Fine art

Courage to change

Barbara Zaring's creative inner voice comes through loud and clear

By Meg Scherch Peterson
Posted 9/21/18

Deep blue plumbago flowers edge the stone path that leads to Barbara Zaring's backyard, where red tomatoes hang heavy and corn silk dangles from within a pale green sheaf. …

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Fine art

Courage to change

Barbara Zaring's creative inner voice comes through loud and clear


Deep blue plumbago flowers edge the stone path that leads to Barbara Zaring's backyard, where red tomatoes hang heavy and corn silk dangles from within a pale green sheaf. Beyond the garden, two maple trees stand tall and strong, framing a view of Taos Mountain.

"It won't take long for their roots to reach the water table," Zaring says, "And then they'll really take off."

She pours me a glass of iced mint tea, and we go into the studio to talk. Her newest paintings are propped against a white wall, and I can't help but think the rich color from outside has made its way here. But if you imagine these paintings follow the lineage of Zaring's earlier landscapes, you'd be mistaken. Her new abstracts, which can be viewed this fall at two venues, are a decided departure.

Zaring is showing with  fellow Taos artist Melinda Littlejohn in "A Study in Contrast," which opens with a reception Friday (Sept. 21), 5-7 p.m., at Total Arts Gallery, 122 Kit Carson Road. The show runs through Oct. 14. Then, Zaring's works appear in a group show titled "Outside the Lines" that opens with a reception from 4-7 p.m. Saturday (Sept. 22) at Philip Bareiss Gallery, 15 State Road 150, north of El Prado. This show runs through Sept. 30.

Zaring, who has been a celebrated Taos artist since the 1970s, can pinpoint the very day and time her infatuation with landscapes ended. "One day, I was in the middle of painting, my brush on the canvas, and I was bored." That's when she knew she'd come to the end of that journey; she did not know, however, what came next.

Years of experimentation followed. And while she considers her final landscape paintings as some of her best, the first experimental ones, well, not so much. Thinking back, she laughs, "Those paintings were really, really bad."

Zaring's story is ultimately about the willingness to make changes, take chances, listen to the inner voice of creativity. And sometimes, the inner voice manifests as a megaphone. "So, while I'm struggling with where to go next with my painting, my (previous) studio floods," she recalls. "Four inches of water. Everywhere. And I always have my paintings along the floor, but thankfully, this one time they were up off the floor. And in the midst of this, a ring-tailed cat takes up residence."

The ringtail cat, a relative to the racoon, prefers habitats associated with water even in a rocky desert environment. The long and the short of it is, the experience forced Zaring, as she put it, "to get down in the muck."

Shortly afterward, the canvas was on the floor, too, and she started pouring "pretty thinned-out acrylic" over it. She had found her way.

As she explains this, I cast a sideways glance to the paintings leaning against the walls of her studio. "They're about water," she adds, in a kind of "well duh" moment. My eye does a deep dive into the current of archipelago, pushes through a narrow inlet, splashes against a submerged shoal of bright cellular shapes. Eventually, her voice hooks me out of the stream.

"I go into the studio and mess around. Slowly things come into focus. The beginning is largely accidental and mistake driven." She explains how from time to time she'll interrupt the pour. "This is where the tools come into play," she adds, referencing the knowledge she'd developed through years of painting landscapes.

She honors that past practice: "Those paintings taught me the language of paint."

Other media are added to the acrylic world. "I make stencils. I let it dry. It's very organic, a very organic understructure, then I come back into it, blocking out with oil." When the oil paint starts, that's the end of the messing about. "The beginning of the oil phase, well, I mark the back of each canvas with an 'O.' It's a defining moment. You cannot go back."

It's at this point that I knock over the glass of mint tea, which to my growing embarrassment spreads across the studio floor. Zaring jumps into action, mopping up the spill with paper towels, kneeling, crouching, swishing this way and that, and I'm like, yeah, I can totally see how she paints.

When we resume our talk, I'm curious to know how she feels about interpretation, about how to "read" her work. "I want the eye to move," she says. "I'm fascinated with taking a square and making it dynamic."

Her words remind me of something art critic Susan Sontag wrote, arguing against interpretation and for immediate experience, reminding the viewer not to ask what a painting means, but rather, "What does it do?"

Zaring's new work answers such a question with an invitation to move, to travel, to freely associate, to change directions, encounter, let go, hurt, heal, laugh. The viewer is welcome to enter into a relation, to experience the flow of the present moment that is both the painting and one's self.

John Berger, in his classic "Ways of Seeing," put it this way: "We never look at just one thing: we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves. Our vision is continually active, continually moving, continually holding things in a circle around itself, constituting what is present to us as we are."

In "Borderland," for example, my mind's eye confronts the fierce angularity of a black shape and searches for a way through. Zaring, ever the colorist, takes a moment to comment on what might be called an edgy use of black. She tells how she chooses her titles carefully through a methodical process of free writing that can't help but net the gestalt of what is going on in the world. Beyond that, she'll only say, "I love black. It's a very rich color. Not straight from the tube. I mix colors together." Pointing to "Borderland" she adds, "That one is actually blue."

I step out of the studio world and into the bright sun. The two maple trees framing Taos Mountain have a message for me: The roots of this artist have reached the water table and she is taking off.

Editor's note: In a development known to some, but still sad for many, "A Study in Contrast," will be the official final show at Total Arts Gallery, which will be closing it’s doors forever Dec. 31, 2018. “We are so pleased to have this show of two local artists at the end,” a gallery statement reads. Call (575) 758-4667.


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