Fine art

Parts of the whole

‘Earthly Elements’ exhibition seeks understanding and communion with the natural world


Autumn arrives next week, but we here in Taos have already felt the winds of change: the crisp mornings and the wafting piñón smoke from a neighbor’s chimney, the sunflowers exploding to our delight along roadsides and across fields. Is that really a bit of color peeking so soon through the evergreens?

There is perhaps not a more profoundly beautiful prelude to the seasonal shift from summer to fall than that which unfolds in Taos. And, on its cusp, the Bareiss Gallery is poised to celebrate “Earthly Elements,” a tribute to the nearness of our extraordinary environs and to the vastness of the world beyond.

A collaboration between artists Dora Dillistone, Hank Saxe and Brian Shields, “Earthly Elements” will celebrate its opening with a reception Friday (Sept. 15) from 4-7 p.m. Bareiss Gallery is located at 15 State Road 150, north of El Prado. Light refreshments will be served at the reception. “There will be plenty of food to feed the mind,” said Shields as he laughed. Admission for all is free.

Hanging through Sept. 29, the exhibition will also feature a special artist talk moderated by Jina Brenneman on Sept. 24, at 4:30 p.m. Saxe said, “Jina is known for her perceptive and provocative discussions of art, so we’re sure it will be an interesting and informative addition to the overall show.” Brenneman is a former curator at the Harwood Museum of Art and co-director of the just-released award-winning documentary film, “Agnes Martin: Before the Grid.”

The three artists work with divergent forms of media, but the message of their art intersects at the point of their combined love for the environment. Shields noted that the show, in fact, came together with the encouragement of Jean Stevens, who is curating the Environmental Film Festival segment of the upcoming Taos Fall Arts Festival. “Jean wanted an art exhibition that would be complementary to the films; something that would provide an artistic discussion of environmental issues,” he said. “She spoke with Philip [Bareiss], who agreed to provide the venue.”

No more appropriate artists could have been selected to fulfill the mission of this exhibit.

“None of us can separate ourselves from the environment, and I strive to define myself in terms of it,” explained Dillistone, who ventures into the Southwestern landscape to create her works on paper. Although classically trained as an artist, she now eschews the traditional tools of art and instead focuses on dirt and wind paintings, which she sees as actual recordings of natural events.

Anchoring large sheets of watercolor paper in ravines and other outdoor topographical locations, then allowing the natural cycles of climate to “paint” the surface with colors and textures, Dillistone said, “These are literal landscapes made by the land and the elements and can never be repeated. I’m just the coordinator.”

The random effects that Dillistone achieves are, remarkably, as delicate as Chinese calligraphic lines and as fascinating. “I love that they are made by nature and not by me.”

On the other hand, Saxe is ceramic sculptor whose works get their life in a giant, bustling workshop. However, his lifelong affinity for geology and the earth sciences is a major influence in his selection of materials and the means through which his finished pieces evolve. In describing his artwork as “consequences of investigations into processes and materials,” Saxe noted he is taken with the unpredictability of using natural materials for his clays and glazes.

“There are materials everywhere for me to try, from local roads to Tierra Amarilla, to the Pecos and to the Jemez. The colors are gorgeous, but the uncertainty of how they will react under heat is the exciting part. You have to communicate with your materials, knowing you’re constrained by what they are – and maybe it leads to a pleasant surprise.”

If, by chance, it’s an unpleasant surprise, “There’s a bit of sloppy engineering I use to get to where I want to go,” he said with a smile.

Saxe’s new sculptures continue to explore the properties intrinsic to natural clays and minerals. They are glorious pieces: a tribute to what Mother Earth has provided and to what humanity has chosen to best use.

Shields has been long known in Taos as the founder of Amigos Bravos, which, since 1998, has been a fierce advocacy group protecting the delicate balance of our environment. It is no surprise, then, that his life as an artist explores the similar balance of human interaction with the natural world.

Critic Calvin Bedient — the renowned UCLA professor, author and poet — said of Shields’ paintings, “They give the illusion of an eternal way of seeing landscape as poetry. Shields sides with transitivity and marginality, with weeds against gardens. He has a positive, Thoreauvian feeling for wilderness.”

Formerly a plein air landscape artist, Shields now works in studio, often on large canvases that are an interaction of painting, drawing and the words of his wife’s poetry. “Sawnee [Morris] and I combine our environmental and social activism to these canvases,” he said. “My goal is to give people a beautiful experience, have them appreciate the inspired creativity of Taos as an energetic art center and to appreciate our gorgeous environment.”

All noted that their works are tied to ancient practices that are part of what tugs at the hearts of Taoseños. “What we do is part of the area’s history, which we honor,” Dillistone said. It is, then, an exhibit worthy of our appreciation and attendance.

Bareiss Gallery is located at 15 State Road 150, north of El Prado. The venue will be open Thursday through Sunday, noon until 5 p.m., or by appointment during the exhibition. For more information, call (575) 770-7096 or email