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NMSA student Vanezia Aguayo, 17, at her home in Santa Fe among her painting supplies and artwork. Aguayo recently won the 2022 U.S. Congressional Art Competition for Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández’s district. Her work, a painting depicting an orange lowrider cruising through the desert beneath an array of hot air balloons, will be on display in Washington, D.C., for a year.
Vanezia Aguayo works Friday on a pink rose for a recent painting dealing with power and femininity in her studio in her bedroom.

Education Reporter
NMSA student Vanezia Aguayo, 17, at her home in Santa Fe among her painting supplies and artwork. Aguayo recently won the 2022 U.S. Congressional Art Competition for Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández’s district. Her work, a painting depicting an orange lowrider cruising through the desert beneath an array of hot air balloons, will be on display in Washington, D.C., for a year.
As 17-year-old Vanezia Aguayo and her mother, Heimiri Tiaihua, were touring the U.S. Capitol building June 24, swarms of armed guards suddenly surrounded the building, and they were asked to leave.
Aguayo, who was in Washington, D.C., as the 2022 winner of the Congressional Art Competition in New Mexico’s 3rd District, feared there had a been a shooting.
Instead, officials had heightened security amid a protest following the release of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in an abortion rights case that effectively reversed the nearly 50-year-old ruling in Roe v. Wade.
The unexpected event didn’t detract from the Washington visit for Aguayo, an incoming senior at New Mexico School for the Arts.
“We got all cleaned up and went back to the protest,” she said. “That was my first experience of being in such a large movement and a very important part of our generation’s history.”
The eye-opening experience became an inspiration for the teen’s latest painting: a black-and-white depiction of a uterus with a sharp set of teeth. Instead of ovaries in the painting, there is a rose one side and a manicured hand with long nails on the other, raising its slender middle finger.
“When I came back here, I really felt more confident and more comfortable with expressing myself,” Aguayo said.
Represented by Democratic U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández in the Congressional Art Competition, sponsored by the Congressional Institute, Aguayo was one of three high school students in the state to win the annual honor.
“We got to see [Leger Fernández],” she said. “I was happy to see her, being one of the biggest supporters for women’s rights.”
Her award-winning work, The Land of Enchantment!, depicts an electric-blue sky punctuated by puffy clouds and hot air balloons. A rustic orange hot rod barrels down a desert highway, while a roadrunner jaywalks in the foreground. Behind it all, a zia symbol serves as a portal to another dimension with a classic UFO swirling among the stars.
It’s a collection of little symbols Aguayo dubs “treasure moments.”
“I take those quiet times of seeing the landscapes, the desert,” she said. “And just really lean into this ambience.”
Vanezia Aguayo works Friday on a pink rose for a recent painting dealing with power and femininity in her studio in her bedroom.
Aguayo said she selected the images in the work to reflect her personal experiences and relationship with New Mexico — particularly attending the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta with her mother and little sister and discussing alien theories with her UFO-enthusiast father.
The painting expresses popular culture in New Mexico more than it does the cultural traditions of different groups of people across the state.
“It’s not culturally appropriative,” she said of the work, which took her just a few days to conceptualize and complete. “It’s just mainly me expressing myself and how I see New Mexico.”
The painting will be displayed in the U.S. Capitol building all year, alongside winning artworks from hundreds of high school students across the U.S.
It took her a while to recognize the gravity of the honor, Aguayo said.
When her mother first learned the news, she kicked open Aguayo’s bedroom door in excitement. Aguayo was so busy with school and extracurricular activities, she had almost forgotten she’d entered the contest.
“It slowly started sinking in,” she said.
Aguayo, a self-taught artist, said when it comes to painting she mainly sticks with acrylics. But nearly anything can become a canvas: old Nerf guns from secondhand stores, clothes, even skin — for ink and henna drawings.
Aguayo has ambitions of becoming a tattoo artist one day.
The hallway leading into her room is filled with hand-painted skateboards, some of which draw on TV shows like the animated series Rick and Morty. On a wall in her room is a hand-painted mural of a Japanese temple.
It’s hard not to be an artist in Aguayo’s family.
At their home in the Rancho Viejo subdivision, family members’ artworks are displayed on the living room walls — including a Frida Kahlo-esque graphite portrait Aguayo penned of her mother.
Tiaihua grew up dancing and sewing in Tahiti and was selling handmade plush monsters before the pandemic. Aguayo’s dad, Rafael Ramírez Aguayo, is a pastry chef a Joseph’s Culinary Pub downtown. The three team up on occasion to bake and decorate commissioned cakes.
Tiaihua said art is heavily emphasized in her home and she believes it helps build confidence.
“Once you add playtime and art into education, it can help kids,” she said. “We’re always creating over here.”
Aguayo hopes to study art outside New Mexico after graduation — it’s her “Plan A.” But, as a longtime martial artist, she also dreams of becoming a stunt actor.
Raised in Santa Fe, Aguayo attended Amy Biehl Community School before she spent four years in home schooling led by her mother. She said spending the time alone allowed her to develop more as an artist.
She began attending New Mexico School for the Arts as a junior. At first, she worried the classes would be restrictive and all students’ art would be the same but said she was quickly proven wrong.
“Every single artist is different,” she said. “It was actually a big opportunity, having that diversity and having people that are very different yet somehow similar to each other was somehow very comforting.”
When asked about what she does when she’s not working on her art projects, Aguayo paused.
“Art is such a go-to,” she said. “Even when I’m not doing it, I find a way to do it. … It’s basically 24/7 for me.”
Education Reporter
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