A photographer and four area artists make beautiful music in the studio
BY GUSSIE FAUNTLEROY
PHOTOGRAPHY BY AUDREY DERELL FOR TREND
What sparks the creative process? We think of an artist looking around at the world or inward in reflection and feeling inspired to produce something. But just as often, the tools, media, and the artmaking itself become the engine. Even the studio space can be part of the equation, perhaps filled with bits and pieces, and odds and ends that work their way into art. Or it can be spare but well designed, stocked with all the tools for encouraging the creative flow. Wherever they work, artists are wired to use whatever they have at hand in the moment to translate materials and techniques into color, movement, and form.
Photographer Audrey Derell spent time with four Santa Fe-area artists exploring their lives and art. At different stages in their careers and working in a variety of media and styles—from animal assemblages to mural painting—the four have little in common. All were born in or drawn to Northern New Mexico. And all say that when they make art, they shift between following intuition and intentionally harnessing artistic knowledge and skills. Yet what emerges for each artist is magically unpredictable in its distinctive way.
Clockwise, from top left: Michael McCabe, Conor Flynn (2021), monotype portrait on archival paper; Geoffrey Gorman, The Rust King and Queen (2016), mixed media and found objects; Estrella Encinias, Only One (2021), archival relief print; Shakti Kroopkin, Menagerie Escapes (2022), sumi ink on archival paper.
Years after graduating from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, Michael McCabe ran into his first printmaking instructor. McCabe asked his teacher why he had waited until his students were at the highest level of printmaking before teaching them monotype, which produces one-of-a-kind prints on a smooth, nonabsorbent surface. His reply: If students learned monotype in the first semester, they’d be so enamored with it that they wouldn’t want to learn anything else.
In McCabe’s case, that’s probably true. For almost 40 years he has been exploring monotype, all in his expressive style. Much of his focus has been viscosity printmaking, which allows the printing of multiple colors on a single plate. After learning it in 1986, McCabe pushed the technique into ever-changing combinations of inks, materials, and methods. Moving confidently in his neatly laid out studio, he enjoys the tactile feeling of mixing inks and rolling them out, not too thin or too thick.
He also delights in teaching workshops and classes. As a master printmaker living in Santa Fe since 1973, he has printed the works of acclaimed artists, including Forrest Moses, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Emmi Whitehorse, and Edgar Heap of Birds.
Born in Fort Defiance, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Santa Fe, McCabe held his culture close as a young man. While he was inspired by artists in his family and encouraged by art teachers who recognized his talent, his strongest early artistic influences were abstract painters like Cy Twombly and Robert Motherwell.
Then, a few years ago, a relative searching through government archives found the only known photograph of McCabe’s nomadic great-grandfather. The printmaker now includes the photo in his layered, collaged works, along with such elements as raven imagery, Asian calligraphy, and parts of circa-1800s handwritten letters and cast-off papers. “I’m putting my great-grandfather in environments he would never have seen in his life, like taking him on trips,” he says.
The viscosity process allows the collaged items to show through two to four thin layers of colored inks, all printed in a single pulling. McCabe uses inks with diverse properties, including some that resist or attract one another; different papers; and a variety of plates, with copper, aluminum, and plexiglass among them.
“I can plan, but there’s also a margin for unexpected outcomes, which is one of the great things about it,” he says. “It’s always a surprise and there’s always something new.”
The space in and around Geoffrey Gorman’s Santa Fe studio is crowded with mostly castoffs—rusty metal, inner tubes, wire, pieces of canvas, bundles of sticks—which he has been assembling and transforming into enigmatic and oddly compelling animal figures for almost 20 years.
Yet one material—wood—has been at the heart of Gorman’s creative life since his childhood. Growing up in rural Maryland, he explored woodlands, played in chestnut log barns, and, whenever he had paper or canvas, drew and painted trees. “I absolutely love wood. In a past life, I’m guessing I was a tree,” he jokes. Along with art studies at the Maryland Institute of Art, the Boston Museum School, and Franklin College in Switzerland, Gorman attended furniture making school in Vermont.
Decades later in his studio, he combines materials in ingenious ways. Unlike found-object art in which the identity of the original parts remains clear, these materials are deftly transmogrified—bike tire rubber carved into an antelope’s hoof or a half-covered penny as an anteater’s heavy-lidded eye.
Gorman also produces some pieces entirely in wood, including carved birds inspired by early species collections— birds killed and labeled by ornithologists in the name of science. “I’ve been thinking about the duality of beauty and death. You open a drawer of bird specimens and they’re very beautiful, but it’s also very morbid,” he says.
Part of the beauty in Gorman’s carved wood art is its surface quality—rich colors, distressed finishes, or an almost ceramic-like polished luster. While much of his art is freestanding, he also produces wall-mounted works, including a series of wooden, fanned-out bird wings. Datura, which resembles wings and is part of the series, followed a rafting trip on the San Juan River in Utah. On his journey Gorman was captivated by the datura f lower’s beautifully stark shape and deadly poisonous aspect—the intertwined existence of beauty and death.
Having spent time in southeastern Alaska, he has long been fascinated by whales. But it took him 17 years to gain the confidence to carve the seemingly simple-shaped creature. Then a neighbor’s gift of a large piece of apricot wood coincided with his sense of readiness, and a series of tabletop-scale carved whales emerged. He smiles. “That’s the serendipitous life of an artist,” he says.
In Gorman’s hands found objects and mixed media become marvelous creatures. Clockwise, from top left: Hove Lands (2019); collage of the artist’s hands and tools; Diving Deeper (2018); Little Anteater (2020).
In Hinduism, Shakti represents primordial cosmic energy. The name, given to Shakti Kroopkin (she/they) 25 years ago by a dear friend, suits her well. A sense of underlying creative energy and musical rhythm animates her paintings, produced in oils or sumi ink.
Kroopkin grew up on Chicago’s South Side and graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1998.
She still remembers the moment she fell in love with abstraction. As an art student, she was using a palette knife to paint a cityscape when her professor suggested she take a two-inch square of the image and enlarge it to make it the entire painting. Which, of course, instantly transformed it from representational to abstract—and swung open a door in Kroopkin’s mind. “It was one of those never-going-back moments. There was so much joy and curiosity in the sensation of wonder, letting the mind go and the eyes flow,” she says.
Following graduation, Kroopkin lived for three years in a Volkswagen van, traveling around the United States with the goal of shedding her South Side upbringing and experiencing “what life is really about.” She returned to Chicago and taught art in inner-city schools, and in 2005 settled in New Mexico, where the urban imagery of her past merged with inspiration from the Southwest’s vast landscape and sky.
Today the artist lives south of Santa Fe near Cerrillos with her son, Malachi, two dogs, and chickens. In December 2022 she opened Mad Contemporary Gallery and Art Center in nearby Madrid.
When Kroopkin sets out to make art, she lets her energy f low between spontaneous, feeling-led expression and a more intentional approach that taps her compositional knowledge. She often uses oil stick, ebony pencil, and etching as additive and subtractive tools. Increasingly drawn to multiple media and collaboration with other artists, she delights in exploring new creative paths. “There are no mistakes; there is only progress,” she says. “I just keep pushing through and asking questions and seeing what works.”
Internal energy flows when Kroopkin picks up a brush. Clockwise, from top: Leans In/Listen (2022), acrylic on panel mural in the Santa Fe Railyard district; Kroopkin painting a new mural in 2022; Dreaming in the Chrysalis (2022), oil on canvas.
Estrella Encinias is just in her early 20s with a new-minted BFA in painting from New Mexico Highlands University. But it’s already abundantly clear that she is an artist. She already carries a rich trove of inf luences and experiences to draw from in making art, including a musical father and a mother who liked to take things apart and put them back together to see how they worked.
Because her father was a park ranger, Encinias grew up in beautiful Villanueva State Park, southwest of Las Vegas, where the cottonwood-lined Pecos River winds beneath sandstone cliffs. Her young life was full of animals—softshell turtles and fish in the river, snakes, and the family’s dogs. The small Spanish Colonial village of Villanueva was just up the road and the park provided places to gather for extended family and friends, with New Mexican food and local musicians.
At college in Las Vegas, Encinias had strong support from the Highlands art faculty and generous studio space with a virtual candy box of materials. She tried them all: painting in oils, acrylics, and watercolor; ceramics; sculpture; jewelry-making; and printmaking in woodblock, etching, and lithography. For now, with a small artmaking space in her Las Vegas home, she focuses on painting. But her ideal studio: “Oh my gosh,” she says. “It would be big enough to work in all mediums.”
Animals have made their way into Encinias’s art, including Asian-inf luenced woodblock prints of koi fish featured in the 2020 Highlands University virtual art exhibition, Between the Lights. More recently, her large-scale oil portrait, I’ll Always Love You, was featured in the 9th Annual New Mexico Painters’ Exhibition at Highlands. The classically posed young man holding out a f lower ref lects her use of paint to express emotion. He is “sad because he’s heartbroken,” the artist says. “Men don’t always express. They just go it alone. This is in support and love for men out there who are struggling.”
Warm and thoughtful, Encinias sparkles with the excitement of being at the beginning of her artistic career with multiple potential directions ahead. She enjoys working quickly in acrylics to jumpstart ideas, switching to oils for the final painting.
Lately she has been exploring surrealism for conveying difficult-to-communicate experiences—like the pressure of ocular migraines depicted as eyes floating in a fishbowl. Still, most of her art suggests joy through nature imagery and vibrant colors. And she finds relaxation in the artmaking itself. “My expression just f lows out through my fingertips and straight onto the medium,” she says, adding, “I just want to try it all.”
From left: Encinias at work; Cosmic Harmony Ouroboros (2022), lithograph with gold leaf and recycled material