Through the pain of loss, former Governor George Rivera creates a monument, a painting, and a sculpture as a loving tribute to his son.
It’s been just over 13 months since Valentino “Tzigiwhaeno” Rivera, age 8, known as “Lightning Boy” walked on, and in that time, Valentino’s Father and Former Pojoaque Governor George Rivera, an Institute of American Indian Arts and California College of the Arts trained sculptor and painter, has created three major works —a monument, a painting, and a sculpture as a loving tribute to his son.
Cut with diamond-bladed chainsaws and polished with waterfed air sanders, it took Former Governor George Rivera six months to draw the template and oversee the creation of a granite monument that he says “brings permanence to Tino’s life.”
The granite monument, which includes classic pueblo kiva steps that symbolize the clouds and a heart carved out of the stone, is atop a hill overlooking the Pojoaque valley, just yards from the front door of the family’s home.
“We decided not to place it at the gravesite, but at home, because that’s what we desire—to keep him as close to us as we can,” Rivera said.
“I didn’t want its shape to appear too mechanical; I was not looking for a super-geometric form, “ he said. “The steps are often seen on our kivas and churches and on the tablitas in the headdresses worn by pueblo women.”
He says the large heart was cut out to reveal the vast northern New Mexico sky.
“I was thinking about a portal, about our life here, and his spirit. We believe that spirits go upward, and we look for him and feel his energy in the sky. At sunset we just feel closer to him and when there’s lightning we cry, ‘There’s Valentino!”
A waffle garden is being planted nearby with eight lavender plants, one for each year of Valentino’s young life.
“I love lavender for all its properties—the color, the fragrance, the health benefits,” said Rivera, who spent three years as a young artist at the Lacoste School for the Arts in Provence.
After a severe car accident caused serious injuries to Rivera’s son Valentino. Rivera began an oil painting that portrayed him at the apex of a dance, arms akimbo, leaping over the world.
“He inspired me with how he took on the biggest challenge anyone’s given in life or death,” Rivera said about the 14-month period in which Tino endured multiple spinal cord surgeries and aimed his all toward recovery. Rivera meant to capture his son’s grace, not only in movement, but in his philosophical stance. “The ability to direct our own lives…you don’t get those choices when you’re injured.”
“I painted Tino as a super-energetic, disciplined dancer who was learning how to put all that energy to work in the world,” he said.
It’s been over two years since the day a stranger, suffering a fatal heart attack, lost control of his vehicle causing the severe car accident that sent Valentino “Tzigiwhaeno” Rivera, age 8, known as “Lightning Boy” into cardiac arrest, requiring resuscitation on the scene. Tino suffered a traumatic brain injury, atlanto-occipital disassociation (spine separation from skull), and a fractured jaw and hip. Fourteen months later, on May 13, 2016, Tino eventually and tragically, walked on from his injuries.
In order to deal with the injuries and then loss of his son over the past few years, George Rivera had turned to his art, creating the monument and the painting, then a sculpture.
Working from an enlarged photograph captured in a feeling moment, Rivera has completed a clay sculpture that depicts his son hoop dancing. Several people familiar with his body of work have praised it as the best piece he’s ever made.
“There’s an excitement about doing great things in art, but tempered with the pain of losing him that’s so hard to put into words,” Rivera said.
The small statue is being transformed into a life size bronze that, sometime this autumn, will be installed in a prominent location in Santa Fe. Knowing that the piece has already found its home, Rivera is relishing all aspects of the process: first clay, then 3D photography that translates the images into styrofoam, then clay again to cover the foam’s surface, then the creation of a mold, then pouring the wax, then bronze, and reassembling all the pieces.
“There have been times during all this when my body’s been drained, my mind’s been drained, and I have looked to my boy for strength and motivation,” Rivera said. “Guidance too.”
The resulting figure is a young puebloan hoop dancer twirling himself ever forward in an eternally electrifying dance.
Former Governor George Rivera recalls his long-ago answer to his art school professor’s question—“If you were on an island and stranded without paint supplies, how would you make art?”
Keeping in mind the terrible loss of his own son, George Rivera now reflects how such a sentiment can now help him grieve a father’s greatest tragedy. With a response to his prior art professor, he says, “I’d draw in the sand, or build something with sticks.”
“Now I’m in this situation where I’ve lost my boy, and art is here to move me along to the next chapter of my life.”