TEXT BY KRISTIAN MACARON PHOTOS BY DANIEL QUAT
t’s impossible to have even a brief encounter with Jody Sunshine and not be touched in some way by her art. Approach her house in the hills just outside Santa Fe, and the first thing you see is one of her pieces, a sculpture configured as a mailbox, or a mailbox configured as a sculpture. Either way, the large adobe dog and cat each wear sly grins, as if to warn visitors that the home they guard is a secret wonderland. Sunshine, a petite woman of 78, opens the door to this wonderland with the kind of smile that makes instant friends of strangers. Her home is a riot of color and form, obviously the work of someone who uses her space as a canvas, whether to create a maze of hues in the floor tile or to make visitors laugh. “Just Add Hot Water,” for instance, is spelled out in myriad pieces of tile lining a bathtub. Her work is everywhere: adorning walls, freestanding, and even tessellated into the house itself. There are paintings, assemblages, sculptures, and more, each reflecting her unmatched style that uses seemingly innocent imagery to make pointed commentary on issues of gender, power, and culture. Sunshine’s art is often influenced by or features a host of seemingly disparate objects: thrift store frames, porcelain figures, slices of bread, statues of faux marble, blue willow china, her mother’s embroidery. Then there are the bunnies. “I’m not trying to be cute or sweet,” Sunshine maintains, “but I find that bunnies are great as a stand-in for human beings, and they can be twisted and pushed and they still look like bunnies. They combine an organic roundness with sharpness, which suits me. I like to make them bland-looking so you, the viewer, can do what you want with what you think.” But it’s not just bunnies. There are many other significant and repeated figures in Jody’s work, including kissing faces, camouflaged soldiers, science experiments and social studies conducted using bread or dolls, politics disguised as vases Opposite: Our Virgin of Bensonhurst (2009), acrylic house paint on board, depicts the powerful influence of tradition on youth.
and flowers, feminist struggle and identity displayed through assorted items of clothing, and even family secrets exposed in one instance by cats and dogs. Sunshine’s preferred medium is highquality acrylic house paint. “I don’t sketch, and I don’t plan except once I get going,” she explains. “Because this paint dries very quickly, I can change my mind in a second and go over it. I used to work in oils, and that involved waiting and decision-making in advance. This quick drying really freed me.” Sunshine began as an abstract expressionist. She attended the famed High School of Music and Art (now La Guardia High School of the Arts) in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, making the trek from the middle class, suburban borough of Queens. Somewhere in between, the daily subway rides bridged the two very different neighborhoods. From this dichotomy, Sunshine claimed the beginning of her expression. It was the late 1950s/early 1960s, a time when the trappings of a Father Knows Best America were pitted against the hard-nosed, irreverent rebellion of the painters she was learning about, both at school and in the streets. In truth, she might have loved both those worlds, but as one dream seemed to deny the other, a battle was born. The subsequent journey was to inform her life as a painter, woman, and humanist. “I’d come home late from my arts high school, and the cheerleaders from Jamaica High would get on the bus, talking about their basketball team and their famous hero, Al Seiden,” she says. “In my school, our hero was Jerome Within, famous among us for often staying up all night painting, so involved with his work that he forgot to go to sleep. We all wanted to be ‘real,’ and there I was, caught in the divide between two worlds: the suburbs and the city. I had a backyard with rhododendrons, while my schoolmates had apartment buildings with elevators.” In her painting Our Virgin of Bensonhurst, Sunshine revisits some of these early concerns, a youthful suburban longing for achieved tradition versus the chaos of pioneering an identity as an artist.
Sunshine began hanging out at the Cedar Tavern, where Jackson Pollock was known to drunkenly hold court. She became familiar with Willem de Kooning, Andy Warhol, and the not-yet-famous Brice Marden, a Boston University classmate. She hung out with Larry Rivers and other NYC artists as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s. She adopted a teaching career that culminated with a stint at the same high school she had attended in her youth. In 1995 she and her husband, Phil, and their daughter, Hester, moved to New Mexico. The change was prompted by an early-retirement incentive and a desire to make a new beginning. The Sunshines chose Santa Fe for many reasons, including the weather, the liberal political scene, and its natural beauty. “I am a painter and avid skier,” Sunshine says. “Everything about Santa Fe met our needs, and we feel privileged to be here.” Hester Sunshine is now a fashion designer based in New York City. She was a contestant on the 17th season of Project Runway, which aired on Bravo during Spring 2019. On the show pilot, Hester Sunshine describes her design style as “high-fashion whimsy” much like her mother’s art. “I like to create pieces that make you think and make you laugh at the same time,” Hester says. It was in Santa Fe that Jody Sunshine was finally able to become a full-time artist. Santa Fe also gave Sunshine—whose name is an Americanization of her husband’s family name, Zonnenschein, the Yiddish word for sunshine—a way to examine and personalize the questions that carried over from her youth. For Sunshine, New York’s abstract expressionism was intensity without catharsis. “It was fury, it was fraught,” she says. “It all came from within, and it would exhaust me. The oil paints allowed me or encouraged me to do virtuoso painting rather than get out what I needed. I wanted to get rid of all that baggage.” She let go of her Abstract Expressionist credo and invented a new approach that was influenced by both the daunting trendmagazineglobal.com