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Texan artist paints his way to Gallup

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Pena expresses his Native American heritage through painting

Artisans express their talent through various emotions they feel, see, and experience, whether it’s harmonious or dramatic episodes in their life. It’s these life moments that make each artist unique and we as the viewers get a moment to delve into the artist’s creative mind.

One artist that truly shares his past experiences, in so much as shocking the viewer, is Arnulfo Pena, who does this through the touch of paint to canvas.

Born in Corsicana, TX, 72-year-old Pena has seen his fair share of dramatic experiences directly tied to his Native American roots, more exactly from the Mescalero Apache tribe. Having recently moved to the area September, Pena says he feels welcomed here along with his paintings that depict strong messages of the treatment of Native Americans.

“I’m an impressionist painter and I like to paint the injustice of how Native Americans were treated and treated now,” he said. “I want to shock the person who sees my paintings and to focus in on the meaning of them.”

One painting entitled “John Smith Never” does just that. The painting depicts a Native American warrior with bloodshed eyes and his mouth completely shut because he could never speak his language.

“I painted this because no matter how hard they (the white man) tries to make us white it will never happen,” he said. “They can cut our hair, they may change us physically but mentally we will always be Native Americans and we can never forget who we are. We will not be John Smith ever.”

Pena’s interest in painting began in the fifth grade and has continued for the past 65 years. He entered a city painting contest and won. An interested art lover saw his work and offered him a scholarship to pay for his art school. As a sixth grader, he held his first exhibit featuring seascapes paintings.

“I’ve always liked painting and always wanted to do it, even though later on in life I became a banker,” he said. “I still had this passion even coming back from the Vietnam War. I decided to enter in art school for two years.”

Pena was offered a scholarship to go to Rome, Italy for three weeks. While there saw his hero – Michelangelo the Italian Renaissance artist whose works include the marble sculpture David.

“I liked his movements and the fact that it’s all realism to express in his portraits,” he said.

Pena says this helped him connect with his heritage and the realism of what he really wanted to do with his paintings. This included a painting of running horses, in essence to capture the spirit of running horses and his Apache heritage.

“Realism was very strong with me. I did paintings of Native American women who were forced to get sterilize,” he said. “I tell it like it is and I don’t hide the truth. Some people like it and some people don’t.”

Pena has sold paintings for as much as $2,000 and has painted murals that have went for $17,000.

Pena has moved outside of the traditional paintbrush and has used  spray paint to create eclectic pieces. Currently living in the Pueblo of Zuni, he was commissioned to create some paintings by Tom Kennedy of the Zuni Visitors Center. One painting is of the Spanish Conquistador Coronado and his first meeting with the Zuni Pueblo.

Pena can also be seen at the ArtsCrawl in downtown Gallup where he says it’s refreshing to hang out with other talented artists and just simply do his thing.

“When I came across the ArtsCrawl I was fascinated and realized that there were a lot of talented artisans here,” he said. “In Texas it’s just windmills, longhorns, and coming here seem to fit my world. I felt welcomed here and people welcomed my spectrum of art. They appreciated the fact of what I was doing and welcomed me.”

As a disabled veteran he says being here he feels no pressure at all to paint, and suggests for inspiring artists to simply paint for fun if that is your forte.

“When you love to paint just paint away, do what you want to do and don’t let people restrict your creativity,” he said. “Don’t let it become just a living, it causes stress and you’ll find no joy in it. Do what you love to do just go for it.”

For more information on Arnulfo Pena visit his webpage: www.gallluparts.org/arnulfopena

By Dee Velasco
For the Sun