BY RENA DISTASIO | PHOTOS BY AUDREY DERRELL
A hammer slams against a chisel and a sculpture is born. Pigment is poured and emotion awakens. A pencil sketches along a piece of paper and a face emerges. A brush is wielded and history is revealed.
All acts of artistic faith, maybe even obsession, born of individual eureka! moments in the hearts and minds of the four artists showcased here. Each welcomed photographer Audrey Derrell into their studios, where she worked her own artistic magic, capturing with the click of her lens their individual processes, personalities, and passions, along with the drive that propels their work and keeps them engaged with the creative process.
Certainly you have to be obsessed to be a stone carver. The work is physical, tough, and sometimes dangerous, requiring hazmat-like protective gear and heroic levels of stamina. Master stone carver Somers Randolph is nothing if not obsessed, having spent most of his career carving what he calls “the perfect curve.” “I stole it from a line drawing I saw over 40 years ago,” he says. “I’ve chased it again and again, and I’ve loved it the entire time.” Working from his studio in Santa Fe, where the Washington, D.C., native has lived since 1997, Randolph hammers, chisels, and grinds intractable pieces of marble, soapstone, and granite into sensuous, undulating shapes, some knitted and knotted, others looped and swooped, that defy the eye and bend the mind. Never interested in representational forms or exploring the limitless possibilities of clay (“too big a world for me”), Randolph instead prefers the limits of the subtractive process. “You can’t go bigger. You can’t add.” But you can hone your vision. Each of his pieces, whether small-scale or monumental, is an expression of the appeal of perfect geometry, both as an intellectual exercise and an emotional experience.
What the curve is to Somers Randolph, color is to Bette Ridgeway. A native of Upstate New York who has lived and worked in Santa Fe since 1996, Ridgeway has been drawing and painting since she was a child. While her early work, small landscapes and beach scenes, grew increasingly abstract, it wasn’t until painter Paul Jenkins, whom she’d met in 1979, looked at her work and told her to eliminate everything but the color that it hit her: she was actually a colorist. It all made sense. “There’s never been a time when I haven’t thought in color,” she says. “When I sleep, I sleep flowing color . . . it’s part of my DNA. I know that color and I are one.” That aha! moment with Jenkins set her on a path she continues to tread today. Instead of sitting at an easel, she pours, wipes, manipulates, and layers jars of pigment across huge swathes of canvas in a method that has evolved into a kind of dance, equal parts chaos and control, instinct and refinement. The results, which hang in homes, galleries, offices, and institutions around the globe, are breathtaking explosions of color that transcend the illustrative and become powerful and autonomous forces of expression.
An exceptional draftsman who is both highly disciplined and highly imaginative, Michael Bergt is a storyteller who uses the techniques of classical painting and drawing to tell intricate tales of the modern human condition. “My inspiration is the Italian Renaissance,” he says. “Botticelli, Piero Della Francesca . . . if they were commenting on our world today, what would it look like?” Egg tempera became his medium of choice when he discovered it in 1980 because, he has said, it is the closest thing to drawing in paint. With it, he honed his distinctive cross-hatching technique, which allows him to fully explore his passion for pattern and decoration as well as the human figure in all its complexity. His work reveals an exceptional intricacy, precision, and depth, marrying pattern and design with a magical realist narrative style that often takes its cues from ancient myths. For Bergt, the human figure is both object—muscular, earthy, sexual/ sensual, decorative—and symbol, a vehicle for allegory and mythmaking. The tension between the two is what makes his work so compelling. “I think a painting has to work on several levels simultaneously,” he says, “Even if the viewer doesn’t get the mythological, political, or allegorical references, it still can work as a painting, a beautiful object in itself.”
Echoes of the past likewise inform the work of Nikesha Breeze. It was around the time that Donald Trump started campaigning for president that the longtime interdisciplinary artist felt an intense need to dig deeper into her ancestry. She traced her mother’s Assyrian heritage back nine generations, but she hit a wall when investigating her father’s African American lineage. “To be able to only go back two or three generations was difficult,” she says. “I felt like something had been stolen from me.” It also marked a turning point in her art, spurring intense and ongoing research into the African Diaspora, which in turn resulted in a flurry of work honoring the unsung, the marginalized, and the enslaved: ceramic death masks; paintings based on archival photos of Black slaves, laborers, crafts people, and children; multimedia works representing the path and pain of her ancestors; and her first large-scale solo exhibition, Four Sites of Return: Ritual, Remembrance, Reparation, Reclamation, an interactive visual and ritual event at form & concept gallery in Santa Fe. Part investigative reporter, part medium, Breeze’s process ultimately translates as deep listening to the stories and images she unearths. “I fill my mind with the voices, and then let all of that scholarship go and see what happens on the canvas and in the clay.”
Whether transforming stone, harnessing the expressive qualities of color, crafting modern mythologies, or mining one’s ancestry to create new artifacts of justice and healing, these four artists allow us a glimpse into art-making as a way of life—vision and obsession coupled with focus and skill, honed into lifelong discipline.