Introduced to church at an early age, I became interested in angels. By the time I was four or five, I was drawing and coloring flocks of angels on the coarse beige paper that came in tablets for children.
My angels wore pastel gowns and had simple triangle wings, spread out behind their shoulders. They were hovering, not actively flying, suspended above an invisible earth.
I labeled each page, “Angel Sallie.”
My older brothers found the pages lying around and guffawed. That their easily provoked, almost defenseless little sister, who guarded my defensiveness with prickly dignity and so was called, “Miss Priss,” should in the privacy of my imagination deem myself an angel: uproarious! Outrageous!
But that was not what I meant, and I was ashamed when I realized that inevitably this was the adult world’s interpretation. By that age I certainly knew how to spell “by” and could have avoided the guffawing if I’d written, “Angels by Sallie.”
But I meant something else, something indescribable, even now: a sense of the invisible, or nearly so, a vague connection with images not of this world. This was when I was still young enough to have visions and nightmares and walk in my sleep, when one night a woman in a long, old-fashioned dress appeared at the door of my bedroom.
I don’t know what the connection was or could have been with my angels. And yet even today I’m blessed with a sense of incommunicable connection with the sublime, for me represented by the Taos mountains, the weeds and wildflowers, the cupola on the Morada where the Penitentes still gather for their secret and sacred rites.
I am also blessed, although more rarely, with a sense of connection to art. My angels were not art; I think even at four or five I would never have made that assumption. But their connection to the sublime—a word I didn’t know—became clear to me yesterday when I was looking at the art in an exhibition at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, called “The Errant Eye: Portraits in a Landscape.”
The revelatory comments from the Harwood’s Director, Dr. Richard Tobin, bring in—and this is rare, in my experience—the connection between Anglo artists’ well-known fascination with “indigenous Pueblo and local Hispano cultures,” resulting in portraiture inevitably “mired… in social bias and condescension.”
Added to this puzzle is the known problem of portraiture: “to confront the sitter’s likeness and the patron’s vanity,” especially when these are the same person. “Neither factor favors the full use of the artist’s imagination.”
To escape this conundrum requires “the artist’s errant eye. The artist circles the subject erratically, like wandering planets, which the Greeks called roving celestial bodies that seemed to elude… fixed positions in the firmament.”
In the case of planets, their wandering is governed by the forces of gravity. “In the case of the artist portrait, it is its contingent relation with its environment. It is the portrait in a landscape.”
But what, and where, is that landscape for women?
In these portraits, painted in the course of a hundred years in northern New Mexico, the harsh beauty of the desert and mountains creates a dialogue between the subject, the artist, and the landscape that frames and shapes them both. But as the cowboy song says, “This place is hard on women and horses. I guess it ain’t changed that much yet.”
Or, as another painter put it, “These subjects have dirt on their faces.” An equivocal solution for most women.
This struggle and its possible outcome is put to the test in the case of self-portraits. Like autobiography, the Harwood brochure states, “the self-portrait’s truth is coaxed or wrested from the gap between delusion and detachment.”
This may be why I am uncomfortable with the all-pervasive memoir form, written and taught in many workshops here, including mine.
We women artists sometimes have trouble with detachment. Detachment has often equaled cruelty in our lives: the detachment that permits condescension or scorn. To exercise detachment when writing about our own lives and struggles may require a heroism few of us possess: we know we will be laid open to the critics’ version of my brothers’ guffaws—and so the flight to self-publishing, producing too many memoirs no one reads and no one criticizes.
But without detachment, we may be left only with delusion.
Often we write memoir as “the self in search of a landscape.” There are so few landscapes, real or literal, that feel nourishing and safe to women.
This statement is challenged, to my delight, by an extraordinary show of photographs, “HISTORY / HER STORY” that opened Thursday night here in Santa Fe at the David Richard Gallery. Selected and curated by New Mexico Women in the Arts, the enormous number of portraits in every medium challenges all assumptions with the fiery self-assertion of Cara Romero’s woman boxer, her eyelids bright blue with make-up, her arm with its red boxing glove defiantly raised (she’s a sister to the squatting portrait I own, of a beautiful nearly-naked girl against a Navajo rug) as well as Elinor Carucci’s heartbreaking 1999 portrait of Agnes Martin.
I wish the show could have included the Harwood’s most powerful painting, Sarah Stoler’s “Guard Dogs”—a pretty and utterly tranquil girl seated in a herd of snarling canines.
These websites deserve more than a cursory look, as do the shows themselves. Perhaps the resolution of my long-ago discomfort with Angel Sallie is redeemed by the courage and extraordinary skill these women artists exhibit and the generosity, or at least the respect, with which they are generally viewed.
No longer subject to colonization and condescension, have we found our landscapes, at last? Do we dare to have dirt on our faces?