One of Santa Fe’s most spellbinding artists is assembling an exhibition for SITE Santa Fe in the fall of 2024. Trend previews her deep, droll new work.
BY CYNDY TANNER | PHOTOGRAPHY BY KATE RUSSELL
A rusted metal sculpture of a spider with eight reflective glass eyes greets you at the gate of Erika Wanenmacher’s 1,500-square-foot studio in Santa Fe. Wanenmacher has an affinity for spiders, and she has made many out of various materials during her career as a mixed-media installation artist. They are more than just mythic creatures to her: Spiders fascinate her because they weave artistic worlds with their complex webs. Weaving, in the sense of pulling things together and building structures, are at the heart of Wanenmacher’s art.
A Santa Fe multimedia artist for more than 40 years, Wanenmacher attended the Kansas City Art Institute and the Feminist Studio Workshop in Los Angeles before settling here. It seems the move was meant to be. She says she dreamed of New Mexico’s landscape before seeing it for the first time.
“My work is about personal narrative as well as storytelling,” Wanenmacher says. “It’s about the larger world I exist in, be it my community, the plants and animals I engage with, and further out, the ideas I’m interested in.”
Inspiration comes to her in a variety of ways and waiting for the idea to show up is the most uncomfortable part of her creative process. When the ideas come, she emphasizes that they come through her, not from her—and that’s where the gift lies.
Wanenmacher works on the beginnings of a seven-foot-tall time traveler made of steel and found glass. The glass acts as both the internal makeup and protective layer of the sculpture.
Wanenmacher employs conscious practices to get through the in-between time and clear the path for the next idea. One way is to take in many visual stimuli to discover what interests her and sparks a response. She may browse thrift stores for odd pieces that might end up in her creations. Another source of inspiration: daily walks with her Catahoula leopard dog, Eva. Wanenmacher may scavenge the ditch near her home for shards of iridescent glass, interesting artifacts, and sticks.
As she was walking in the ditch a few years ago, the idea came to her: What time travel feels like, sometimes. Exploring this set her working at a pace she refers to as a “slow tornado.”
The artwork she has been creating in response will be part of an upcoming show at SITE Santa Fe, scheduled for the fall of 2024, which she calls what TIME TRAVEL feels like, sometimes. Time and consciousness are the subjects of the exhibition, which will include paintings, sculpture, installation, and video. The art incorporates a range of techniques and materials, such as forged steel, found glass, archival photographs, and carved, painted, and laser-cut wood.
Photographer Kate Russell regularly drops by the artist’s studio, formerly an auto repair shop, to record Wanenmacher’s process and progress as she prepares for the SITE show. Longtime friends and collaborators, they have worked together on several projects.
Clockwise, from top left: We were only this old, a hand-carved apricot wood figure; the artist uses a welding torch on the armature of a ghost dog, part of a larger installation; Wanenmacher places crystals on a head in a work in progress; the artist’s desk holds a wide, eclectic range of inspirational sources and reading, which contribute to her work; Much of Wanenmacher’s work reveals some element of self or self-portraiture. She incorporates a variety of materials and elements, including rock, paper, steel, clay, crystals, wood, and intentions in her pieces.
Culling from her trove of found iridescent-glass pieces, Wanenmacher fashioned a seven-foot-tall time traveler. The piece, which she describes as a self-portrait, is comprised of hundreds of individually wire-wrapped glass pieces that are fastened to a structural grid of forged steel.
Exploring new ways of making things and pushing the boundaries and capabilities of various materials motivate Wanenmacher. For this skilled artisan with innate engineering inclinations, it’s about what she can do with the materials and how she shapes them to her purposes.
Wanenmacher considers the slow, meditative process of repetitive handwork vital to her creative process: It frees her to think about the larger story she wants to tell. Working like this—wrapping glass, cutting, bending, and welding—allows her to think about other things. She views it as a form of time travel. “Your eyes are open,” she says. “You’re in the room, but you’re not in the room. You’re not seeing the room you’re in. You’re seeing where you are going, and you’re in another place.”
All materials and methods are fair game, which partly explains Wanenmacher’s palpable delight in having built a talking automaton. Titled Entirely Inappropriate Peripheral, it’s constructed from vintage TV trays and rigid Erector Set components that she’s stretched, bent, and pushed to their limits. “I make artwork partially to establish a dialogue with other people, but I also make stuff to amuse myself,” she says. “I make stuff that I think is super funny. I like making things ’cause it’s just so damn much fun.”
Entering Wanenmacher’s studio is like slipping through a portal and landing inside a kaleidoscope. The controlled chaos feels as if it’s part Willy Wonka workshop, part natural history museum, and part landfill. A forging anvil stands sentinel beside an oxy propane welding torch. Nearby is a MIG welder, which Wanenmacher describes as “a giant glue gun for steel.” Surfaces are littered with tools. Projects and materials in varying stages of completion are scattered everywhere.
Left: The artist holds a piece of found glass, part of her treasure trove eventually worked into a sculpture.Right: A hand-carved wooden black cat among the summer datura flowers outside Wanenmacher’s studio.
The artist and her dog Eva out for their daily walk, finding objects and materials along the way.
Her pieces hang here and there, seemingly in dialogue with one another. Suspended from a beam is a wooden boat with whale eyes painted on either side of the prow. A sculpture of a Burmese python features an actual snakeskin that appears to glow in the dark. A carved head of a red-shafted flicker adorns a wall opposite a carving of a five-foot-long, shellacked wooden cicada titled Born Again. Catching the last bit of afternoon light is a 13-foot-by-30-foot wall made of more than a 1,000 pieces of sparkling, wire-wrapped iridescent glass. In a far corner, a lead-glass spider beckons.
For a glimpse inside Wanenmacher’s ever-curious mind, look no farther than the small desk in the center of the room. It’s the only (relatively) uncluttered horizontal surface, home to three tall, tidy towers of books. The heady titles range in subject matter and include Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, and William Gibson’s The Peripheral. Wanenmacher also has had a lifelong interest in science fiction and the relationship/conflict between the botanical realm, human beings, and other animals.
In addition to her work as a mixed-media artist, Wanenmacher has sold her own Ditch Witch incense and home altar accoutrements. Occasionally, when customers requested guidance, she told them to return when they could answer two questions: “What do you want a spell for?” and “What do you need a spell for?” Wanenmacher says she now realizes that having clear intentions pertains to her artwork and to casting spells. She makes “spells” in the form of objects, and objects made with intention carry a resonance that can shift energy, power, and beliefs.
Whether she’s welding a giant metal spider or wrapping wire around glass shards that will be used in a ghost dog sculpture, Wanenmacher says she loves making things and exploring the limits of materials. These passions compel her to create art that is, in a word, spellbinding.
The completed glass sculpture, what TIME TRAVEL feels like, sometimes, holds pride of place in Wanenmacher’s studio, a converted auto repair shop.