Finding focus and clarity among Abiquiu’s natural landscapes and cultural diversity
By Rena Distasio | Portraits by Peter Ogilvie
If all the enchanted spots in New Mexico, perhaps none has reached such mythic status as Abiquiu. Famous as the home of artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who lived and worked there from 1945 until her death in 1986, Abiquiu is the backdrop against which the O’Keeffe legend unfolded, a tale told of the artist as environmental alchemist who abstracted from the simple elements around her—mesa and sky, flower and bone—a visual language of epic proportions.
But O’Keeffe was not the first—nor would she be the last—woman to decamp polite East Coast society for New Mexico. In her meticulously researched book Ladies of the Canyons: A League of Extraordinary Women and Their Adventures in the American Southwest, author Leslie Poling-Kempes, an Abiquiu resident since 1976, tells the stories of a series of 19th-century women who came to the wilds of New Mexico and, she writes, “. . . imagined and created a new home territory, a new society, and a new identity for themselves and for all the women who would follow them.”
Poling-Kempes fell in love with Ghost Ranch during visits as a child, and the quest to tell its story led her to other, mostly unsung, ladies of the canyon. “We were used to hearing about the famous and iconic, like Mabel Dodge and O’Keeffe, but they didn’t give us a wide enough perspective,” she says. “We need more than the extreme and the ultra-successful. We need to share stories about ordinary women who did extraordinary things.”
Natalie Curtis was one, a talented musician who dedicated most of her life to cataloging the songs of New Mexico’s Puebloan people. Another, Carol Stanley, spent years running guest ranches in the Santa Fe area before taking over a former outlaw camp that her estranged husband had won in a poker game. She renamed it Ghost Ranch.
Just as these pioneering women discovered their calling in the wilds of New Mexico, so too have some present-day Abiquiu-based women artists found focus and clarity of vision here. Inspired by the natural landscapes and cultural diversity, they contribute in unique and powerful ways to the artistic canon of the American Southwest.
Back in the 1980s, the owners of the Taos gallery that was the first in New Mexico to show sculptor Star Liana York’s work were cautioned by the former owner not to bother with female artists. “He told them that we just don’t sell,” York says. Luckily, the new owners ignored the advice, and she became their best-selling artist.
A pioneer in her chosen media, York is today one of the foremost artists of cast bronze sculptures in the country, creating highly expressive works that reflect her passion for New Mexico’s wildlife and Native peoples. Her keen ability to imbue her subjects with both complexity and quiet grandeur has made her a favorite with collectors around the world, and her work has been featured in dozens of galleries and exhibitions throughout the country—including a retrospective at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
York learned the art of lost-wax casting at her high school in suburban Maryland just outside of DC, and she was enjoying brisk sales of her miniature sculptures even before graduating from the University of Maryland with a BA in Fine Art. Her work underwent a profound change in 1982, however, when the Smithsonian Institution commissioned her to sculpt an Anasazi Indian working on a sand painting. “I was used to doing tiny little things, and this piece was supposed to be a crouching man this big,” she says, holding her hand about three feet from the floor. “That was huge to me at the time.” It also opened up the opportunity to explore the subtleties of human facial expression, a skill for which she would become famous.
The commission also sparked an interest in sculpting the peoples and cultures of the American Southwest, an interest that deepened after she and her first husband, the writer Rodney Barker, moved to New Mexico in 1985, in part because York was looking for a foundry that could handle her work and found it at Weston Studio-Foundry in Santa Fe. Barker was also working on his book The Broken Circle, a true-crime story that takes place outside the Navajo reservation near Farmington. York often accompanied him on his interviews, and the friends she made and the cultural understanding she gained as a result would inspire her work for many years.
She is, however, perhaps best-known for her wildlife sculpture. Surprisingly, for many years she resisted exploring this work, in spite of her lifelong love of animals and her series of large-scale bronzes inspired by ancient pictographs. “I thought, there are so many competent people out there, what would I bring to it?”
Her move to Abiquiu in 1995 after her divorce changed all that. On any given day on the 40 scenic acres she shares with her second husband, seven horses, and four dogs, she’ll spot various wild animals, from elk and deer to hawks and the ever-present ravens. An avid horsewoman and former polocrosse player, she says, “I came up here originally because I wanted to breed horses, but it wound up being so much more than that because of how inspiring it was to be around so much wildlife. A big change for me was being a lot more conscious of the animals who live around here.”
In the process of bringing these animals to life, her work, while still representational, took on a more contemplative quality. Neither emblems of ferocity nor of Disney-style cuteness, her animal subjects are fully themselves and confident in their environments, separate from the preconceptions of the human gaze.
“To this day what most interests me about doing these pieces is the heart of it, trying to find that incredible personality inside the idea, inside the sculpture,” York says. “I want my animals to have a personality, and that’s what keeps me going back.”
Her life in New Mexico, she says, hasn’t just inspired her work, it’s also helped her, in ways both practical and spiritual, to find the focus required to bring it to such vivid life. “The more you open up to this place, the more it reveals itself,” she says. “There’s a reason why they call it the Land of Enchantment. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
Painter Paula Narbutovskih, who was born and raised in a small Pennsylvania town an hour north of Erie, has found her inspiration in the way the desert allows her to see “the bones of the Earth.” A lifelong student of both the early 20th-century American painters and the European classics, she is a talented draftsperson and colorist, her work revealing a love of form, of light, of the play of color, while at the same time hinting at something wild and even otherworldly beneath the grid of visual reality.
Her father, an engineer with Westinghouse during the week and a Sunday painter on the weekends, regularly took his family on museum outings. “We didn’t just walk through and glance here and there,” Narbutovskih says, “we looked at every painting, so he really taught me how to look at art.” When she was 12, he bought her a set of oil paints. “There was no looking back after that.”
Yet when it came time to study painting, her parents balked. She spent two years focusing on architecture at Penn State, thinking it was the practical thing to do, before dropping out and heading to Europe. Reinvigorated by the experience, she returned home and enrolled at Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia. Later, after moving to New York City and meeting her first husband, who was a student at the New York Academy of Art, she studied composition, lighting, and color under his guidance.
The marriage didn’t last, but her love of classical composition and her desire to find her niche in the art world did. Visits to friends in Abiquiu and several summers spent hiking the National Parks in Utah cemented her love of the Southwest. “What attracted me to the desert were the infinite possibilities,” she says, “the sheer beauty, at times the stark landscape stripped of the vegetation that hides the contours of wetter parts of the country. It matches something about the way that I see life.”
One day, back in New York City, “It finally dawned on me: I was looking out these windows down these streets but what I was seeing were the canyons.” So she headed west in 1980, working first as a ranger at Chaco Canyon, where she formed close friendships with the Navajo people who worked with her. They also introduced her to her second husband, with whom she had a daughter. She moved to Abiquiu in 1990 and since 2018 has lived just south of there, in the village of Medanales.
Her paintings, she says, began as a way to “document the landscapes of the dying West, to paint all those beautiful landscapes before they are gone.” While she works from photographs she takes while out and about and then imposes a compositional grid atop her canvases, what emerges, she says, “comes from the heart.”
With their bright, sometimes downright psychedelic colors and animated, vibrating line and form, her works mix pop and graphic art energy with a hushed surrealism. This duality—the deliberate, classical structure underpinning a mystical landscape—illustrates what she calls the “reality behind the reality,” a way of seeing she in part absorbed from life with her now-ex-husband and his people, intertwined her own deeply spiritual beliefs.
An active member of the Native American Church, Narbutovskih believes that everything that exists is part of the mind of God. If true, then perhaps everything that exists in the mind—and heart—of the artist represents the conduit between heaven and earth, reality and spirit.
Painter and sculptor Hebé García’s move from her native Puerto Rico to Abiquiu in 2015 was likewise a personal and professional reboot. While she hasn’t been there as long as York and Narbutovskih, she found the region to be just as inspiring, allowing her to more deeply express her interest in what she calls on her website “the internal and external mysteries of humanity.”
García studied painting and ceramics at Louisiana State University, from which she graduated cum laude with a BA in Fine Arts. Technological realities derailed her plans to then head to Europe for additional study—nothing was digital then and she could not afford to transfer her work to slides. Instead, she returned home to Puerto Rico, got married, and helped raise two daughters. She began to paint again after her daughters graduated from high school, made a foray into sculpture, and built a following in the Puerto Rican art world.
In 2013, as a way to de-stress after one of her daughters’ weddings, she attended a workshop conducted by sculptor Debra Fritts. Her husband, who tagged along to hike while she worked, is the one who suggested they eventually move to the Santa Fe area. Two years later, with both their daughters living in the States, they made the move to Abiquiu and built their home and García’s studio atop a scenic mesa with 360-degree views that include the Cerro Pedernal and Black Mesa.
García says they immediately felt at home, pointing out that as someone who had spent a lot of time on the ocean, the large expanse of desert didn’t intimidate her. “New Mexico is also very similar to Puerto Rico in that you also have the Hispanics, the Natives, the Americans, so we ‘get’ this place. We feel extremely accepted.” Especially, she says, by the artistic community, which she says is giving, kind, and helpful.
García’s studio, set apart from the house by a short walkway, is divided into two sections, one for painting and one for sculpting. A lifelong painter, García turned to clay back in 2010 as a way to loosen up. “I used to paint much more like this,” she says, pointing to a series of highly detailed representational portraits, “and clay was a way of not being so meticulous, so perfect.”
Central to García’s work in both media is an emphasis on texture and on the human figure, the former lending a tactile immediacy to the pieces and the latter serving as avatars for the artist’s explorations of psyche, identity, culture, and shared narratives. “The human aspect of life has always intrigued me,” she says, “the stories that it tells.” And much in the way storytellers weave their spells, so too does her art, toggling between the real and surreal, with dreamlike, almost fairytale qualities.
A series of ceramic busts called Conversations in Silence explore the ways in which we communicate without saying anything. “All conversations are surrounded by silence somehow,” she says. “You can express yourself without talking—people can hear you.”
Her Viajeros—travelers—are approximately foot-high sculptures of women walking, bundled up in floor-length garments, their faces featureless. The series is, among other things, a feminist exploration of the burdens women carry. “They are about the past several years, the #MeToo movement, the border wall. They represent us women as a group, walking together, sticking together, carrying our burdens with us. They walk with closed eyes because you have to trust in yourself. That’s the only way to keep on going.”
Birds are another common theme in García’s work. “They express freedom to me, and are a symbol of survival,” she says. In some of her paintings, ravens are the companions to the female figures walking horizontally across the canvas. In more recent works, the figures walk toward the viewer, inviting direct engagement in the themes of psychological and physical freedom. “These are about how we as a people have always traveled,” García says. And, through that travel, seek not only improvement but also inspiration.
Certainly, her experience has now become part of the rich history of all women who defied conventions and followed their inner voices to parts unknown. “Change your vocation, change your situation,” she says. “We are always looking for a better way of life.”