Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. – Thomas Merton
In the midst of chaos, creativity flourishes, a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Consider the powerful works produced across the centuries by artists working amid adversity, from Edvard Munch’s representation of existential angst in The Scream to Picasso’s Guernica, a riveting response to war, and Keith Haring’s Ignorance = Fear, 1989, an offset lithograph he made after being diagnosed with AIDS. During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when the state issued a stay-at-home order, Santa Fe artists responded in inspiring ways, creating works of startling beauty, even as the world seemed to be collapsing around them. We visited with eight celebrated artists — painters, printmakers and sculptors — to discover how they worked their way through a time like no other.
Painting in a Pandemic
“Probably like everyone else, I took some time to reflect about the situation, asking myself if there’s a need for me to address this in my work,” says painter Greg Skol, who shows his work at Canyon Road Contemporary Art. “And I didn’t find any reason to do that, mostly because we live in a world where there’s so much noise and information, I didn’t feel like I had anything to add to this. I just decided I was going to keep making what I make, keep going on in the world. I have my work and this is my contribution to the conversation.”
Painting amid the chaos of a pandemic was not an unfamiliar feeling for Skol. “Most days, I wake up with the possibility of not knowing what’s going to happen — good, bad or indifferent — knowing I don’t have control over anything. It is a sort of philosophy. I had worked to get to this place before the pandemic had started. It becomes a practice, and the more you do it, the better at it you become.”
Skol’s ethereal paintings — layers of oil, mixed media, archival prints of pieces of antique maps — remind us that no matter what happens in the world, it remains a place of beauty, with shimmering moonrises, glowing sunsets and peaceful meandering rivers. “The COVID [pandemic] will come and go, like everything else that comes and goes, and in the end what have we created, what have we left?” he asks. “There’s more to life than the insanity, the endless tides of horror and stupidity of men. When it takes over, it’s easier to believe that the world is made of madness and mayhem than that people are good, and that we survive, and that we are worthwhile, that there’s something else, a better nature that’s still there.”
Barbara Meikle also didn’t feel called to alter her colorful paintings of animals and landscapes, but the mood of the turbulent time crept onto her canvas. “It seemed like for a while, my palette was getting a little darker,” she says. “I usually have a change of colors in the seasons but not so much a change in contrast and values. It seems like I was going in a darker direction.”
Yet Meikle, who owns the Barbara Meikle Gallery, found that the state’s stay-at-home order had its positive aspects. “I’ve been painting more slowly, because the rush of the season and people walking in and buying paintings wasn’t happening. So I’ve had more time to spend on individual paintings than I usually do,” she says. “I feel like I’m more thoughtful about the work.” Meikle closed her gallery on March 19 and re-opened it Memorial Day weekend, but not without misgivings. “It was really hard to go back,” she admits. “I have horses and I love to ride, and because this is a beautiful time to ride horses, I was sort of hoping the gallery wouldn’t have to open.” And while painting provided a sense of normalcy, Meikle found that not painting also worked. “Frankly, what helped me more was not working, which might sound weird, but to be able to sit on the portal and contemplate the universe, to take a vacation of the mind and not be busy.”
Printmaking in a Perilous Time
The pandemic changed life in many ways for Jesse Wood, a collaborative printmaker and founder of Heterodox Editions. He studied at Albuquerque’s prestigious Tamarind Institute and was enrolled in classes at the Institute of American Indian Art when the coronavirus shut things down. Wood finished the semester online, but then things shifted. “My seven-year-old son, Calder, is also out of school, so I have 24-hour duty as a caregiver — that is the biggest thing that I’ve been doing differently,” he says. “I’m not really making art. I’ve had to leave printmaking for the time being because it is so studio centered, requiring a lot of equipment and space. Instead, I’ve been relying on kitchen-friendly materials such as watercolor, pencils, pens, paper, really simplifying the material. So Calder and I have been making art at the dinner table.”
Despite the isolation of the times, Wood hasn’t abandoned the collaborative art of printmaking. He’s partnered with other printmakers, providing them with stones for their work. “In lithography, you use a limestone slab to print from,” he says. “I’ve built a graining station to prepare the stones in my backyard. Lithography is a collaborative art, and while we can’t work in the same room right now, I am still able to translate artists’ works into graphic editions. Working as a collaborative printmaker is central to what I learned at Tamarind Institute. It’s something more than just expressing myself.”
Nicola López, who grew up in Santa Fe, is an internationally renowned artist working in printmaking, installation and drawing. Based in Brooklyn, she was on sabbatical from Columbia University this spring when she and her six-year-old son traveled to Italy for her fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. Shortly after their arrival, though, the coronavirus outbreak forced them to their next destination earlier than expected, Santa Fe, to visit family and allow López time to work on an installation for the Albuquerque Museum.
“It all just seemed to fall into place, and the museum’s Visiting Artist program gives me a nice project to be working on,” says López, who converted a carport at her mother’s house into a studio, where she created Haunted, an installation of large-scale prints and video that explores the indelible, destructive ways that humans alter landscapes. “I’m really grateful to the museum for honoring the commitment and continuing the project when many museums haven’t been able to do so for a variety of reasons,” she says. “I’m also really grateful to have this project. It’s a way to deal with the challenges of the time.”
A Hammer and Hope
Award-winning metal sculpture artist Jamie Burnes had to reconfigure his studio in order to keep producing large-scale, one-of-a-kind animal and abstract works made of steel and found objects — stones, petrified wood and tree trunks. “The fundamental practice of making my art has always been large in scale, so I do a lot of pieces that go in public spaces,” says Burnes, who exhibits his work at the Gerald Peters Gallery. “I have to have someone help me to just move them physically, and so we’ve been working on the practice in the studio of trying to make these pieces, but not be on top of each other like we normally would be.”
Burnes also set out in a new direction that he’d long contemplated. “I’ve started to focus on smaller works that are more accessible,” he says. “I have some clients who’ve expressed interest in these larger pieces, but they don’t seem comfortable in this environment commissioning them. So, I thought it was a good time to explore new ideas.”
Working in his studio offered Burnes a break from the upheaval of the world. “You go into the studio and just hammer and weld and cut,” he explains. “My work is super labor intensive, and each piece is unique. I don’t have the benefit of casting and repetition. But to just go and spend two hours hammering, it is definitely a relief.”
Abiquiú sculptor Star York, whose epic career spans forty years, spent part of the pandemic working on a piece that had beguiled her for years. The bronze sculpture, Big Medicine, is a white bull buffalo. “It’s something I have thought about for probably decades,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to try to capture the spirit of one of these big bulls and the complexity of who they are [as reflected] in their face and in their gestures — a strong creature that has this regal presence that also has that kind side, too.”
The white buffalo that York sculpted is based on the real-life Big Medicine, a famous white buffalo born in Montana in 1933. “He was enormous, and he lived for an exceedingly long time,” she says. “The white buffalo represents hope for a better future and that’s so significant right now. It’s very laden with symbolism.” She chose to depict Big Medicine in a reclining position. “I thought it would just be appropriate for the times,” she says. “It’s lying in wait . . . I also found myself wanting to do babies — puppies, bobcat pups. I do believe that when we feel concerned about how the world is going, the young people are the ones who have the time to make the change, the energy to make change, because to make change is not easy. It’s a hard thing to initiate. That’s where our hope lies.”
Sanctuary in the Studio
Despite the world’s chaos, renowned sculptor David Pearson was able to keep his regular work habits. Ensconced in his rural studio, he could tune out the dire news of the world and focus on his stunning figurative and abstract works as well as patinas and wax works, exhibited in his wife’s gallery, Patricia Carlisle Fine Art.
“The coronavirus hasn’t thrown any hiccup at all in my situation,” Pearson says. “I live out in the country, so I just walk from the house down to my studio, and I only go into town probably once every two weeks. I didn’t have to think about the virus. Patty and I stopped listening to the news probably about a month after the whole thing happened because it was just so, ‘the whole world’s crumbling.’”
The business of selling art, however, did change. “The gallery slowed down,” Pearson says. “And the foundry had to shut down, and that cut production so there was definitely fear there, and I’ve heard all the stress in employees’ voices. The whole production of the world just shut down in so many ways, so that was very fearful.” Working in his studio helped. “Always, I feel better working on art, especially when I’m sculpting,” he says. Pearson used this time to complete I-la, “Islay” in Gaelic, a tribute to a past queen of a Scottish island. “She was a queen, a ruler with a vast army, and she cared for her people. She is an embodiment of feminine power,” he explains.
Master blacksmith Christopher Thomson was in the middle of creating a 14-foot sculpture for a Chicago show when the pandemic struck, radically altering his plans. “Spring for us is usually comprised of frantically forging public sculpture for shows and then my wife Susan and I driving them to their locations throughout the West,” Thomson says. “I realized the show in Chicago was going to be delayed or canceled. Our galleries were closed; nothing was selling. So, I stopped forging on the big sculpture. I still came to work every day, mostly working on maintaining the machinery. It was quite disorienting. I didn’t realize how much I depend on routine.”
Thomson’s gallery, La Mesa of Santa Fe, may have been closed, but that didn’t stop small miracles from happening. A developer from Colorado who was walking along Canyon Road came across Thomson’s vibrant sculptures in the gallery garden and, thanks to a note with contact information left by the gallery owner on the door, arranged to buy three of Thomson’s large sculptures. Then, an internet customer in California bought eight smaller pieces.
“It wasn’t enough money to pay our shop overhead, but it was enough to lift my spirit,” says Thomson. “We got a PPP [Payment Protection Program] loan and my seven employees all came back to work. In many ways we were lucky that our lives did not have to change that much. We had extra time in our home, shop and the magical wild canyon of the Pecos River below. There was even extra time for kayaking, which inspired me and inspired my work most of all.”
Lynn Cline is the author of The Maverick Cookbook: Iconic Recipes & Tales from New Mexico. She has written for The New York Times, Bon Appétít and numerous other publications. She also hosts Cline’s Corner, a weekly radio show on KSFR 101.1 FM.