My Non-New Mexico Still Life

Back in 2014 the Museum loaned a few of its paintings to a traveling exhibit called Eloquent Objects: Georgia O'Keeffe and Still Life Art in New Mexico. The show examined the role of objects in the cultivation of the Southwest as image and icon, and in addition to O'Keeffe, featured the work of Raymond Jonson, Thomas Duncan Benrimo, and many others. I didn't get a chance to see the show itself, but I've been told it was excellent.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Kachina, 1931, oil on wood panel, image courtesy of

Raymond Jonson's Santo (Saint Michael), from 1927, was one of the pieces we lent to the show. Predating his nonobjective work, it's an important early piece in the RMAC collection.
The idea of objects and identity have intrigued me for some time now, especially when it comes to cultural assumptions and expectations. When we see particular objects or artifacts, we often associate them with a specific place or society, even if that's not necessarily the case. Take a look in any regional gift shop in the United States, for example, and you'll find that the vast majority of its "authentic" souvenirs don't originate from this continent. Material culture also migrates as much as people do, thanks to massive trade networks dating back to antiquity, so objects or aesthetic styles are in themselves fluid, disappearing and reappearing in different locations. Yet the icons of our different regions, from the Maine lobster trap to the Greek amphora, remain entwined with that sense of place, even if it's no longer an accurate projection for that particular item.

The Old Salt's, a pantry and gift shop in Kennebunkport, ME. Image courtesy of
The theme of fluidity and migration feels especially pertinent to me when it comes to the Southwest. Think of the term "southwest" and you probably imagine something along the lines of the Santa Fe style that dominated in the 1980s: howling coyotes, flute-playing kokopellis, adobe houses, chili peppers, and so forth. Yet the Southwest has always been a cultural crossroads, an amorphous intersection of people and civilization. The Southwest, like the West as a whole, is more a cultural construct than it is an actual place in many ways, and having lived here off an on more nearly half my life now, I can say that it's as varied and indistinct as any other place I've lived. The united adobe exteriors of downtown Santa Fe and elsewhere are for tourists for than anyone else; the reality is far more complex.

Jerome Millord, Another Victim of Santa Fe Style, 1989, image courtesy of I kid you not, the mascot of my elementary school in AZ was a turquoise howling coyote wearing a bandana.
Yet the myth of a sense of place persists. True, the landscape is pretty distinct around here, but it's by no means uniform. Southeastern New Mexico is vastly different from the northern part of the state, and to think that you can accurately sum up this region's sense of place with a few smartly-selected objects is an absurdity, in my opinion. The truth is there is no one "Land of Enchantment:" it's a collection of them, depending on your interpretation. Yet from Marsden Hartley to Henriette Wyeth, artists have tried valiantly to sum up this part of the country through its material objects.

Henriette Wyeth, Cyclamen and Santos, image courtesy of
It was in light of these ongoing meditations that I decided to paint my own response to these paintings, a non-New Mexico, New Mexican still life, so to speak. In preparing for this composition, I had a few specific works in mind, including Marsden Hartley's El Santo, and the various katsina paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe.

Marsden Hartley, El Santo, 1919, oil on canvas, New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe. Image courtesy of
Georgia O'Keeffe, Kachina, 1934, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of
I wasn't specifically trying to emulate or copy these works. Rather, for me these paintings embody the myth of the New Mexico still life, the myth with which my painting would converse and question. Don't get me wrong, I actually really like these works, and Hartley's El Santo in particular remains one of my favorite canvases in New Mexico, but I wanted to complicate the sense of place these artists were endeavoring to create through these paintings.

After rummaging through my own things, I settled on three objects: a katsina figure, a katrina, and a shell.

The preliminary study in pen and ink with watered-down acrylic.
The one thing they all share is that none of them are from New Mexico originally. The first two in particular I picked because they play on our expectations of traditional New Mexican peoples and cultures, yet neither was actually made here. The katsina I picked up in Arizona several years ago. The katrina was a gift from my mother, which she had picked up from a Mexican import store in New Hampshire. The shell is obviously not from the area either, but I included it for two symbolic reasons. The first is that it's an homage to New Mexico's former status as an ocean millions of years ago. The second is a nod to the massive trade networks that existed in America long before the arrival of Europeans. In short, New Mexico has always been a place of flux, as the various migrations of these three objects attest. To me it is this transience, this ongoing movement, that embodies New Mexico and the Southwest as much as anything else.

Having picked my three objects, I started the underpainting. Over several night I built up the layers of ochre, sienna, black, and gray to suggest three-dimensionality. As in most of my paintings, I use thin glazes and scumbling to build up my surface, thinning out my paintings with matte medium to create translucent tones.

From there, I added color over several successive nights.

Initially I'd considered leaving the background white, and put the painting in a sort of liminal non-space, but ultimately I decided to place it within the context of my apartment, since that was where I'd initially sketched it. The green wall also enabled me to incorporate colors from the rest of the figures in the composition, further tying them together.

Finally, we have the finished painting.

From the vanitas vignettes of the seventeenth-century Dutch masters to the Cubist experiments of the early twentieth century, the still life has long served as a means of examining the values and priorities of society at any given time. My painting is by no means a masterpiece, but it is a reflection of my own thoughts on that ever-elusive quality we're all trying to achieve within our lives, a sense of place.