On April 16 one of the San Luis Valley’s best-known artists, Fred Haberlein, died. We have had many outstanding artists here but none whose work is as familiar to residents and visitors in the Valley as Fred’s is.
His story began in the Valley in 1957, when his Texan father Jack acquired the Conejos Ranch, an old homestead and resort in Conejos Canyon. As a teenager, Fred relished his outdoor life, nature, and the culture of the area. After graduating from Antonito High School, he attended Colorado State University with a scholarship and earned a degree in art studies, followed by going to Arizona where he did graduate work in art at ASU.
While he was living in Arizona during the hippie era, he became deeply interested in the indigenous people of that region, particularly Yaqui Indians. With them, he developed a deep spiritual tie, and they gave him the name Lightning Heart. For the next 47 years, Lightning Heart returned for Yaqui Spring Ceremonies, his last being in the spring of 2018, shortly before his death from esophageal cancer.
As a professional artist the emphasis of his work was twofold. One was murals of the traditional cultural life of the San Luis Valley that he knew so well, and the other was murals of landscape scenes without evidences of the hand of man in the natural world that he also deeply loved.
Returning to Conejos Canyon for a few years in the early 1980s, his principal art activity was of the cultural life of the area. When he and his wife Teresa moved to the Glenwood Springs area in the later 1980s, he primarily did more landscapes but also returned frequently to SLV to work on cultural murals.
As a teacher at Colorado Mountain College, a catalog of his murals was prepared a few years ago. At that time, he had done more than 130 with the largest number, about 60 of them, being in the San Luis Valley. Others are in western Colorado and a few were in other states. One is in Ecuador.
Many of them are enormous in size and required considerable amounts of stamina to create, not to mention the time he generously gave to interested onlookers while he went right on working, as Fred had an amiable, sociable personality. He was still doing new murals a couple of years ago and had been restoring some that needed refurbishing due to deterioration.
Not only had he done the public murals that are so widely known, he also painted many in private homes on commission. For instance, he did one in the home of my son and his wife, where Fred was their neighbor on an isolated creek near Glenwood Springs.
He had his home and studio up at the end of the road and sometimes offered classes there. He was also active in the local art fair and with art associations in the area.
Artists, after all, must earn their bread and butter, like any other business enterprise, no matter how casual and friendly such transactions may be. I myself commissioned Fred to do the beautiful artwork that graces the cover of my “San Luis Valley: Land of the Six-Armed Cross” depicting the river, golden foliage, and the Sangre de Cristos.
In my files, I have some ink sketches signed “for Virginia – F.F. Haberlein,” followed by his logo – a heart and a bolt of lightning that he included on all of his notes. Always Fred was a rare individual who showed loving kindness to everyone he met.
RIP, Lightning Heart.