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Making Their Marks

Four artists based in New Mexico propel into the new decade

By Kathryn M Davis | Photos by Audrey Darell

From their origins as the son of generations of ranchers in the Española Valley to a Korean who grew up steeped in her culture’s traditions and arrived in the United States via Australia, our four featured artists have collectively traveled the world. Between them, they speak several languages, the most essential being that ineffable dialect of visual art. While their vocabularies may be quite diverse, each addresses the inevitable action of expressing one’s sense of self within an overarching community. And all possess that intangible yet necessary qualification for being an artist: Thomas Vigíl, Lauren Mantecón, Darren Vigil Gray, and Hyunmee Lee can’t not make art, and, collectively, they’ve been doing it for well over a hundred years. Capturing their processes, photographer Audrey Derell—an artist in her own right—presents spontaneous portraits of the artists at work in their studios.

Naturally, these four identify as unique individuals, though they have many traits in common, each drawing from their own cultural backgrounds to create new perspectives. Vigíl is, he says, “an outsider” who “is experiencing his own personal renaissance.” Represented by Evoke Contemporary in Santa Fe, he was also part of GenNext: Future So Bright in 2018 at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art. Vigíl creates graphical arts using spray paint, stencils, old road signs, and any weathered metal surfaces people find for him. His imagery, however, is straight out of the Baroque period of Counter-Reformation art—traditionally a source for Spanish Colonial art in Northern New Mexico.

Mantecón is one of those people you feel you’ve known forever—an easy talker. She has worked in many a medium over the years, from found items in the streets of Caribbean Mexico to the photographer’s darkroom. A painting instructor offering workshops and open studios, she feels her role is “to hold space for people to have their own experience of art.” Having begun her studies as a conceptual photographer at California State University, Fullerton, Mantecón, like her heroes Judy Chicago, Betye Saar, and Cindy Sherman, makes work that actively deflects the privileged male gaze. After receiving her MFA in Portland, Mantecón won an artist’s residency at the Wurlitzter Foundation in Taos and was then invited to the Santa Fe Art Institute. “Santa Fe found me,” she laughs. She’s been painting in a lyrical style for at least 25 years and feels that she serves as a vessel for her art’s veiled yet potent mysticism.

Vigil Gray, of Jicarilla Apache and Kiowa Apache descent, grew up in the small community of Dulce, New Mexico, tribal headquarters of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation. As a child, he was influenced by his father and older brother, both honky-tonk musicians, and, by the age of ten, young Vigil Gray was performing in his brother’s band. It was at the Institute of American Indian Arts, back when it was located at the Santa Fe Indian School in the 1970s, that he began making art, inspired by instructor and Hopi jeweler Otellie Loloma. Now based in Santa Fe, his regular practice includes making music as a natural extension of his visual repertoire. He approaches painting simply as another means of presenting cultural imagery and notions in his own postimpressionist style. “I’ve stopped making 80 to 100 paintings a year, but I still need to paint,” he says.

Lee’s journey across the globe has been one of self-searching. Born after the Korean War, she recalls a childhood of poverty amid strong cultural roots. She trained in the classical art of calligraphy, but it wasn’t until she moved to Sydney, Australia, where she received her MFA at the University of Sydney, that she began to truly consider her native culture. At school, she “examined the works of Robert Motherwell, Franz Klein, and Mark Tobey, in an investigation into how textures . . . and color can balance composition.” While her paintings could be ascribed to the New York School of Action Painting, they are hardly the stuff of Jackson Pollock. Rather, her carefully trained hand makes meditative gestures that balance grace and tension as rigorously as a prima ballerina en pointe.

None of these artists can be separated from their cultural roots and experiences, yet each articulates a vision undeniably contemporary and indelibly their own.