Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Mary Witkop A Remarkable Woman of Taos, Master Potter

This year as part of the celebration “The Remarkable Women of Taos” there will be an exhibit of the “Pottery of Mary Witkop” at Two Graces Plaza Gallery, in Ranchos de Taos, scheduled for May 25, 2012. The art exhibit and sale will run through late August. Although we currently only have 2 pieces of her pottery for sale at this time, we hope to have 30-40 pieces for sale in the exhibition, with perhaps more that will be labeled NFS.

The following post was written by Juanita Witkop, Mary's daughter, and edited by me for the www.taos.org website and the promotion "Remarkable Women of Taos". I add this to my own blog stories so that others can read it and discover a bit more about her.
For updates and more photographs of Mary and her pottery please 'Like' Mary Witkop Master Potter on Facebook. Juanita has added an incredible group of photographs from Mary's personal archives.
Photograph by Nancy Neva Gagliano
 Taos potter Mary Beatrice Blake Witkop was born August 25, 1948 in Denver, CO. She was influenced early on by her mother who experimented with making pottery and her father who was a jeweler. Her mother collected pottery from the pueblos of New Mexico including pieces by San Ildefonso Pueblo potter Maria Martinez exposing her early on to the beauty of traditional pueblo pottery.
As a young girl her main interest was horses, she got her 1st horse when she was 13. She raised, trained and rode horses, for the rest of her life. She was an avid downhill skier who spent a couple seasons working at Crested Butte and Arapahoe Basin Ski Area in Colorado. Mary also enjoyed writing and has published several poems.
This large pitcher with handle is currently available at TGPG
 In 1969 while attending college at Colorado State University, she met self-taught potter, Carl Witkop. A class on pre-Columbian art sparked her imagination to begin experimenting with making her own pottery using the ancient methods of coil building, stone burnishing and pit firing. With the encouragement of her soon to be husband Carl Witkop, who had been experimenting with pre-Columbian techniques for a few years, Mary became a dedicated artist. Based on ancient methods, together, they developed a new style of pottery unlike anything else being done at the time. In 1971 she entered her 1st art show and won 2nd place from The Poudre Valley Art League’s Eleventh Annual Regional Art Show in Fort Collins, CO for her piece titled ‘Some People See the Grays’. This recognition put her on track to experiment with new designs and enter more shows where she took home more awards. Also in 1971, the couple exhibited their work at the CSU Student Center Art Gallery, and at the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO.
 At this time period while firing pots on the lawn of her brother’s home the Witkop’s made an accidental discovery. Their original technique was to get black ‘clouds’ while open firing using cow dung. When a pot was accidentally dropped onto the grass, something magical happened. They found you could also obtain unique markings from other organic materials tossed onto the still quite hot from the fire pot. Thus beginning their experimentation with other materials such as horse-hair, leaves, feathers and sawdust. By 1974 most of their pots were fired using this newly discovered method. They named their new firing technique ‘Cloud Fire’. The influence of this method can be seen all over New Mexico today, many of the potters that use the technique known as Horse-Hair pottery know little of this history.
This small highly burnished pot is currently available at TGPG
 Trips to New Mexico allowed the couple to visit various Pueblo artists exchanging ideas and techniques with well known potters such as Blue Corn of San Ildefonso, Phyllis Tafoya, Glenda Naranjo, and Mela Youngblood of Santa Clara, Rebecca Lucario, Marie Z Chino and Lena Zorivis of Acoma, Jennie Laate of Zuni, Lucy Year Flower, Joe and Thelma Talachy of Pojoaque, Ruth Keyona of Laguna, and Rose Romero of Jemez Pueblo.

In 1974 they took home 1st Place in the Rio Grande Pottery and Sculpture Exhibition in Albuquerque.  Other awards included 1st Place at the New Mexico State Fair in 1978, and Best of Show at the Santa Fe Arts Festival in 1980.

In 1975 Mary made the decision to be a potter full time, leaving her career as a research scientist. The couple moved to New Mexico purchasing a home near Taos. They were attracted to Taos, like others who had come before them, by the beautiful mountains, culture, people, and the flourishing art scene.
A slip of paper written by Mary & Carl from back in the day.
 Their 1st exhibit in Taos was in July of 1976 at Clay and Fiber Gallery. R.C. Gorman attended the opening to meet the newest members of the Taos art colony and added Mary’s 1st experiment with corrugation as a design element to his own personal collection.

The Witkops became valuable members of the community teaching workshops, sharing their techniques of making and firing pottery in this unique style. Workshops were conducted at Ghost Ranch and at the Taos Art Association. The film ‘From the Earth Rising’ by Neil Productions documented the artists at work (all known copies of the film have been lost).

Throughout the 70s, they kept quite busy several Galleries were exhibiting their work including, The Empire Gallery, Empire, CO, Foothills Art Gallery, Golden, CO, Gilpin County Art Gallery, Central City, CO, Heritage Art Gallery, Ypsilanti, MI, Clay and Fiber Gallery, Taos, NM, Albatross, Boulder, CO, The Contemporary Craftsman, Santa Fe, NM, The Elements Gallery, New York, NY Francis McCray Gallery, Silver City, NM and K Phillips Studio Gallery, Denver, CO.  They were both included in the 1977 Invitational Exhibition of Contemporary Ceramics in NM, and in 1978 exhibited in the Central Iowa Art Association’s - The Ceramic Collection.
This large pot is no longer available at TGPG, (SOLD)
 After a separation from Carl in 1981, Mary began experimenting with micaceous clay collected in the Taos area. She also began working with Taos Pueblo potters such as Jeri Track, Juanita DuBray, the Track sisters Bernadette, Soge and Dahl, Henrietta Gomez, Cheyenne Jim, and Anthony Durand, exchanging ideas and techniques, learning from them how to prepare and work with the local clays. She encouraged new potters to experiment and develop their own styles. She was adamant about signing their pottery. Through the years Mary signed her pottery with her name and the place she made it, El Salto, Pilar or Ranchos de Taos, thus creating a timeline as well.
This small red earth pot is no longer available at TGPG (SOLD)
 In 1987 she met David Hopper, beginning a relationship that lasted 23 years.  David was a local contractor specializing in adobe construction and also owner of the Return Galley of Taos (1976-1984). She moved her studio from Pilar to the Old Ranchos Post Office, which was owned by David’s brother Dennis. Dennis Hopper had met Mary years earlier and had already become a collector of Mary’s work. His collection grew considerably over the years as Mary paid her rent in pottery.

Over the last 30 years Mary showed her work at The Michael McCormick Gallery, Bryan’s Gallery and Mesa’s Edge, Historic 802 Gallery, Ruby Elizabeth Fine Art, and Spirit Runner Gallery in Taos, Two Graces in Ranchos de Taos, NM, Mongerson-Wunderlich Gallery, Chicago, IL, Spotted Horse, Aspen, CO, Tops, Malibu, CA and Art Works Fine Art Gallery in Wilmington, NC among others. Exhibitions at the Smithsonian Institute’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC in 1992, House of Taos’ - ‘Mary Witkop a 30 Year Retrospective’ in 1999, and the Taos Harwood Museum tribute to Mary Witkop ‘40 years of Clay’ in 2009.

Taos provided Mary with a wealth of other artists with whom to collaborate. The most successful of these collaborations was with Taos Pueblo Stone Sculptor, John Suazo. They did many pieces together over the years with Mary building the pot, John doing the carving and then sent back to Mary to apply the final burnishes and firing.  Other artists that she collaborated with included Jeweler, Larry Herrera and PepĂ© Rochon.
This small Blue Pot is no longer available at TGPG (SOLD)
 Mary also enjoyed collecting art from the many Taos artists she met, helping not only with financial support but her love and encouragement. Thankfully, Mary also had the foresight to collect a bit of her own work, and some of the very best of this collection will be on exhibit this Spring.

Mary took an active roll in the Taos community by promoting art, and preserving the environment. During her years in Taos she taught numerous pottery classes, she was always willing to teach someone who wanted to learn. Mary became Mayordoma of the Pilar Acequia Association for 5 years, and served as Taos County Art Commissioner from 1991-1992.
Mary was a favorite participant of the Pilar Studio Tour since its inception in 1996. People loved coming to meet her, to hear the stories she had to tell and of course buy a piece of pottery from the artist herself.

As an invitee to the Taos Fall Arts Festivals ‘Taos Invites Taos’ she won best of Modern Pottery 12 years in a row (1998-2009), in 2003 she took both the Best of Modern and Traditional Pottery awards. After 2009 she asked the awards committee to stop giving her the award and to give someone else a chance, (that was Mary as some of us knew her).

Mary often said that she would rather give a pot to a friend than sell one for a great deal of money. Many of her friends who were celebrating a graduation, marriage, or even a birthday through her great generosity own a piece of her work. As part of the age old Taos barter system she even traded pottery for many of things she needed, (like it or not her pottery became a commodity in the community).
Mary passed away April 13th, 2010 in her studio. She worked right up until the end, leaving several pieces unfinished. Her funeral on a hillside overlooking her first Taos studio was well attended by all members of the community. An unprecedented gathering of all the cultures of Taos joined hands to say goodbye. Someone was overheard to say: “Look at all the people she’s brought together, she could have been Mayor”. 
(By the way, that was me that said that)

Monday, January 9, 2012

Mabel Dodge Luhan, 'Genius Loci' of Taos, NM

I begin with this excerpt from the book by Mabel Dodge Luhan "Taos and it's Artists" 1947
these are the last 2 lines: "So Taos grows and expands under the beneficent skies and beauty increases. The genius loci is still exerting its age-long influence." 
Loosely translated the meaning of genius loci used here would be 'the protective spirit of a place' seems to me this phrase is quite a fitting description of Mabel herself.
Taos promotion campaign this year (2012) is titled "The Remarkable Women of Taos", I think it's a great fit and am looking forward to the many events around Taos that will tie into this theme.
The photograph above is something I purchased recently and is a discarded press photo of 1945, please do not use this or any other images here without my permission, thank you.
 I'm always looking for unusual items for my shop Two Graces Plaza Gallery of those items that I have in my own personal collection are what I share with you here in this story. Above is the copper printers bookplate for printing page 68 of "Winter in Taos" my favorite book by Mabel Dodge. This was a gift from a woman from California which she sent to me after purchasing one of my paintings this past year.
I may add that this was a pleasant surprise, but also one of the nicest gifts I've received, a thoughtful gesture and a piece of Taos history.
 The signature of Mabel graces a second edition of this book we currently have at the store.
 A pair of photographs of Mabel at the Kiowa ranch which she gifted to D.H. Lawrence back in the day. Not quite ready to accept a gift from Mabel, Frieda Lawrence gave her as an exchange Lawrence's handwritten manuscript of "Sons and Lovers".
A complete collection of the autobiographic Hardcovers with rare dust jackets of the writings of Mabel Dodge Luhan, available at TGPG. "Edge of Taos Desert", "Winter in Taos", "Lorenzo in Taos", "Intimate Memories, Background", "European Experiences", & "Movers and Shakers" Please note, at this time I do not have a copy of Mabel's book "Taos and it's Artists" with a dust jacket. The dust jackets from these books are on very lightweight paper and are prone to tearing leading them to be discarded by their owners through the years, making these dust jackets extremely desirable, in some cases even more so than a signature! 
 An endearing signature from Mabel, with a beautiful portrait of her husband Tony Lujan (this may be my favorite signature I've seen of Mabel's).
 As I've said before in other posts the Mabel Dodge Luhan house is a wonderful place to stay here in Taos. This year in particular it may be the toughest place to get a room in Taos. If you really want to stay there, be as pleasant as you can be and perhaps the staff will be able to accommodate you, I hope they will. On our honeymoon to Taos, Holly & I stayed there in early June of 1998, (we were married in August of 1997).
 Andrew Dasburg created this woodblock of the house, somewhere in my possessions I have this as a bookplate, now if I could only find it again...
 The front portal at Mabel's, complete with roosters and chickens on the roof line, from this she called the house 'Los Gallos'. If you don't get a chance to stay there at least stop in for a visit, the staff is genuine and generous with answering questions (that they've probably been asked a whole lot). Last year the owners celebrated the birthday of Mabel Dodge, although I'd missed it, I heard afterwards what a wonderful evening it was. Hopefully this year we'll be invited guests, (or we may have to sneak in).
 A wooden retablo of Saint Francis is embedded into the adobe exterior near the small front study/conference room. Below a letter to Boyce Eakin from the Honorable Dorothy Brett, a dear friend of Mabel and another of those remarkable women of Taos, written on her stationery 'The Tower Beyond Tragedy'.
 It reads: Boyce Mabel is kind of weary - & wants me for lunch today - What about tomorrow I'll pop along around 12 o'clock to the school & fix a date Lord what a party but how nice those people were Brett
These letters are the sort of thing that bring these ladies alive for me, I am grateful to own them.
 A handsome handmade bench in a side courtyard at Mabel's. A nice place to rest and read.
This next letter of March 1, 1954 is from Mabel to Lee J. Farran, who in 1959 became the editor of the newly incorporated Taos News.
 In this letter she writes: Taos Saturday '54 Dear Lee - Thank you so very much for remembering me on my birthday yesterday. They were especially lovely & the thought was too. Yours ever - Mabel L.
 This envelope as you can see is unusual with just a name and Taos, evidently it reached him and I'd like to believe the gift he'd sent to her was a bouquet of flowers. This letter was tucked into a copy of Mabel's book "Lorenzo in Taos"
 Our inventory of books about and by Mabel Dodge Luhan.
The Mabel Dodge House and conference center has produced a large format coffee table book of pictures and a timeline of the history of Mabel, you can contact them directly to purchase your own copy of this treasure http://mabeldodgeluhan.blogspot.com/ or http://www.mabeldodgeluhan.com/ they also carry new paperback editions of Mabel's books currently in print.
 Through the back window of the conference room study, a writer writes.
One of the things I enjoy about the book "Taos and it's Artists" is how pleasantly she writes about each of the artists she chooses to include, (yes she left out plenty). As for the reproductions of their paintings, all are unfortunately in black and white which does no justice to the wonderful color of artists like Ila Mcafee, Emil Bisttram or Gisella Loefler, and the Taos Founders to say the least. Her quick synopses of each of these artists are but a glimpse and a small taste of them, each and everyone of which deserves a monograph in their own right (some do have monographs of their work, mostly out of print, our book collection at TGPG carries as many books on Taos artists as we can). Yet here in her own words is a nice gesture for the reader and a reminder to all writers of how to write something endearing and flattering about someone. Sometimes I feel this to be lost today.
Below: the cemetery grave marker of Mabel Dodge Luhan as it was a few days ago. I think from time to time someone cleans this up a bit, as it was quite messy upon my visit.
So why all this about Mabel after all?
My answer is this, without her Taos would have never been this art colony of these past 100 years, (even with the Taos Founders important contribution, they probably would have all left for Santa Fe as many do) as an artist I am grateful for her input. Back in the day Taos was a difficult place to reach, to get here you really had to want to get here. There was no highway or railroad, even the Santa Fe Trail was more a backroad branch to Taos. As you drove north from Santa Fe and arrived in the village of Velarde, the road narrowed through a mountain pass of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range. The Blood of Christ mountains with that sort of name for it and covered as it was and still is to this day in the memorial crosses known here as 'descantos' making for an ominous journey ahead scaring away many who upon this sight refused to go any further and returned to the 'safety' of Santa Fe. The descantos it seemed made people think of 'indian' ambush raiding parties, and what may happen to travelers who chose to continue. Today, although very well maintained by the State Highway patrol, boulders (from the size of a football to the size of a small car) tumble onto the road which hugs the mountainside. To settle in Taos can also be an unsettling experience, most newcomers last anywhere from 1-3 years. The locals say: "The Mountain accepts you or turns you away". This little town of Taos accepted Mabel all these years ago, and Mabel stayed and made Taos her home.

One last small footnote: When I was just beginning to learn how to drive a car, my Dad in the passenger seat would point out that I tended to slow down as I was driving up a hill. I was afraid of what might be coming at me on the other side. My Father's answer to this was you wouldn't know what was on the other side until you reached it.
I hope that people visit Taos this year and for many years to come, we have a pretty great community here and if you choose to join it and become a part of this place, I say 'Welcome'.