Artistic talent or the pursuit of artistic careers may run in families, but the cooperativeness and celebration of each other’s art, which is found in the relationship between Karen McCurtain-Blair and her daughter, Allegra Sleep, is rare and inspirational. The story of this unusual collaboration begins in Nicaragua, but has flowered here in Taos County.
An accomplished artist, McCurtain-Blair moved to Taos nearly 30 years ago, but found it not quite the perfect fit. A friend advised her to come up to “God’s country” and so McCurtain-Blair bought a place in Costilla where she has lived, worked and painted since the early ‘90s. “I love it there,” says McCurtain-Blair. Sleep visited her mother when she was attending the University of New Mexico, though she now lives in Taos.
Sleep, born in Managua, Nicaragua, got quite an early jump start to her artistic career, actually participating in her first group show at the American Embassy when she was just 2. “I grew up watching her (McCurtain-Blair), so I learned at a very early age what people don’t learn until they’re in college,” says Sleep.
McCurtain-Blair explains, “At a really early age she was painting in whatever I was working in. If I was working in oil, she was painting in oil. If I was working in acrylic, she was doing acrylic.”
Demonstrating that level of appreciation of each other is the hallmark of their relationship.
“Her skill level, her drawing, far surpasses mine,” McCurtain-Blair adds.
Sleep, though, quickly points out this difference does not reflect innate ability. “But you’re not born with that. You have to practice it all the time. When I was a kid, I would draw. So maybe that’s where I was a little bit different.”
McCurtain-Blair, originally from the Midwest, began her study of the arts at the University of Illinois, but as Sleep points out, “She studied with incredibly talented artists wherever we were living.”
“I really had to be in the moment,” says McCurtain-Blair, “because we travelled so much. Even in one country we might move two or three times during the one or two years we lived there or the three or four years we lived there.”
She showed in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Argentina and Puerto Rico. Upon the family’s return to the United States, most of her shows have been in Taos from 1990 to the present time. McCurtain-Blair is also a regular on the Costilla Studio Tour.
Sleep says, “In 2017, she (McCurtain-Blair) was invited to an invitational watercolor exhibit in Ecuador. It’s kind of neat. It feels like she’s gone full circle.”
Sleep’s own artistic style also reflects her years in the Caribbean and South America. “I think growing up in Latin America really influenced my color palette.” Indeed, bright colors and broad strokes characterize Sleep’s work and differentiate it from her mother’s exquisitely detailed watercolors.
“I admire her fearlessness,” says McCurtain-Blair of her daughter’s talent, “because there I am with my number two brush, getting all this detail and she’ll have a house-painting brush. Her economy of strokes just bowls me over.”
Sleep, whose work is similarly shown in and out of the U.S., from Germany and France to the Stables Gallery in Taos, has garnered awards and been the subject of several articles in Southwest Art Magazine. In addition to her Southwest-themed pieces, Sleep’s magical-realism portraits of children embraced by jaguars or riding tortoises are deservingly popular.
For these accomplished artists, competition with each other is not the story, rather they improve each other’s works through insightful critiquing of their respective paintings.
“Some people who work in similar media do feel competition,” says Sleep, “but we don’t because we’re so complementary in the way we work together.”
Her mother agrees, “We really have different eyes looking at it (a painting), but it’s always completely supportive…and we really do play off one another.”
Both women belong to the Taos Watercolor Society of which McCurtain-Blair has been a long- time member and past president. Sleep, on the other hand, is using watercolors in an unusual way.
“I combine watercolor and acrylic in each painting,” she says. “Before I was using the watercolor just like a secondary effect and now each piece is about 50/50.”
Now that she is retired from various jobs and helping her husband in his restaurant, McCurtain-Blair is delighted to devote herself full time to painting the landscape around her, a tree on the banks of an acequia or a doorway in a crumbling adobe near Costilla Plaza.
“I make such a heart connection to what I paint,” she says.
People see and appreciate this connection to place in her paintings. “I think that’s the joy I get from painting,” she reflects.
Sleep has an installation program involving photography in the works. She is taking “life-size photographs of people who are deaf and hard of hearing and then I’m making a sound file based on their own life experience.” She plans on giving viewers headphones so that they can hear the confusing sounds that each of her subjects hear, based on his or her unique audiogram. Sleep, who is also hard of hearing, is currently looking for more hearing-impaired participants for this educational art installation.
Both women are members of Las Comadres Gallery, located at 120 Bent Street, Suite G, in Taos where their work hangs alongside pieces from nine other women artists. McCurtain-Blair is preparing for the Taos Watercolor Society’s “Spring and Summer Taos” show with an opening at The Taos Visitors Center on May 10 from 4-6 p.m., and another opening at the Fechin Studio Gallery on May 11 from 5-7 p.m. Her husband, Richard Blair, is “100 percent supportive” when she is getting ready for a show, making snacks and preparing meals. Sleep participated in the February show, “LOVE/MeToo#” at Studio 107B on the Plaza. She was excited to be a part of the Valentine’s event because she hadn’t shown in that gallery before or with that group of artists.
Painting is not the only activity this mother and daughter duo enjoy together. They hike weekly in the Wild Rivers area of the Río Grande del Norte National Monument.
“It’s interesting to see us on hikes together,” comments Sleep. “Because, two artists taking a hike: ‘Look at that, take a picture of it, I want to paint it.’ And, ‘Oh, the shadows…’ ”
It’s not only the art of these two painters which Taos is fortunate to experience, but so is their love of place, beauty and each other.
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