By Anthony Guerrero
It is impossible to explore the San Luis Valley without seeing many beautiful murals and amazing pieces of art. Some of the most prominent works are the vision of Colorado artist Fred “Lightning Heart” Haberlein.
The artist painted his first mural in 1977 and since then has created 138 murals that can be seen throughout Colorado and the United States.
Lightning Heart has never lived in a town. In 1971 he lived in Arizona where a Yaqui tribe took him in. This experience is what led to his unique professional name. His murals bear a heart with a bolt of lightning. Tribal members gave him his signature title. He has attended spring ceremonies with the tribe in the Sonoran desert every year for the last 46 years.
In 1977 he was part of a hippie artist commune in Oracle, Arizona. This is where he painted his first mural on the outside of a café. From there he painted even more in Tucson and the rest is living history.
Today, the artist who has singlehandedly painted the most murals in the United States lives in an area outside of Glenwood Springs known as No Name Canyon. “I’ve been lucky to never live inside of a town. I’ve grown up in and around Hispanic and Native American culture,” he said. Haberlein also had the good fortune to get taken into a Native American church and attend its ceremonies for a while.
Lightning Heart’s artistic influence is seen everywhere in the San Luis Valley. Much of his work connects to nature and is inspired by the Hispanic and Native American culture of the area.
As one example, Haberlein shared this connection to the Conejos County Citizen. “A long time ago, more than 30 years ago, I drew the logo for the paper. It’s a conejo (Spanish for rabbit) inside a mimbres circle. After all these years it’s still there,” he said.
His works in Conejos County include the beginning of his life. Haberlein grew up on the Conejos Ranch. “I graduated from Antonito High School in 1963. When I lived on the ranch, Highway 17 was a dirt road. It was closed in the winter. So we were always the last ones up there in the winter. The closest neighbors were five miles down and it was 15 miles to town,” he said.
In the days when young Haberlein went to school he said he was the only “güero” in the district. The classes were also taught by nuns because of the convent in the area at the time. “As a result I got this really, really good education. It was like a miracle in the middle of nowhere. They were a teaching order so if they had a sabbatical they would go get another degree. We were taught by nuns with nine master’s degrees in the middle of nowhere. It was so cool. They turned me on to the great Catholic thinkers,” said the muralist.
Catholic roots are definitely seen and felt in Lightning Heart’s passionate art. When he returned to the Valley in 1984 he wanted to do something for Antonito, so he began painting murals. These murals include works at the Cristo El Rey Church and a painting of the Miracle at Tepeyac, which portrays a vision of the Lady of Guadalupe.
His work can also be found in other towns and sites throughout the San Luis Valley. These include Alamosa, Del Norte, La Jara, Manassa, Saguache, San Luis, Creede, Capulín, Mogote and Center. They are featured in post offices, churches, schools, parks, community centers, museums, saloons, businesses and downtown. It is not uncommon to soon realize you are staring at one of his masterpieces.
The 71-year-old artist has recently been sponsored and commissioned to retouch some of the paintings that he did over twenty years ago that have been fading. “Out of my 138 paintings I have lost about 19, mostly to buildings being painted over or torn down,” he said.
One mural that was lost in Antonito has a story. Haberlein said in the Antonito Post Office he once had an 18-foot painting of an eagle, until a fateful day when a girl ran her truck into the wall. “It was snowing and her foot slipped off the clutch and she took out the wall and my mural,” said Haberlein with some amusement. He hopes to be able to replace it someday.
La Paloma Foundation, the state art council, Cumbres and Toltec Railroad, the Conejos Tourism Board and the town of Antonito are sponsoring Haberlein to fix up his murals in the area. The organizations have been so happy with the results of his work that the grant has been extended for him to continue until August 2017.
He is excited for the prospects of updating and retouching his murals and is impressed with the modern paint available. “A lot of these were done with old paint a long time ago and had faded substantially. My murals in the San Luis Valley are very important to me. It’s been great to get to redo my Antonito paintings, my La Jara ones, my whooping crane silo in Romeo and so on.”
Haberlein said that today’s paint is impressive because it offers UV protection. “The new paint is so superior. It makes a world of difference. I’ve really been having a lot of fun with it,” he said. Lighting Heart expressed he has been having a wonderful time re-painting his murals in Conejos County with the two -year grant project that has been expanded.
Lightning Heart is connected to nature from his life experiences and hopes to convey that in his work. He also sees his work as an opportunity to show people they should go for whatever ideas they may have for their lives and to make a difference in their communities.
“In all of my murals, I try to celebrate the best about the area. That’s what I love about murals; they maintain a sense of community and local and regional identity. That’s really important.
“Murals show that positive change is possible and it doesn’t take that long. When someone sees it, I’m always in the position to tell them to go for their ideas because of my paintings. They stay there every day and give value.”
Anthony Guerrero is an award-winning journalist and writer from the San Luis Valley. He was suspended once in fifth grade and again when a high school junior for his controversial stories and poems. The suspensions came from two different school districts.