A miraculous suite of art photos grounded in the nurture and intimate observation of a wild and wonderful New Mexico Garden
BY LUCY R. LIPPARD
PHOTOGRAPHY BY NANCY SUTOR AND LONNIE SCHLEIN
Sutor’s light-filled studio with installations of two recent series, Moon Flowers and Second Nature (2022-2023). Opposite: Sutor’s garden contains manygrasses, which provide shelter for wildlife, food for birds, and beauty in every season. Here, the artist prepares to divide Pink Muhly grass (photos by Lonnie Schlein).
The garden that inspires most of Nancy Sutor’s art is wild and comforting in its rambling beauty. The art that it has inspired is more complex. While the garden appears to have its own way, the photographs/art are clearly made by a very skilled hand. If you like cut flowers in your house, move on up to these stunning images that will last a lot longer.
Sutor’s latest work bypasses realism, although its manipulated subjects are always recognizable in their dazzling variety: the delicacy of grasses and pine needles, icicles, sensuous closeups of plump petals, snow on bare branches and on green leaves, brilliant autumn reds, oranges, yellows, and pinks, bright berries, vegetables, fat and fuzzy succulents—a celebratory succession of gifts from the garden.
Everything Sutor makes is, to some extent, a measure of time, but not necessarily linear time. She cites the Greek concepts of Chronos (our clocks) and Kairos (natural time, as in seasons). The latter, of course, operates within the natural cycles surrounding and underlying us, however often we demean and attack them. Circles and their offspring are prominent in her new work, expressing both transformation and permanence. The spirit of the seasonal growth and decay is, at its heart, from flowers, herbs, shrubs, and trees to compost.
For years Sutor has self-imposed the rule that all her images must emerge from this patch of property, this “wild” garden. Even the remains of an old fence have a place in her recent work. The queen of her realm is a handsome mature apple tree that she describes as her shelter and her muse, especially when she was recovering from a car accident, cycling back to normalcy. In Illuminated Apple Tree, images of branches and the tree form are photographed through a scrim, more and less abstracted in translucent monochrome, mounted on birch panels, and hung in groups, suggesting the way blossoms cluster on a branch.
Thus, place plays a dominant role in this work, perhaps imperceptible to the viewer but literally underlying everything, like the actual and figurative soil in which her art germinates and proceeds through life and death.
The garden is the artist’s most intimate domain, but her rooted world extends to Agua Fria Village, where she has lived since 1991 with her husband, Rosario Provenza, an art director and production designer, and to Reunity Resources, a regenerative farm where she is on the advisory board. Ruins and the past are integral, if usually invisible, elements of the present in New Mexico. Another part of Sutor’s world is the nearby remains of Pindi Pueblo (1150-1400), one of the earliest Ancestral Pueblo communities in the area.
Pre-Europeans tended to picture food sources and medicinal herbs often abstractly, but flowers have been a prime subject of Western art since its Europeanization for the same reasons that Sutor’s glorious blossoms attract us in their altered forms. Her work is a classic example of collaboration between nature and culture. The borders between the two become ambiguous.
February 6, 2023 (with egg), archival pigment print, from the series, Moon Flowers.
She was 16 years old in 1970 at the advent of Earth Day, and it sparked a lifelong obsession with observing the world and how it was organized before humankind got a stranglehold on it. One of her photographic series, called Second Nature, reflects the ways in which our gardens and parks imitate and alter nature, since we are all too often threatened by nature in the raw.
Despite her decision in the early 1970s to forgo objects in favor of environmental activism, objects and images prevailed, albeit in new forms, while she lived the hippie life in southern New Mexico. In 1996, Sutor and artist Chris Cardinale led the Refuse Vehicle Mural Project, a collaborative campaign to “decorate” Santa Fe’s garbage trucks. They turned them into mobile art shows featuring bugs, abstractions, and, most importantly, portraits of the workers—a worthy successor to Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ groundbreaking work with the New York City Department of Sanitation. Sutor was quoted at the time in the Albuquerque Journal: “Trash is definitely an artistic resource,” precursing by decades her current compost series, Compose Decompose.
In the process of living within her garden, Sutor has come to see decay as compelling as growth and blooms. Compost, too, varies, depending on the season. An unexpected recent addition is pieces of her father’s old, plaid wool shirt, woven and sewn by her grandmother. Where most of us treasure inherited objects on display in our interiors, Sutor introduces the material of family history to its source in nature. The wool is cut into squares and planted in the compost, where it merges with more perishable food and materials even as it absorbs the soil, changes colors, and eventually disintegrates.
Nature is not timeless, but it evades clock time with its own temporality. Artists from Vivaldi to Sutor have celebrated the seasons. It’s harder today as climate chaos mixes up things, forcing wildlife and vegetation to flee or perish.
The phases of the moon are probably the natural cycle most familiar to us, and the moon is a major player in one of Sutor’s series. In Moon Flowers, circles reappear in the unobtrusive round bowls in which flowers are nested. The fact that the moon’s cycles are related to different brain chemicals seems to have been understood intuitively by indigenous societies who adopted practices about the right time to do anything, such as planting seeds at the new moon.
I last wrote on Sutor’s art some 20 years ago, when the photograms/cyanotypes she called “my beloved non-silver photographic processes” reversed figure and ground, negative and positive, presence and absence, stillness and movement, confusing our assumptions about photography itself. The photograms were almost monochromatic, with varying tones. And like the recent work, they reversed the ways we see. The current images burst with color, a much brighter palette; celebratory icons, they glow and simmer with reality even as they are manipulated in almost imperceptible mirror images, folding in upon themselves to create new incarnations.
If you are someone who likes to read clouds (hey, that looks like a dog!) you will have even more fun with these bouquets. Faces, ominous masks, vulvic suggestions, appear and disappear. Shadows play a role as memento mori, loss and rebirth, inherent in watching nature move through the year.
Long a science aficionado, Sutor worked at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo in the 1970s. One of her past series is called Who Owns Science? These days she is fascinated by neurobiology, which partly explains why her images are so effective; she intuitively understands our unnoticed needs and desires. The conventional five senses (taste, smell, vision, hearing, and touch) have been expanded to a possible 33, including equilibrioception (balance) and proprioception that helps us understand where we are in space and chronoception (the passing of time). (This is all news to me.) A recent study revealed the therapeutic mechanisms of fresh flower arrangement, which has proved to reduce negative emotions, especially in young women, as well as increasing concentration and relaxation in older adults. (Another reason to have a Sutor in your house.) Nature, even when transformed as it is in her art, can challenge and confuse and also heal with light and time.
From left: September 9, 2022 (with domino and marigold), from the series, Moon Flowers; December 12, 2022 (with grasses); December 17, 2022 (with hawthorn berries). Both are transformative images of plants through the seasons from the series, Second Nature.
April 15, 2022 (with daffodils) from the Moon Flowers series. What is available in the garden always changes, telling the story of the seasons, the weather, and even the artist’s life.