didn’t know anybody. The Anglos that were around were all Mormon ranchers, so it took some time for her to adjust.
Gallacher: So being outdoors was something you were comfortable with early on.
Haberlein: Oh yeah, even as a little kid I wanted to be out of the house as much as I could. I was 10 when we moved there. We had horses and animals and guest cabins so there was a lot that needed doing.
My main job was to chop the wood for the main house and all the cabins. We grew up doing scary and adventurous things that modern parents wouldn’t let their kids do, like clearing brush and logs off the bridge at high water in the spring.
Gallacher: Did you have brothers and sisters?
Haberlein: I have a brother who is three years younger, and I had a Navajo foster brother, Jacky, who was my age, but he died. He joined our family when we were 13. He and his mom lived in a tiny cabin just down the road from us. She went into the hospital, one day, and never came out.
Jacky moved in with us, and we finished school together. He and I hiked and explored together continuously. We did game counts for the Fish and Wildlife Service and all kinds of cool stuff.
Gallacher: What was it like to be introduced to this multicultural place after living in place that wasn’t?
Haberlein: Well, you have to adapt especially when you’re the only blond kid there. It was a very warm but fierce environment. I got slammed into lockers, with no warning, by guys with mustaches.
I learned, pretty quickly, that the best defense is a good offense. If anybody gives you a whisper of trouble, you deck ‘em. It was all about pecking order, so once I established myself, I was fine. Although, it took me a long time to unwire that volatility.
I think that started to happen when I met Willy, the guy who would become my Yaqui brother. I was working on a master’s degree in printmaking and engraving at the University of Arizona, and I met him in the art studio, the day I arrived, and we have been brothers ever since.
Gallacher: How many years has it been?
Haberlein: Well, this will be my 47th year attending the Yaqui spring ceremonies in the Sonoran Desert. The spring ceremonies are the celebration of the return of life after winter. It’s the first full moon after the equinox. It’s the returning of the light, the blooming of the desert and the budding of the cottonwood leaves.
Gallacher: How has that experience and that friendship impacted your life and your art?
Haberlein: The music gets baked into you, the drumming and the chanting comes right out of the ground and your own center. It really soaks into you.
The spring ceremony involves the whole Yaqui tribe, it is a community production that celebrates the solar-lunar calendar and recognizes the sweep of the seasons and all the blessings of life returning after winter. It is a sacred ritual that holds the tribe and its members together.
Through this ritual the Yaquis have taught me what it means to keep a sacred vow, and so every year, no matter what, I join them in celebrating the return of life. It’s a pilgrimage for me. There are three extended families that I’m a part of. It’s been a great yearly blessing.
Gallacher: How has that experience influenced your art?
Haberlein: It rededicates me, every year, to celebrating the beauty of the landscape that surrounds us. It has also taught me that, no matter how you feel, you go do it.
There have been years that I have tried to talk myself out of going, but every year I go, and I am always so glad I did.
Gallacher: You have engaged a lot of communities in your life. Tell me more about that.
Haberlein: Well, over the years, I have painted 140 murals in towns across Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. I kick off Telluride’s Mushroom Festival, and I open the Carbondale Mountain Fair every year, so I feel like I am part of all these communities in a way.
There are people in these communities that I have known all my life and are important to me. I can pull up, and they’ll feed me supper.
Gallacher: What is the genesis of your mural art?
Haberlein: When I was living in Arizona, some friends and I opened Mother Cody’s Café, and I volunteered to paint a big mural on the outside. I did a nighttime desert scene down the east side of the café when it first opened. It was 16 feet high and 50 feet long, so it attracted some attention, and my murals took off from there.
I think the best thing about the murals is that they celebrate what is best about that community. The mural usually depicts a place that everybody knows and is proud of.
Gallacher: The Earth Mother figures large in your life; can you talk about the mural you did of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Antonito, Colorado.
Haberlein: The first painting I did of the “Holy Mom” was for Johnny Johnson, one of my high school classmates who got shot up in the Vietnam War. He asked me to paint her on the wall of his cabin because he said she saved his life as he lay dying. That painting completely painted itself in two-and-a-half days. I just got to watch.
The next spring, I painted a mural in Antonito. It was the story of the Miracle of Tepeyac, where the Blessed Mother appears to Juan Diego. It was there for 30 years, until it got painted over. When that happened, the guys in Antonito called me to let me know that they wanted to me to recreate it. They said, “We’ll find you a wall, and we’ll raise the money.”
I was restoring my “Ladies of Leadville” mural, at the time, and I was starting to lose weight and struggling to get food down. That freaked me out because I was running up and down my big ladders, and I needed to keep my strength up.
That’s when the cancer in my esophagus showed up. It was after my second chemo that the guys in Antonito called and said, “Hey Fred, we found you the perfect wall.”
So I drove down and sure enough it was a perfect wall, but I was in such bad shape, I mostly just sat on the running board of my truck and looked at it. But I did manage to sketch it in.
I worked on it between chemo treatments as I continued to improve. My wife, Theresa, helped me paint the big roses and lay the color in. When I went back the next time, the Blessed Mother took over.
Gallacher: So the painting was passing through you.
Haberlein: Yeah, right when I started painting the stars on her robe, tears were streaming down my face and the painting finished itself. After a number of hours, I got down off the ladder and I said, “I think I’m well.” And sure enough that turned out to be true at the time.
Gallacher: What’s that like when you become the painting and the painting becomes you?
Haberlein: Well, especially when I’ m painting the Holy Mother, thought disappears and I’m painting as fast as I can and shapes appear. And the more I stay out of the way, the better every stroke gets, the better the point of her remark gets.
And then, she tells you when it’s done.
Postscript: This spring, when Fred Haberlein returns from the Yaqui Spring Ceremony, he will bring sacred sejua and the blessings of the Yaquis and prepare Sopris Park for Mountain Fair, which he has opened every year for nearly 30 years.