Belen artist and educator, Paula Castillo, is one of this year’s nine recipients of the 2023 Governor’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts.

Past award recipients include Georgia O’Keeffe, Robert Redford, Dr. Rudolfo Anaya, Tony Hillerman and another Belen artist, Judy Chicago.

Castillo hopes her artwork expresses the fragile connections and relationships we share as a community.

In a statement from the state Department of Cultural Affairs, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham praised the award winners.

Photo of courtesy of Don Usner
Belen artist Paula Castillo is one of this year’s nine recipients of the 2023 Governor’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts.

“This year’s recipients come from every corner of the state, showcasing the immense possibilities of the arts across New Mexico,” Lujan Grisham said. “These artists are musicians, authors, sculptors and designers who push the boundaries of telling stories about the state and their lives through art. I am proud to recognize and show off such talent to the rest of the world.”

“It’s very humbling because there are remarkable artists and writers who have been awarded this and it’s a wonderful lineage, and I’m moved that I’m part of that group,” says Castillo.

Castillo, who is nationally known for her large metal sculptures, is quick to tell people she does much more than just welding.

“I do a lot of different things. I’m kind of known originally as a metal worker for a couple of different reasons,” she said. “I think one, when I first started out, it was kind of novel for a small female to be a welder and so people picked up on that.

“Another reason is that a couple of years ago, I was selected as an international person who showcased their metalwork at a big show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in (Washington,) D.C., and I was the New Mexico representative.”

Castillo recently created a performance art piece called “Reverse the Curse” at Site Santa Fe, the premier contemporary art museum in the state. The piece features photography, video, sculpture and cinemographs, all centered around the Rio Grande.

One skill Castillo has that many public artists do not, she is fluent in 3-D modeling. First, she renders her artistic ideas electronically, then she builds the art to her exact specifications.

When she creates large-scale sculptures that need a crew to build, the 3-D models allow her to communicate with engineers so they can understand the plans better than using a sketched diagram on paper.

Castillo is currently working on a massive project for the city of Denver art museum system.

The project will have three monumental sculptures that tell the story of the Mestizaje, or a mix of Indo-Hispanic and Chicano cultures, overlay in the development of the city of Denver. One of the sculptures is 72-feet long and the other one is 22-feet tall.

“I remember reading once,” said Castillo, “something about a lioness that will stalk prey 100 times before they are successful. Public art is kind of like that.”

Castillo is excited and proud that such a great story is being told there. She was shocked when she was chosen as a finalist because she applied for the project on a whim,

Another project she is working on is for The Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University in Alabama to honor 100 years of women’s contributions at the university. The sculpture is much smaller, so she can make it in her studio in Belen.

Castillo didn’t start taking art classes until later in life. She earned her master’s degree in fine arts when she was in her late 50s, and was surprised to find that her art pieces began selling in the Santa Fe art scene.

She wanted to get into the public art scene because it was “wide open” in the 1990s. Her first public art project was in her hometown of Belen. The project allowed Castillo to tell a bigger story, use metaphors and make art more accessible.

Growing up in the Middle Rio Grande Valley in the shadow of the Manzano Mountains was an important experience for Castillo.

“Especially with my dad (Francis Leonard Castillo) who was very connected to the community and really loved people and people loved him. It was a very important experience for me and all of my siblings to witness how important it is to have deeper relationships with people,” said Castillo.

Her relationship grew when she moved back to the Hub City to take care of her elderly parents.

Margaret Manning, the principal at Rio Grande Elementary hired her as a full-time art teacher. Teaching has allowed her to connect with the community in ways she couldn’t imagine while working alone in her studio. She is impressed by the dedication of the staff and faculty towards the children at the school.

Photo courtesy of Kouri + Corrao Gallery, Santa Fe, N.M.
“Buttress,” expanded polystyrene, archival cotton rag paper, oil pastel, pencil, acrylic paint, epoxy resin.

Throughout the years, Castillo taught in different capacities and, over the years, the children gave her drawings. In 2022, she used the drawings she collected to make an art piece titled, “Buttress,” which was modeled from the buttresses at the old churches at the Isleta, Ohkay Owingeh and Taos Pueblos.

She constructed 10,000 small structures ranging from 1-by-2 inches to 2-by-6 inches with the children’s artwork glued to them, then she attached them all over the Buttress.

The Governor’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts, now in its 49th year, was created to honor the arts in New Mexico by former Gov. Bruce King and First Lady Alice King. The award is presented by the New Mexico Arts Commission (NMAC) and NMA, the state arts agency and a division of NMDCA.

On Friday, Oct. 20, there will be an exhibition of work from the 2023 recipients of the Governor’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts at the Governor’s Gallery in the Roundhouse, with a reception at 2 p.m.

After the reception, there will be an awards ceremony for the 2022 and 2023 recipients held from 5-7 p.m. at the New Mexico Museum of Art in the Saint Francis Auditorium, at 107 W. Palace Ave, Santa Fe.

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Jesse Jones lives in Albuquerque with his wife and son. Jesse graduated from of the University of New Mexico twice. This spring, he graduated with a degree in multimedia journalism and, in 2006, he received a bachelor’s degree in university studies with an emphasis in photojournalism. He is a current fellow of the New Mexico Local News Fund.