Dawnique Savala
Dawnique Savala

Las Vegas, N.M. — New Mexico Highlands University BFA student Dawnique Savala’s exhibit in the university’s Burris Hall Gallery features acrylic paintings of shoes and hand painted shoes that symbolize Different Walks of Life.

The exhibit continues through Dec. 6 and fills the front of the gallery at 903 National Ave. A concurrent Highlands University Fall Student Art Show fills the remainder of the gallery.

The mediums for the student show include painting, sculpture, ceramic, printmaking, jewelry, drawing and mixed medium.

Savala, a 28-year-old native of Logan, N.M. in the northeastern part of the state, will graduate in December with her BFA.

“I’ve always been intrigued by how shoes reveal so much about a person and their walk in life,” Savala said. “Shoes tell a deeply personal story about an individual, whether they know it or not — from bankers to ranchers to dancers.”

Savala’s paintings hang in private collections as well as locations as diverse as the Crossroads Caf√© in Logan and the Assembly of God Church in San Jon. She has participated in several student art shows at Highlands, and one of her prints is in the university’s fine art print collection.

In 2011, Savalla was awarded the J.M. Metcalf Endowment for the Art Department Award. In the same year, she won the People’s Choice Award in the Domestic Violence Awareness Art Contest at Highlands.

In 2012, Savala was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. It is an incurable autoimmune disease that attacks the joints with inflammation and swelling — causing excruciating pain and stiffness.

Savala couldn’t hold a paintbrush and had to take a break from school to seek medical care.

“This diagnosis changed my own walk in life. I have the disease, but it doesn’t have me. I wanted to find a way to continue doing what I love with painting. I mostly paint with my fingers now, and actually like my paintings better — they’re looser than my earlier more realistic style,” Savala said.

She said the gray tones in some of her BFA exhibit paintings represent the despair she felt when she was diagnosed. The vivid colors express the hope and optimism she feels now.

A regime of oral medications and weekly injections has reduced Savala’s joint inflammation and slowed the progress of the disease.

“When the disease is very active — called a flare — it feels like your joints are on fire with pain and stiffness. They turn bright red with the inflammation and are warm to the touch. I haven’t had a big flare since August,” Savala said.

Savala has taken four painting courses from Highlands University art professor Todd Christensen.

“I’ve grown so much as a painter at Highlands. The art professors are extremely knowledgeable and helpful, while constantly encouraging experimentation. Todd is an amazing professor. He taught me so much and also helped me through this diagnosis — from helping me find new ways to paint to stretching my canvases for me. I’m very thankful.”

“I admire Dawnique’s motivation and drive to be a successful artist,” Christensen said. “With her exhibit, I like that she’s taken the imagery of the shoe as a metaphor for people’s lives. It shows her depth of thought as an artist.

“Because Dawnique has been forced to adapt, her painting style has become more loose and expressive. She’s overcome a lot and has impressive courage and fortitude,” Christensen said.

Savala has channeled her chronic illness into activism. In April, she started a Facebook page — “Kicking RA in the Face ” — that already has 900 followers. It offers everything from the latest research on rheumatoid arthritis to inspirational quotes, humor and her art.

“I want to bring more awareness to rheumatoid arthritis, and provide information, support and encouragement on my Facebook page. I’ve been blessed with a supportive family, but so many people with RA are alone and isolated. The page feels like a family,” Savala said.