French-born artist finds inspiration on remote Easter Island

RAPA NUI, Chile (AP) — Rapa Nui — the remote region of Chile in the mid-Pacific popularly known as Easter Island — is home to a Catholic church with artwork that reflects the islanders’ ancestral culture as well as Christian beliefs. Among the striking works are the stained glass windows — created by a French-born artist — depicting figures resembling the inhabitants of Rapa Nui.

The artist, Delphine Poulin, was born in Paris 52 years ago and has been in love with Rapa Nui since she first visited in 1994. She smiles at the memory.

“I was riding a horse on the beach when I first thought, ‘I want to live here,'” he said.

At the time, Pullen was living in Tahiti, working as a professional sailor and often traveling to other Polynesian islands. A trip to Rapa Nui was enough to envision a future home in this land of extinct volcanoes and monolithic statues called Moai, though it was nearly three decades before that dream became a reality.

At times, Pullen worked as a nurse. She became a boat decorator. She occasionally returned to Paris, but her fascination with Polynesia brought her back repeatedly to the Pacific.

On one of these trips back to France, she fell in love again with the man who had been her teenage friend. They now have two children of their own and the four of them have made their home in Rapa Nui since 2014.

Pullen says she appreciates the freedom and tranquility offered by the remote area of ​​the island, home to about 7,700 people.

Last year, grateful for the blessings bestowed upon her by Rapa Nui, Pullen offered a gift: stained glass windows representing the 14 Stations of the Cross at Holy Cross Church, located in Hanga Roa, the island’s main town.

Today, the community of Rapanui is mostly Catholic, but their religious practices are intertwined with their ancestral beliefs.

The musical themes sung by worshipers during the Liturgy recount biblical passages translated into the Rapanui language. The wooden statues depicting the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit were not inspired by Western iconography, but by the physique and heritage of the islanders’ ancestors.

The statue of Mary, near the altar of the church, resembles a moai. Near the main entrance, the third symbol of the Holy Trinity is not a dove, but rather a manutara — a bird considered sacred during the 19th century.

The adaptation of Catholic iconography to the ancestral Rapa Nui culture was key to maintaining adherence to the religion that European missionaries came to spread during the 18th century.

The Rapanui are protective of their identity, tending to fully welcome outsiders only if they try to embrace the culture of the islanders. On a tomb outside the Church of the Holy Cross, where the remains of the beloved missionary Sebastián Englert are kept, the epitaph reads: “He lived among us and spoke our language.”

Pullen said it wasn’t easy to gain acceptance from the locals, but she persevered. Her stained glass windows were another step along the way: Since she began installing them in the church on Dec. 24, 2021, some Rapanui who didn’t greet her before now wave when they see her pass.

“I have so much respect for the island and the people,” he said. “Before I was alone, but now people know my husband and my children.”

Pullen’s commitment to integrating herself into the island is part of her everyday life. Her family lives next to the beach where she long ago dreamed of moving here. The color of their house reminds of the volcanic rock of the area, so as not to spoil the landscape. The water used in the house is collected from rainfall. They rely on a solar panel for electricity.

When they moved here, the family only had a tent to protect themselves. Now their home is a storehouse of what the island has given them.

The roof was built with sheet metal and the rest with wood. Dishes are washed at the bottom of the tub. above the dining table is a light fixture that was once a metal trash can.

“There was a lot of difficulty, but also a lot of happiness. This was my dream and living your dream is incredible,” Poulain said.

Inside her studio, there is a tree next to the makeshift desk where the artist finds inspiration. Her work begins with sketches on a blank sheet of paper. She then transfers her images to the canvas with acrylic paint.

For the stained glass windows promised in the church, he needs a pigment that can only be found in France, so getting it takes time, and he still has 10 of the 14 windows to finish.

Poulin never formally studied art. But her parents had books in the house and she remembers reading one about the mysteries of the world, where she first learned about Rapa Nui. Her artistic style has varied over the years, but the Polynesian aesthetic has been a constant

In addition to her artwork, Poulain owns seven horses, earning some income by offering rides for tourists.

Sometimes she sits outside her house, drinking wine, watching her horses approach for their evening meal. The scene could be an imaginary landscape from one of her paintings. Instead, it’s her dream come true.

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Associated Press religion coverage is supported through AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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