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Piñata-Style Nativity Installation Brings Art 'Full Circle' For Artist, Grandmother

Las Vegas artist Justin Favela has fond memories of his grandmother, Isabel Favela's, house around the holidays. Especially her tradition of building a gigantic, elaborate, and very specifically styled nativity — or "nacimiento."

"These are the key elements of (my grandmother's) nacimiento," Justin said. "At the very top of the mountain, you have the manger and then there's a grassy hill and that usually has sheep and deer on it."

Then there is a lagoon with toy ducks, alligators and dolphins. There's also a Coca-Cola village and a long line of Hot Wheels cars lined up to see the Baby Jesus. Below that is a "jungle" setting using branches cut from trees. That's where the lions, tigers and dinosaurs convene.

Growing up, Justin said he loved to watch her put it all together.

"But I wasn't allowed to touch anything when I was a kid," he said. "So, I think this is me living out my childhood fantasies."

Now grown up, Justin has been creating his own large-scale installations for awhile. This week, he and his grandmother collaborated on "Nacimiento" at the Firehouse Art Center in Longmont, turning the entire gallery into one giant nativity scene.

"I've always been inspired by my grandma and all the crafts that she does," he said. "So, I think that having the opportunity to collaborate with her and do an art installation with her is like full circle, because I think I was really inspired by her always decking out the house during the holidays. I didn't really think about it before but now that I'm an installation artist, I'm like, 'Of course!' This is all from the original artist in my family — my grandma."

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Volunteers work to cut up thousands of sheets of tissue paper for the "Nacimiento" installation.

Curator Brandy Coons said it was this connection that made her want to bring the installation to Firehouse.

"I love that it takes this idea of a cultural, family holiday celebration — nacimiento, a Christmas tradition in Isabel's house — and taking that and putting Justin's artistic twist on it," Coons said

Justin is known for his signature piñata-style art, using tiny bits of colored tissue paper to create large-scale murals and installations. For the "Nacimiento" exhibit, they covered the walls with a piñata backdrop formed from tens of thousands of pieces of paper, adding Isabel's found-art style to create the nativity scene.

Because they only had four days to complete the project, they enlisted a rotating crew of volunteers from the Colorado art community.

"It's exactly what we try to do here," Coons said. "Engage as many people as possible the creative ideas that we're working with in ways that are, especially in this case, particularly approachable. There's nothing about it that is too difficult for people to grasp — it's paper and glue."

Carmina Banuelos-Harrison drove up from Aurora to help. She said folding the paper flowers takes her back to her own memories of growing up.

"As a little girl, my grandmother used to make these paper flowers," Banuelos-Harrison said. "It's been a little while. But it's almost kind of like when people say, 'It's like riding a bike.' You very much remember."

The best part of this project is the chance to work with her grandson, Isabel said in Spanish, using Justin to translate. The diminutive 75-year-old is happy to pass along the tradition.

"It actually started in Mexico," Isabel said, adding that her mother always did a little nativity. When she got to the states, Isabel continued to build one every year.

Isabel Favela
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Isabel Favela folds paper flowers for the installation "Nacimiento."

This isn't the first time the two have worked together. A few years ago, they collaborated on a project for the Nevada Museum of Art, crocheting covers for things around Isabel's house, even her appliances.

"I'm always trying to work with my grandma and have her input when it comes to my art," Justin said, adding that his work often relates to his heritage and his role in the Latinx community. But this project was special.

As for Isabel, she says she'll still set up a traditional nacimiento back at home, just maybe a slightly simpler one this year.

Because some traditions live on, no matter how big or small they are.

The exhibit "Nacimiento" is on display at Longmont's Firehouse Art Center through Jan. 5.

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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