French-born artist finds inspiration on remote Easter Island

RAPA NUI, Chile (AP) — Rapa Nui – the remote Chilean territory in the mid-Pacific widely known as Easter Island – is home to a Catholic church featuring artwork that reflects that islanders’ ancestral culture as well as Christian beliefs. Among the eye-catching works are stained glass windows -- created by a French-born artist – that portray figures resembling Rapa Nui’s inhabitants.

The artist, Delphine Poulain, 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 through the beach when I first I thought ‘I want to live here,’” she said.

At the time, Poulain lived in Tahiti, working as a professional sailor and often traveling to other islands of Polynesia. One trip to Rapa Nui was enough to envision a future home in this land of extinct volcanoes and monolithic statues called moai, though almost three decades passed before that dream came true.

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

On one of those trips back to France, she fell back in love with the man who had been her teenage boyfriend. Now they have two children of their own, and the four of them have made a home in Rapa Nui since 2014.

Poulain says she treasures the freedom and the tranquility provided by the remoteness of the island, home to about 7,700 people.

Last year, thankful for the blessings that Rapa Nui has bestowed on her, Poulain offered a gift: stained-glass windows representing the 14 Stations of the Cross in Holy Cross church, located in Hanga Roa, the island’s main city.

Nowadays, the Rapanui community is mostly Catholic, but its religious practices are intertwined with its ancestral beliefs.

The musical themes that devotees sing during Mass narrate biblical passages translated to the Rapanui language. The wooden statues that portray the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit were not inspired by Western iconography, but by the physique and legacy of the islanders’ ancestors.

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

Adapting Catholic iconography to the ancestral culture of Rapa Nui has been 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 foreigners only if they strive to embrace the islanders’ culture. On a tomb outside Holy Cross church, where the remains of beloved missionary Sebastián Englert are kept, the epitaph reads: “He lived among us and spoke our language.”

Poulain said that winning acceptance from the locals was not easy, but she has been patient. Her stained glass windows were another step along the way: Since she began placing them in the church on December 24, 2021, some Rapanui who did not greet her before now wave their hand when they see her pass.

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

Poulain’s commitment to integrate with the island is part of her daily life. Her family lives by the beach where, long ago, she dreamt about moving here. The color of their house resembles the area’s volcanic rock, so as not to alter the landscape. The water used at home 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 house is a repository of what the island has given them.

The roof was built with sheet metal and the rest with wood. The dishes are washed on what used to be the bottom of a bathtub; above the dining room is a lamp that was once a metal trash can.

“There has been 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. Then she takes her images to the canvas with acrylic paint.

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

Poulain never formally studied art. But her parents had books at home 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 aesthetics of Polynesia have been a constant

In addition to her artwork, Poulain has seven horses, earning some income by offering horseback riding for tourists.

She sometimes sits outside her home, sipping wine, watching as her horses approach for their evening meal. The scene could be an imaginary landscape from one of her paintings; instead, it is her long-ago dream come true.

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

Maria Teresa Hernández, The Associated Press