“Uncharted” is an interview series created in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re talking to people in the New Mexico arts world and beyond to see how the community is navigating this unprecedented health crisis. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
interdisciplinary artist and chair of the art department at UNM-Taos
What’s the role of art in the time of crisis?
I see it from a few different perspectives. As a personal, studio practice-based artist, now is the most important time for artists to get into the studio and make work, and to put their voices out. The artist’s job is to reflect what’s happening in the world. We have a unique ability to put a new perspective or shine a new light on what’s happening. Just through the very act of making work and staying true to your personal and authentic practice, you can help to create a cathartic experience for all who see the work.
I also believe that it’s imperative for more established artists or artists that have stability in their work to reach out and help hold the hands of emerging and young artists because I imagine they feel very lost right now. I just had a beautiful phone meeting with a former student from SFUAD [Santa Fe University of Art and Design] who was ready to quit. These are artists who don’t have big studios or connections in the art world, they’re just starting out. We need them more than ever. They’re the ones who are going to bring the new voice and new vision and challenge what we’re all making right now. They’re going to bring that next level of energy.
I had to wake up in the morning and shake off my feeling of wanting to hide under the covers. I had to remember that part of my job is to inspire the students to keep making art. It’s not even about passing classes, it’s about getting in the studio and making art.
Have the economic/social implications of the pandemic made your student feel that way?
That’s part of it, but I think the driving part of the conversation was lack of connection. I remember being an art student, I remember critique day. It was the day I looked forward to—to share that experience with my cohort and teachers. Without being in school and being socially isolated, nothing replaces being able to sit in front of somebody’s work and talking about it.
How is UNM-Taos handling going online?
I’m fortunate to have a very small art department with great faculty who were ready to jump on board, and I have two really fantastic work-study students who are very motivated and excited to make it happen. I think the hardest thing was motivating students.
Part of my teaching philosophy is that you have to be a performer; you have to step in front of the room and entertain the group. That has to do with the fact that we’re inundated with visual imagery, we have this overwhelming feed of media that we’re constantly bombarded with. When I took the students online it was even more so. I had to wake up in the morning and shake off my feeling of wanting to hide under the covers. I had to remember that part of my job is to inspire the students to keep making art. It’s not even about passing classes, it’s about getting in the studio and making art.
Now that we’re moving to the end of the semester, the past two weeks have been fantastic. All the students are showing up to the online classes, they’re motivated, they’re making work, we’re using this blessing in disguise for students to be forced to use digital media. You cannot be a professional artist and not know how to put art online, or take a good photograph of your work, or share a video.
Tell me about the online happy hours you’ve been hosting.
Hosted by UNM-Taos, it’s a Friday evening art happy hour with an invited guest each week. We talk for about 30 minutes, then open it up for about 30 minutes of really organic discussion. We’ve had some great guests, the curator of the Harwood Art Museum, some faculty from UNM, artists from Albuquerque, and tonight there is an artist from Cincinnati who did a mural in Taos with the students. It’s a very casual connection.
You cannot be a professional artist and not know how to put art online, or take a good photograph of your work, or share a video.
What is your biggest concern at this time?
Globally, my biggest concern is this massive economic and class divide that’s happening based on the fact that we’re all quarantined. It really pushes home the point of internet access and access to information and supplies.
My personal concern is my department at UNM-Taos. It’s a safe haven for under-recognized and underprivileged students. We’re a Hispanic-serving institution, we serve the Taos Pueblo, and we’re an art department that is committed to equity and diversity. That’s been really hard on the students, to not have their safe space.
For me, we’re such a small department that I’m concerned about our future. A shameless plug for our institution—we’ve really built a beautiful, Black Mountain College-kind of experience up there, that is accessible to a community college demographic. I’m worried about the students who really need that space. They need to be there. I’m fortunate to lock myself in my big studio in my backyard. The students who study at UNM-Taos don’t have that privilege.
There have been some harrowing stories about students’ lack of access to technology.
I have students driving to internet hot spots, like the park or even sitting outside the library at the campus to join class. That’s how committed and dedicated they are. They’re willing to drive off the Mesa to get on Zoom and listen to me lecture about contemporary art. We have to hold up the fragile.
What’s one challenge you’re facing that’s less obvious or expected?
I’ll be vulnerable and talk about it personally. Like many artists, I have deep-seated emotional complexities. My biggest challenge is finding my own internal motivation. Even most recently I said in a meeting, I need a cheerleader. People look to me for strength, but there are multiple times in the day when I feel like I can’t bring it.
A long time ago Paul Klein, the art coach, told me social media should present an upward trajectory for your work. When you follow me, what you see is an upward trajectory. You see a curated, carefully constructed narrative to help me as an academic and as a practicing artist. So there’s a misconception because I produce a lot of work. A lot of the heavy production that comes out of my studio comes from a dark place.
It’s not always this happy great thing, going into the studio. It comes from necessity. I must produce in order to have that cathartic experience as my own personal therapy.
Where are you finding joy?
I’m finding joy in my kitchen, in cooking, and eating, because I normally eat a very strict, gluten-free/vegan diet for health reasons, but I’ve been really letting myself enjoy the coffee cake. I’ll almost meditate on it. I’m finding joy, despite just talking about dark places, in my studio and setting goals and completing them. And the New Mexico landscape, sitting with the sunset, my family, my dogs, and a glass of whiskey.