Carolina Trujillo does not know where she comes from.

She knows, of course, that she was born in Las Vegas, N.M., and that her family has ties to that region going back decades, if not centuries. It is an area founded with the benefit of a Mexican land grant in the 1830s, a town that became a key stopover point along The Santa Fe Trail, a railroad town and a temporary home for famous outlaws and gunmen when the West really was wild.

But her place in all of that remains unclear to the New Mexico School for the Arts’ senior. Through all the colonization and control efforts of the region, she questions her own heritage, culture and ethnicity. Is she Hispanic? Native American? A mix? Something else entirely?

“I don’t identify with a lot of narratives in American culture in history … so I make art about trying to figure out my history and what it means to me,” the visual arts student said while taking a break from helping to hang the school’s senior art thesis exhibition at Canyon Road Creatives space. “I’m not clear what that looks like, but I think I may find out through my work.”

That work — colorful drawings featuring figures who seem to be searching for a place, a culture or a language against a desert backdrop — earned Trujillo the top spot in 2018’s Congressional Art Competition, sponsored by the Congressional Institute. Each year since 1982, that group sponsors a nationwide high-school visual art competition and hangs the winning works for one year at the U.S. Capitol

U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, a Democrat from New Mexico, announced the win last week. Trujillo’s untitled entry features two figures — a man and woman — in traditional Western clothing that may not be, upon second glance, that traditional. Are they Hispanic? Native American? And why do they seem to be playing out a scene from an American cowboy movie.

Trujillo said likes and understands what she calls “Wild West movies,” and perhaps that had an effect in her art and thinking.

“I can associate with the land and connect with the Wild West characters in them,” she said. “But they are problematic because you won’t see many women like the women in my family who are portrayed in any sort of empowering way in those films.”

The women in her works, she said, are “often angry, confused or defensive… and turn out being me.” In one untitled drawing, Trujillo’s lone female character, backed by a wall full of blotches of vibrant colors, looks away from where the viewer would normally stand. There’s something off-canvas that seems to throw her. Maybe she’s searching for an answer. Trujillo’s work does not easily provide one.

Trujillo said she started making art at the age of 4. She has always drawn or colored since then, using pencils, pens and textiles. Her welcoming eyes and warm smile are at odds with the lonesome procession of characters that pop up in her art works.

“I’m drawing friends I wish I had more of,” Trujillo said. “It’s a longing for a community of people.”

She did find a welcoming community in New Mexico School for the Arts, a private-public charter school that focuses on the visual and performing arts. Unlike most charters, which choose students via a lottery process, the school accepts only students who enter work or audition, and are evaluated by a panel of arts educators and experts.

Karina Hean, chair of the visual arts department at the school, said Trujillo’s work has grown considerably over the past few years, “both in the visualization of her own personal discussion of how colonialism and identify have affected her, and finding where her own voice fits in that.”

The Congressional Art Competition honor, Trujillo said, has given her the feeling that “all my hard work is worth it and that maybe people will be affected by what I say in my artwork.”

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com

If you go: Carolina Trujillo’s works hang along with pieces made by other New Mexico School for the Arts visual artists through Saturday, May 19 at the Canyon Road Creatives space at 826 Canyon Road.