ARTES 2016 Tradiciones â€˘ The Taos News
Logan Wannamaker at his studio in El Prado on Aug. 9.
Huberto Maestas works on a commisioned piece in his San Luis, Colorado, studio on July 15.
aos and the arts are like sugar and cinnamon; separately they are very copacetic, but together they are even better. Art is a major ingredient in the making and sustaining of Taos. You see it every day in gallery windows, in painters setting up their easels alongside a road, in murals, on stage, on screen and in books.
A community's nourishment
Our unique mecca consistently inspires. Taos is home to artists of every character and genre. From traditional artistic disciplines handed down for generations to edgy works, there is something that will command your attention — make you stop, look and feel. Inside this edition of Artes (Arts), you’ll meet some of our many brilliant creative visionaries such as ceramic artist and kiln-builder extraordinaire
Logan Wannamaker; en plein air landscape painter Michelle Chrisman; large-scale sculptor Christina Sporrong, robotic artist Christian Ristow, the abstract metal works of world-renowned sculptor Peter Chinni, the bronze creations from the emotional hands of Huberto Maestas; and the contemporary ceramics and arts education found at Taos Clay Studio.
The challenge for any artist is to take a leap into the dark, break some rules and sometimes, to reinvent. It is in their glory of expression, of the trials and beautiful mistakes, and in the sharing of their gifts and knowledge that we continue to honor and encourage them. — Scott Gerdes, special sections editor
honrar a nuestros heroes
I love this town.
CONTENTS 4 SPLASHING COLOR: MICHELLE 16 ENERGY BETWEEN THE CHRISMAN’S PLEIN AIR ELEMENTS: PETER CHINNI LANDSCAPES AND THE INTEGRITY OF A By Laurie Celine CAREER By John Miller 6 CREATOR OF CHRIST: HUBERTO MAESTAS 18 BUILDING SOMETHING By Laurie Celine GREATER: TAOS CLAY STUDIO TAKES NEW SHAPE 8 THE ALCHEMY OF EARTH: By John Miller POTTER, KILN-BUILDER LOGAN WANNAMAKER
Thanks, TAOS! I love being here to help life go rightTM in a community where people are making a difference every day. Thank you for all you do.
By J.R. Logan
12 AT HOME WITH GIANTS: CHRISTINA SPORRONG AND CHRISTIAN RISTOW CONTINUE TO DREAM BIG
By John Miller
STAFF Robin Martin, owner • Chris Baker, publisher • Damon Scott, editor • Chris Wood,
advertising manager • Scott Gerdes, special sections editor • Michelle M. Gutierrez, lead editorial designer • Jordan Miera, copy editor • Karin Eberhardt, production manager • Katharine Egli, photographer • Staff writers: Laurie Celine, J.R. Logan • Contributing writer: John Miller
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“Summer Skies Over Rushing River,” by Michelle Chrisman
Michelle Chrisman's plein air landscapes BY LAURIE CELINE
aos contemporary colorist painter, Michelle Chrisman, paints outdoors nearly every day. When she isn’t splashing color onto large canvases from an overlook, or in someone’s garden capturing blossoms, she is either teaching classes — sometimes at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiú or at the Harwood Art Center in Albuquerque — or private lessons. Eight galleries represent Chrisman in New Mexico and Arizona, including Joe Wade Fine Art in Santa Fe and Wilder Nightingale
Gallery in Taos. That means she travels throughout the two Southwest states delivering paintings, as well as creating them. She grew up in Colorado Springs and left for New York City when she graduated from high school. There she obtained a bachelor’s degree at the School of Visual Arts and an associate’s degree at the Fashion Institute in Technology. Then for more than a decade, she worked as an art director in fashion advertising for Macy’s Department Store.
Chrisman believes her fashion background has helped her find her voice in painting. “The world of fashion is about exaggeration, and it’s also theater, so it helps in giving my paintings flare,” she said. Chrisman describes her artist self as “an expressionist that works from a place of being grounded in the principles of impressionism,” she said. “I’m thinking of all those impressionist principles — how light works in the world, shapes and value — but I apply the
paint as an expressionist.” While in New York, Chrisman, whose father is Lebanese, grew up with Arabic music. She began belly dancing professionally and eventually got recruited by her supervisor, who was Egyptian, to go dance professionally in Cairo. “It was a novelty to see an American belly dancer,” Chrisman said. She stayed for two years, where she also worked part time as an art director in an advertising agency. “I
Clockwise from top left: En plein air artist Michelle Chrisman paints Taos Mountain in July, photo by Katharine Egli; Chrisman sets up her easel to paint Taos Mountain in July, photo by Katharine Egli; “Full Bloom at Taos Gorge,” by Chrisman, courtesy photo.
muddled my way through by knowing a little Arabic language,” she added.
exciting Northern New Mexico plein air painter ever.” Chrisman said.
She returned to New York, then moved to Albuquerque when she was about 35. In the Duke City she started a graphic design business and became interested in the art she saw, “especially in Santa Fe,” she said.
I use speed, getting the painting done in one sitting, (called alla prima) and I like the way the outdoors forces me to paint fast. I use speed to my benefit,” she said,“because I feel it brings a risk-taking environment in responding to the weather. Louisa called it being an action painter.”
The shift to working as a fulltime fine artist began in 1995. She took a weeklong plein-air painting workshop in Taos with Ray Vanilla and Kevin McPherson. She made a slow transition from painting part time over about five years, until finally taking the leap to work full time in fine art 15 years ago. More recently, she mentioned she gained influence from Louisa McElwain. “She was the most
“I moved to Taos because the Abiquiú, Taos, Ghost Ranch, Northern New Mexico area is what I want to paint. I find it incredibly ... paintable,” she said. “Everywhere I look and go is just beautiful in Taos. I feel like I live in a visual feast. I could look anywhere in Taos, and want to paint what’s in front of me. When I go to other places, it’s not that way. Northern New Mexico just
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really speaks to me.” Her favorite spots to paint are the Río Grande Gorge in the Taos area, and the Río Pueblito in Abiquiú. “I love the way the cliffs create abstract shapes. And I do love painting gardens in Taos,” she said. “I like to paint, and bring beauty to my canvas in a way that makes people feel happy.” She credits her background in advertising with her painting success because it helps her market her art. She does much of her own marketing, beyond her galleries’ efforts. When I’m outside painting, I feel like I am acknowledging God’s creation; the awesome beauty we are surrounded with.”
Huberto Maestas in his studio in San Luis, Colorado, on July 15.
CREATOR OF CHRIST
Sculptor Huberto Maestas BY LAURIE CELINE
Vatican City, Italy.
here was a day in the early 1990s, when a bus full of tourists pulled up to to sculptor Huberto Maestas’ 9,000-square-foot studio and metal foundry in San Luis, Colorado. This is not unusual, since Maestas is best known for the bronze "Stations of the Cross" he created — that thousands of people visit each year as part of a holy pilgrimage.
It was the San Luis commission that changed Maestas’ life. In 1988, he had been apprenticing in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and was part owner of a foundry he worked in, staying busy casting sculptures for 60 or 70 artists, he says. He had just been offered a high-tech position with Martin Marietta, and had accepted it, when the priest from San Luis offered him the commission of 32 sculptures for “Stations of the Cross.”
The day the bus pulled up, his wife, Dana, who he met in high-school, knew he was in a temperamental mood, so she attempted to talk the unexpected visitors into coming back another day. As they stood there in shock saying, “No, we drove all this way (from Pueblo, Colorado),” a life-sized Christ figure made of clay came flying out of the studio, Maestas says.
There was not a question. He knew what he wanted to do. He turned down the high-paying job offer, and moved to San Luis. Maestas’ grandfather grew up in Taos, and he in San Luis, where he bought his foundry in the year 2000.
“I go out there, and I’m standing there with an axe, and I chop the head off, and as I hit it like a golf club and watch the head roll, I look up and see this crowd of people,” Maestas says. “I saw them and I go, ‘Oh my god, who are they? A whole bus load of tourists.’ I went back inside,” Maestas laughs as he remembers the disbelief on their faces.
“Although I live in San Luis, Taos feels like my home,” he says. He’s been sculpting ever since. Maestas also has pieces in museums, public buildings and parks, internationally, including his least favorite piece: "Father Padre Martinez" that sits in Historic Taos Plaza.
It turns out, “It was Father Pat with the Arch Bishop, and a bunch of other priests who just showed up,” he says. (He was referring to Rev. Maximo Patricio Valdez of the Sangre de Christo Catholic Parish). They stopped without notice in an attempt to view Maestas creating a sculpture that the Pueblo church had commissioned.
It was a commission that originally was to go in front of the courthouse in Santa Fe. He had a once-in-a-lifetime illness, which made him rush the sculpture, so he feels it isn’t as high quality as his other works. Even so, he loves the history of Martinez, and “if you climb on top of the sculpture and look down on it, there is a scroll that says, ‘El Crepusculo,’ honoring the first printing press that Martinez brought east of the Mississippi, which slowly transformed into The Taos News.
“The Archbishop asked Father Pat, ‘Is that one of our sculptures?’” Maestas says, of the commissioned work. Father Pat answered, “It was ...” says Maestas, who is a practicing Catholic.
Maestas lived in Arroyo Seco for seven years, where he and his wife rented a house from now deceased Taos icon Ted Egri, up until a few months ago. He says he learned some things from Egri, the well-known Taos Modern artist and sculptor.
“When the wine is bad, you throw it out, I told them. It’s an old Michaelangelo saying,” Maestas says. He destroyed the whole thing because he knew it would be the only way he would stop trying to correct it. He redid the sculpture in three weeks. Maestas is best known for the bronze "Stations of the Cross"
Huberto Maestas works on a commisioned piece on July 15.
sculptures displayed in San Luis, near his foundry. Those pieces led to creating a similar series that is now in the Vatican in
Unplug to Recharge
Maestas owned a gallery in Taos for many years, until a financial advisor suggested he was spending 85 percent of his time making 10 percent of his income from it. So, he closed it in 2012, and now sells only out of his showroom on Main Street in downtown San Luis.
The QEDF is assisting the North Central New Mexico Economic Development District with a barley growing pilot to study the viability of the region for providing feedstock to local breweries in New Mexico.
Questa is Open for Business! Unplug your cell phone. Unplug your laptop and video games. Unplug your iPod, iPad, iEverything. And reconnect with what’s important. taoscounty.org
ain of Youth
In partnership with the Village of Questa and Chevron, the Questa Economic Development Fund (QEDF) is spearheading the transition to a diverse and sustainable post-mining economy. With the completion of the Questa Economic Development Plan, the Fund is working to develop opportunities for entrepreneurs, the expansion of new and established businesses, and improved agriculture opportunities throughout northern Taos County. The Questa Economic Development Fund was founded in 2008 as a community-led non-profit 501(c)(3). To learn more about potential business opportunities in Questa, please contact the Fund Executive Director, Philippe Chino at email@example.com
From top clockwise: The D.H. Lawrence Memorial sits on ranch property; The Homesteaders Cabin at the D.H. Lawrence Ranch; Members of the Taos Historical Society take a tour of the D.H. Lawrence Ranch on July 9.
THE D.H. LAWRENCE RANCH Profound solace BY ANDY DENNISON
Logan Wannamaker at his studio in El Prado on Aug. 9.
THE ALCHEMY OF EARTH Potter, kiln-builder Logan Wannamaker
BY J.R. LOGAN
. . . ceramic artists have endless variables to play with when producing work, especially those who use wood-fired kilns, which leave distinct flash marks and halos on the final products. Those patterns are the scorch marks left over from hours inside a swirling inferno.
ogan Wannamaker stands at a whirling pottery wheel and effortlessly shapes a ball of black clay into a cup in seconds. That moment — throwing a pot — is probably the easiest part of his creative process. Behind it are hours of digging, sieving, mixing, hammering, chopping and burning that finally culminate in a one-of-akind work of art that uses native materials to mirror the dramatic Northern New Mexico landscape. Wannamaker moved to Taos in 2006, and for eight years owned and operated Taos Clay. The business hosted resident artists and offered pottery classes. It also gave Wannamaker gallery space to showcase his pots.
slips that go into the kiln. (A slip is a liquid mixture or slurry of clay and/or other materials suspended in water.)
But in 2014, he sold the business to focus full time on his own artwork. He took his experience, and the wisdom he gained from other potters, and he built a spacious studio and custom kilns. It’s as much a mad scientist's laboratory as it is an artist's retreat.
In some cases, Wannamaker has sought advice from longtime potters like Taos’ Hank Saxe, who has already done decades of his own experimenting. But Wannamaker says many of his techniques come from a lot of trial and error.
“When I moved in here, I had my 10,000 hours in,” Wannamaker says. “I had a vision of what I wanted to create and I could get there pretty fast. I understood the alchemy of the materials, and the kilns, and the craft of making something. What works. What doesn’t.”
kilns, which leave distinct flash marks and halos on the final products. Those patterns are the scorch marks left over from hours inside a swirling inferno.
Wannamaker likes to say ceramic artists have endless variables to play with when producing work, especially those who use wood-fired
“You can actually see the fire, the way it was weaving itself around the pots and through the kiln,” Wannamaker says. “It’s like building
Logan Wannamaker explains how he turns raw clay collected in Abiquiú into something he can use for artwork.
up a stream bed. The fire is the current going around the pots. So I want to showcase that.” To that end, he’s constantly experimenting. Different woods contain different materials and burn at different heats, which have a direct impact on the how the final product turns out. So do the kinds of clays and
For example, Wannamaker pulls out a book on tree bark. He flips through pages loaded with gorgeous, detailed pictures of bark from around the world. He says he’s obsessed with the book. For a long time he wanted to use clay to mimic the ashy, ribbed look of aspen bark. WANNAMAKER continues on page 10
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Wannamaker and his Anagma kiln.
WANNAMAKER continues from page 9 He’d play with different materials and different firing techniques. He even discovered that something as nuanced as placing the piece in a specific part of the wood kiln could have a huge impact. After thorough experimenting, Wannamaker says he finally nailed it. At his studio, he pulls out a piece that he’s satisfied with — a cylindrical container that has the telltale wrinkles and colors of an aspen tree. It's an almost flawless replica. As part of the experimentation, Wannamaker has begun gathering a lot more materials from the mountains and desert within an hours drive of his house. It’s a way to bring the environment — his muse — directly into his artwork, he says. “I’m no longer interested in just the raw commercial clay. It doesn’t have as much depth or story to it. So I've evolved past that.”
Wannamaker holds a mixture of kaolin and sand at his El Prado studio.
The results are pieces that look nothing like work from other potters in other regions. When he’s mountain biking or hiking, he
loads his backpack with interesting rocks — feldspar and quartz. Then he hammers or mills them down into pieces at his studio. The shards then go into the clay to add texture and color. Or he melts down the rock and uses it as a slip. He also gathers his own clay from the painted badlands near Abiquiú. Wannamaker drives to the desert to a reliable outcrop of black clay. He shovels the raw dirt into the bed of his pickup, then hauls it back to his studio. Once there, he sieves the dirt through a screen into in a 150-gallon tub. The sieved powder — the clay — gets soaked in water and blended with a drill. It gets sieved a couple more times before going into an industrialsize mixer. Wannamaker then adds a little commercial clay while the mixer is spinning until he gets the right consistency. The final product is a rich ebony clay that’s ready to form. Wannamaker says he’s also been gathering red, iron-laden dirt from around Abiquiú to use as a slip. “That’s what’s the most gratifying,” Wannamaker says. “I like how it ties into a place. It brings the landscape into the piece.”
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2016 Tradiciones • The Taos News
“Chama of Piedre Lumbre” en plein air painting by Taos artist Michelle Chrisman.
Christina Sporrong in her studio on July 13.
Christian Ristow in his studio on July 13.
AT HOME WITH GIANTS Christina Sporrong and Christian Ristow continue to dream big BY JOHN MILLER
f you ever pay a visit to the property where Christina Sporrong and Christian Ristow live and work, you might feel as though you’ve just slipped into a waking fever dream — one where towering red robots, giant musical spiders and car-crushing steel hands come to life. Having spent years on the American and international festival circuits — including regular appearances at Burning Man, Voodoo Fest, Coachella, Maker Faire, Glastonbury and Taos’ own The PASEO festival — Sporrong and Ristow have built their careers around pushing convention aside and creating work that is at once guilelessly imaginative and substantial in meaning and depth. Their home on Taos Mesa is, in every way, a reflection of a life dedicated to creating art that can “hit” you from a mile away.
SHADOWS IN THE DUST
Driving south along Rim Road on a Wednesday afternoon in July, the Sporrong-Ristow property could be sighted by tall metallic sculptures that stood high above the western edge of the Río Grande. Below, one could make out the blue roof of the house where the artists raise their 5-year-old son, Kodiak, and to the north, the
Their home on Taos Mesa is, in every way, a reflection of a life dedicated to creating art that can ‘hit’ you from a mile away. large, slate-colored building where they work. Turning down a long, sage-lined driveway and through a wide ranch portal, sculptures large and small came into view in all directions — geologic metal skeletons of animals and imagined creatures, and giant hydraulic claws that stand open, as if poised to snatch the next thing that might wander into their grasp. After finding a parking space between a large metallic bird and a stack of steel salvage, Ristow
arrived, pulling up to the house and exiting the vehicle with Kodiak in tow. “I just picked him up from school,” Ristow said, shaking hands. “Christina’s in the shop.”
Inside the workshop, pallet racks stand 30-feethigh against a north-facing wall — all laden with spare parts and equipment. The front half of the shop contains every kind of machining equipment imaginable — industrial drills, lathes and mills — all sprinkled with metal shavings from recent use. Sporrong stood at a worktable at the far end where she wrestled with a small device. “I’m trying to repair this stupid grinder,” she said, and nodded towards the front of the workshop. “Christian is a machinist by training and builds things that are very precision oriented, like robots, so in that half of the shop, you’ll see a lot of machining tools. I’m more of the old world person, so I have the forge and the anvil. I make things that have a lot of texture, things that aren’t as precise.” Sporrong has been a metal worker since college. She received her bachelor’s degree in fine art from Parsons School of Design in New York
City, and opened Spitfire Forge in 1998. A self-described “mayhem-creator,” she said that many of her sculptures incorporate fire, which, in keeping with her and Ristow’s emphasis on interactivity, can sometimes be controlled by festivalgoers. She described her most recent project — a 20-foot-tall metal sculpture with a cauldron-like base and a spire-like component jutting from its center. “This is the big fire sculpture I’m working on right now,” Sporrong said. She pointed to the spire. “This is a totem that will eventually be filled up with water and then there will be fire bubbling up on top. ‘Poofer cannons’ produce the fire — the audience will be able to interface with that.” Sporrong said that the sculpture is meant to convey an environmental message. “I’m calling it, ‘Totem to the Lost.’ It’s really about the extinction of animals. The fire water represents maybe fracking, and the totem will have sculptures representing different critically endangered species…” SPORRONG/RISTOW continues on page 15
Artisan welder Christina Sporrong works on a section of her 2015 creation and interactive sculpture “Caged Pulse Jets.”
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ARTES ‘. . . I like the idea of opening up the range of what’s acceptable to do and to build. I believe that ‘art is the proper task of life,’ like Nietzsche said, and I would like to have more people believe in that.’ —Christian Ristow
“It was definitely different in the 90s than it is now,” Ristow said. “It was a lot less regulated. My first year was kind of the last unregulated year, which was 1996. It was very liberating. It presented this wide-open canvas for experimenting with what I could build that would actually have an audience.”
SPORRONG/RISTOW continues from page 13
The growth of their family has also contributed to that desire to make a transition.
Sporrong agreed, adding that, at least in the United States, that audience is shrinking as funding for festival music is emphasized over funding for art. “We are excited to do more work abroad,” Sporrong said, who is originally from Sweden. “Without being too specific, we’re looking to find inspiration in Europe. We’ve been thinking about going there for a while. They have a lot of festivals and they have a very different aesthetic. The funding for arts is on a completely different level.” “In America, as an artist, there’s always a constant compromise when doing things for a festival. You’re always trying to cater to what they want, so you’re always having to modify your vision.”
Ristow explained that some of his projects are now inspired by Kodiak.
When asked how she and Ristow met, Sporrong explained that although they had attended many of the same concerts and festivals — including Burning Man in Black Rock Desert, Nevada — and went to college in New York during the same years, it wasn’t until 2005 that they first met in Los Angeles. “I had been in San Francisco working at a school called The Crucible,” she said. “I was there for three months or so, and then I met him down in LA. I saw his shop and I was like, ‘Oh, dear.’ His shop was beautiful … We were just so similar. It was also the timing — I was in my mid-30s and he was in his mid-30s, and we were both single. When does that happen? That never happens.” Ristow grew up in the California bay area and studied architecture at Columbia University. From 1993 to 1997, he worked with the San Francisco-based robotics collective, Survival Research Laboratories. Before meeting Sporrong and relocating to Taos, he was working as a roboticist and puppeteer in the film industry. “He was kind of done with LA at that point,” Sporrong said. “He had been working in special
Christian Ristow and Christina Sporrong of Spitfire Forge photographed on July 13.
effects for the movies, and he has some really serious creds there. He built Doc Ocs’ claws for “Spiderman 2.” He worked on “Ex Machina” … He’s kind of a superstar.” A few moments later, Ristow and Kodiak entered.
sometimes bring Kodiak along for the ride when they exhibit work at Burning Man. “He’s been about three times,” Sporrong said. “It’s been super fun bringing him with us. It’s changed Burning Man — for me at least.”
“I was just singing your praises,” Sporrong said.
“It’s now the reason why we want to go,” Ristow agreed.
“What did I do?” Ristow responded.
Kodiak pointed at the tool Sporrong was holding: “What is that?” “This is one of dad’s Allen drivers,” she said. Despite their unusual home life, the SporrongRistow family dynamic is mostly what you’d expect, though Sporrong mentioned that they
For both Sporrong and Ristow, Burning Man has been a major source of inspiration. Over the years, the festival has commissioned many of their sculptures and funded the creation of new work. But both artists also described how the wild and once unregulated “free-expression” festival — now a major annual event that attracts thousands of visitors each year — has changed.
“In the last three or four years, the things that I get obsessed with are things that I get exposed to through Kodiak,” Ristow said. “Like I was super into velociraptors for a year because Kodiak was into velociraptors. Something like that can be the genesis of an idea for a project.” But regardless of where the ideas originate, Ristow said that their work always considers a child’s perspective: “My dream is that kids see some of the stuff that we build and say, ‘Wow, I had a dumb idea like that last week and I didn’t even say it to my parents because I thought they would shut me down because they would think it was so dumb. But look it, these people are doing it! They’re actually doing it! Maybe my idea wasn’t that dumb. Maybe it is OK to do these crazy, frivolous things. Maybe there is an audience for this stuff. And maybe there are people out there who will take it seriously.’ I like the idea of opening up the range of what’s acceptable to do and to build. I believe that ‘art is the proper task of life,’ like Nietzsche said, and I would like to have more people believe in that.”
KIT CARSON ELECTRIC COOPERATIVE INC. Sponsors five Junior students yearly to take the trip of a lifetime; all expense paid trip to Washington, DC. The Government-In-Action Youth Tour Contest is open to all Junior students in our service territory. The students submit a 750 word essay on the selected topic, the reports are judged and a winner from each service district is selected. Our selected winners take the amazing trip to Washington, DC with over 1,500 other students from across the United States. Kit Carson Electric Cooperative Inc. was represented by the following winners this year.
Your Co-op has a program that works together with local law enforcement and emergency agencies to report or assist with any youth, senior citizens or any other individuals in need. All employees have the ability to radio in to obtain immediate assistance How It Works: If you are ever in need of immediate assistance look for the Safe Haven bumper sticker on any Kit Carson Electric, Telecom or Energy company vehicles.
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A citizen in need of help, for example a child headed home from school is being followed by a suspicious person, can find a KCEC, KCT or KCE truck with a Safe Haven bumper sticker and report the trouble. The employee will then use the trucks radio to call the proper law enforcement agency. The child may then remain with the utility employee until help arrives. Also a Safe Haven serves as a port in a storm for anyone in an emergency situation. For example, an elderly person who is confused or lost might approach a Safe Haven vehicle and ask for directions or assistance. Injured people, frightened children or stranded motorists might do the same. Safe Haven is another way in which we can all work together to give our communities a safe place to live, work and play!
Kit Carson Electric Education Foundation is available to qualified high school students who attend either a public or private school and whose parents are members of the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative service area. Scholarships are granted to qualifying high school students who will be attending a recognized and accredited institution of higher education. Applicants are selected by their levels of good character, academic achievement and can demonstrate a coherent degree plan and willingness to pursue a course of higher learning. Over the past 18 years, the Foundation has been proud to help these students achieve their dreams where they may not have been able to move scholastically forward without the Foundations assistance.
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2016 Scholarship Recipients
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Sculptor Peter Chinni photographed in his Taos studio in August.
ENERGY BETWEEN THE ELEMENTS
Peter Chinni and the integrity of a career BY JOHN MILLER
o truly know the world, look deeply within your own being; to truly know yourself, take real interest in the world.” —Rudolf Steiner, from “Verses and Meditations”
Listening to Taos sculptor Peter Chinni discuss his artwork and his life is like getting lost in a good book. A clear and lively narrator, Chinni guides you along a story of epic scale with twists and turns, exotic locales, larger-than-life characters, heartbreak and humor. And it’s a story that seems to only get better with age. Also a skilled painter and singer, but internationally renowned for his signature interlocking bronze sculptures, Chinni’s work reflects what he describes as a lifelong meditation on the energy and growth symbolized by the seed — a practice he adopted from the writings of late Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner. “I still meditate on the seed,” Chinni said, speaking at his studio on Reed Street. “I have been now for 40 years, and it’s had a big impact on my life and my understanding of life.” Though he now enjoys a quiet reputation in Taos, Chinnis’ paintings and sculptures are included in some of the most prestigious permanent collections in the world, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Hirshhorn Museum and the Nelson Rockefeller Collection. At 88, he continues to build on a career that seems to be as much about his own artistic development as it is about the relationships he developed along the way. Born in 1928 in a small immigrant village in Mt. Kisco, New York, Chinni was raised in a large Italian family. “My mother worked cleaning houses, and I had five sisters, three brothers, nephews and nieces all living in the same house,” Chinni said. “My family had a huge impact on my development. I didn’t realize that until about 20 years ago. But as you get older, you start looking back and remembering.”
Chinni had an awareness of his creativity from the time he was very young. He said that he began singing with his family when he was 3 years old, and at school, he would sketch the people and places he saw around his neighborhood. “I recently found all of my report cards,” he said. “Frequently, the teacher would make a little notation on the back stating, ‘I hope you’re going to follow your art.’” Chinni enrolled at the Art Students League of New York just a few years later in 1947. While his style matured, he met an ItalianAmerican who had helped the famous Jewish-Italian art critic, Lionello Venturi, come to America to escape Mussolini fascism. After seeing his early work, Venturi endorsed Chinni’s enrollment at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome. When he arrived in Italy in 1949, Chinni made his first connection with a fellow art student — a Polish-Jewish refugee who had been taken in by Canadian nuns. Knowing that his friend had no place to live and didn’t speak Italian, the young artist introduced Chinni to a family that was seeking a tenant. “As it turned out, they happened to be extraordinary people,” Chinni recalled. “One daughter was a professor of romance languages. The son was a med student. And the other daughter was a law student. My friend had dropped off three of my paintings at their house prior to my arrival, so they later told me they ‘loved’ me before they ever saw me.” It was in this family’s care that Chinni was introduced to the writings of Rudolf Steiner — a major influence on his later work. Chinni left the academy in 1949 and traveled to Turin, where he found a mentor in portraitist, sculptor and printmaker, Felice Casorati. Chinni learned to improve his use of light, color and composition, and would later find another mentor in Italian cubist, Roberto Melli. With his skills sharpened, Chinni established a studio in Rome and was invited to exhibit a series of etchings at his first one-man-show in 1955. An
American sculptor named James Wines attended the event, and after meeting Chinni, asked if he could see some of his paintings as well. Chinni agreed, and within just a few minutes of inspecting the work, Wines said, “Peter, you’re a sculptor.” “I thought he was joking,” Chinni recalled, laughing. “But he was very serious. He said, ‘Look at your plastic, three-dimensional forms. These are the paintings and the drawings of a sculptor.’” At Wines’ studio, Chinni made his first piece, “a rhinoceros,” he remembered. “And that was it — for the next 20 years, I did not touch a paint brush — it was all sculpture.” Chinni was drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces in 1951, and spent two years stationed in Dachau, Germany. “The military had a music school in Dachau where, if you passed the audition, they would train you for four months and then assign you to a military band somewhere,” Chinni said. “I passed the audition on the clarinet, but I wanted to continue working on my art. I asked the sergeant, and he reached into a drawer, pulled out a sheet of paper and a pencil, handed it to me and said, ‘Do my picture.’ As a portrait painter, I had no problem, so he took me to the concert hall and asked, ‘Can you paint something here?’” Chinni painted a mural on the evolution of music and musical instruments, and continued to work on special projects for the next two years. Upon returning to New York, he opened a studio in Manhattan and continued to sculpt. Influenced by the idea of “energy between elements,” his style rapidly evolved from representational and pictorial to futuristic and abstract, emphasizing negative space that conveyed a sense of “energy.” His first one-man show as a sculptor was held at Janet Nessler Gallery in New York City in 1961. It was a major success, and several of his pieces were purchased by the city of Saint Louis and the Denver Art Museum, marking a turning point in Chinni’s career.
As funds allowed, Chinni returned to Italy many times over the next several years, where his work was further influenced by Italian architecture and the Italian Futurism movement. When he returned to Manhattan in 1970, he met his now-former wife at a nearby gallery. “I was having a show at the Albert Loeb Gallery, which was one of the top galleries then and they had just hired her as a receptionist,” Chinni said. They had two daughters, but after what Chinni described as period of “crisis,” divorced a few years later. He said that his oldest daughter, Christine, continues to be a great source of support in his career and his life. Chinni’s skill and success continued to grow throughout the 1970s, with notable exhibitions at the Musee’ d’Ixelle in Brussels, Belgium, and the Beeckestijn Museum and Bouma Gallerie in Amsterdam, Holland. He received what he considers to be one of his greatest honors in 1974, when the Shah of Iran invited him to a one-manshow on the Island of Kish. In spite of an accident at a foundry that destroyed 20 years worth of work, Chinni persevered throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, raising his two daughters alone and continuing to paint and sculpt. “I could only work either late at night or very early in the morning, and occasionally on a Saturday or a Sunday,” he said. “But what I really wanted was a place where I could work every day and have a quiet life — I have found that here.” Since relocating to Taos in 2003, Chinni has continued to draw from what seems to be a bottomless well of energy and inspiration, producing work that reflects his passion for people, art and life. When asked what he most wanted readers to know about his story, he responded, “The integrity of a career.” “I made a commitment — and I remember making it on my second day of art school — that I would develop my talents and my gifts to the best of my ability, and that is what I continue to do.”
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A work in progress by Taos Clay Studio owner/director Brandi Jessup.
BUILDING SOMETHING GREATER Taos Clay Studio takes new shape BY JOHN MILLER
culpture is one of the oldest utilitarian and artistic practices in human history, and whether recovered from some ancient grotto in the Earth’s crust or shaped by a student in a modern studio, every piece has a unique, human story to tell.
For Brandi Jessup, owner, director and artist at Taos Clay Studio, those stories are the reason for choosing a career in the ceramic arts.
Since purchasing Taos Clay Studio just over two years ago, Jessup has transformed the El Pradolocated business into an internationally renowned gallery, workshop and residency program. This summer, she was one of two local artists to receive the Peter and Madeleine Martin Foundation Creative Arts “Visionary Artist” award for her “commitment to building opportunities for lifelong learning and experimentation in the visual arts.”
Discover why Taos is a special place to live
“The residency is kind of like a halfway house for artists,” said Jessup, who experienced a residency under the direction of her predecessor, local sculptor Logan Wannamaker. “When you get out of school, most programs are really just makingbased and so they don’t really cover the business side of things or how to be a working artist. We give people that experience.” Impressively, this is also Jessup’s first venture as
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But Jessup explained that she takes the greatest pride in her residents — who live and work with the studio for up to two years and have included award-winning artists, and students, who attend weekly workshops led by a guest sculptor. Jessup’s programs teach participants how to both improve their sculpting techniques and be successful as working artists: how to manage finances, create a portfolio, win representation in a gallery and even manage a studio or gallery of their own.
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ARTES a business owner. Punctuating her achievement is the fact that, while she receives some support from residents, Jessup operates Taos Clay as a soleproprietor, and currently, its only staff member. “We’ve grown quite a bit in the last year, so I’m hoping that I will have the funds to hire a manager this year,” Jessup explained. She laughed and added: “And if nothing else, I’m at least going to hire a janitor.” But walking through the studios’ front doubledoors, one encounters a pristine, open and brightly lit gallery filled with dozens of sculptures — classical Greek pots and vases, beautifully hand-crafted mugs and plates and abstract works representing artists both local and from around the globe. On July 18, a lively discussion could be heard coming from the workshop behind the gallery. Inside, about 20 students stood gathered around a large worktable, all pinching soft, unfired clays as Northern New Mexican sculptor, Gretchen Ewert — a master of the technique — instructed. “This is my second workshop here,” Ewert explained. “I used to teach at Santa Fe Clay. I did the same thing there, although I was just limited to teaching ‘surface.’ People know I do hand-building, which is what I put my surfaces on, so finally they said, ‘We want to learn handbuilding!’ So that’s what I’m doing now.” She holds up her sculpture. “This is a coiled pot with an animal form — right now, I’m showing people how to do that. Here, take a piece of clay.” In the adjoining storage room, two-year resident Erica Hopper was inspecting some finished work featured in a solo show on Sept. 30. All residents have a solo exhibition at the end of their term. “This experience has really helped me to develop my art,” Hopper said. “I have a new working process for it. Before, I used to just skip around and make whatever came to mind. Now, I’m working in series, which is a huge step for me.” She also explained that Jessup modifies the program to suit each residents’ personal goals. “Brandi starts off by asking us what we’re interested in doing later in our lives as artists — I’m more interested in teaching and eventually want to become a professor and teach ceramics, so she assigned me the task of taking care of the classes.” In the studio at the rear of the property, one-year resident Josh Smith was preparing work for his own solo show, which was held earlier in the
From left: Work made by a resident artist at Taos Clay Studio; A workshop at Taos Clay Studio.
summer on July 29. “I make mostly utilitarian objects,” he explained. “I mean, I don’t make cups because there’s a global cup shortage. It’s more like, you can have this cup that has all of the same aspects of a fine art painting — line, color, shape, content — and then still use it like a utilitarian object that can really enrich your daily life.” Smith now works as a gallery director in a studio in Upstate New York. While getting her business off the ground, Jessup took what she said was a necessary hiatus from her own sculpting. But now that things are up and running, she said that it’s time to “get her hands dirty again.” In the storage room, Jessup showed off the first of several pieces in new a series that combines small abstract work with larger a figurative form. She said that her work usually reflects the strong sense of nostalgia and fascination with history, which she developed at an early age. Born in northern Wyoming in a town of less than 2,000 people, Jessup was raised in a remote western area that seemed to still exist somewhere in the past. Residents wore cowboy hats and
boots, not as a matter of ceremony, but of practicality, as many went to work on tractors or on horseback to operate wheat farms or cattle ranches. Everyone in the community gathered each year for the town's superlative annual rodeos. Jessup said that growing up around this sort of living history instilled in her a deep interest in American western history and culture. She even admits that she once dreamed of becoming a rodeo queen. But by her teen years, Jessup’s fascination with the past inspired her to explore a career as an anthropologist. And at 15, on her first archeological dig, she made a discovery that changed her life: “I was working in this 8,000-year-old rock shelter in Wyoming at what’s called the Black Mountain Site,” Jessup recalled. “I was digging up thousands of tiny flakes that had been broken off when somebody had been making a tool and I had to map all of them out. At the end, everything was put into an AutoCAD and drawn up so that you could see from the map where the person had been sitting. That was a really poignant moment for me — to be sitting in the same place where someone else had been sitting 8,000 years ago and to have a window into their life. You could see that there were some bones around the fire and
that they were just hangin’ out, eating food and making tools. It was fascinating to me.” Anyone who’s met Jessup more than a few times has heard that story at least once, and every time she tells it, it’s as if, in that moment, she is reliving the experience. “I’m fascinated with the stories people create and the stories that become somebody’s life, and then what happens to those stories when they’re gone — and if there’s a way to preserve that in an object or if the stories disappear or change,” she continued. “Now, I’m not studying people who lived 8,000 years ago, but I still study people. I don’t think I ever really stopped being an anthropologist — I just do it in a different way now, in a different medium.” In just two years, Jessup has helped numerous artists develop their talents, but one of the most important lessons she imparts can’t be found anywhere in her business plan or class curriculum. Through her example, Jessup teaches students how to surround themselves with a strong community of artists, be a leader in that community and not only achieve individual artistic success, but build something greater — something that furthers a shared, and in this case an ancient, art form.
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“To visit Taos Pueblo is to walk in a sacred place where life continues from the earliest of human existence.”
Taos Mountain Casino is proud to honor those who both exemplify the best of the past and who help us weave it into the future. These people are our own links in what continues to be an unbroken circle of tradition at Taos Pueblo. Taos Pueblo governor’s staff members, from left, Lt. Gov. Harold Cordova, Gov. Benito M. Sandoval, and Tribal Secretary Daniel R. Lucero