Barbara Zaring | The Road Home

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

After Barbara Zaring graduated from college, she set out on a journey to find a place to call home. Her quest led her to New York City, the grand cities of Europe, and on a cross-country trek to California. On her way west, she found her Shangri-La in Taos, NM.

“When I saw the Rio Grande Gorge with Taos Mountain in the back- ground, I stopped the car and said, ‘This is home.’” After a year in California, she moved to Taos.

Oh Beautiful Day, oil, 24 x 30.,painting, Southwest Art
Oh Beautiful Day, oil, 24 x 30.

Twenty-five years later, Zaring is still at home in the Taos landscape. She lives in an adobe house one block from Taos Plaza and paints in a spacious, sunlit studio a few steps from her back door. Her universe is filled with the breathtaking scenery she embraced years ago—bright yellow aspen, verdant green valleys, and mountains that turn orange in the setting sun.

Zaring has become known for her brilliant palette, painting her landscapes in vivid shades of red, orange, yellow, green, and blue. In her early Taos days, though, Zaring was a woodblock artist (known as Barbara Thayer, her married name then). Under the spell of the land of enchantment, Zaring evolved into a painter, but she didn’t show her early landscapes until she felt confident about them.

Red Willow Creek, oil, 30 x 24.,painting, Southwest Art
Red Willow Creek, oil, 30 x 24.

For Zaring, evolutions such as these are part of a continuing journey a passage to maturity that has included marriage, birth, divorce, seclusion, artistic breakthroughs, remarriage, and rebirth on canvas. It comes as no surprise, then, that her vocabulary is laced with metaphoric words such as “journey,” “trip,” and “road.” For example, when asked how her work has changed since an article about her appeared in Southwest Art [DEC 89], she replies, “I’m just further along the same path.”

At 50, Zaring reveals a maturity in her work that she attributes to the “miles of canvas” she has painted and the refinement of the skeletal structure of the mountains, valleys, and streams that inhabit her scenes. “But my paintings have always reflected both the landscape around me and my reaction to it.”

In fact, one of the keys to understanding Zaring’s work is the way she weaves her inner and outer worlds together with her long-established routines. She rises early and attends a yoga class at a nearby health club “in order to begin the day focused,” she says. By 9 a.m. she is in the studio, a tall stucco structure with windows on all sides except the west facade, which faces her house. The lack of windows on the west, she says allowsher to separate her work as a painter from her domestic responsibilities as a wife and mother of two sons.

Acting on Impulse, oil, 9 x 8.,painting, Southwest Art
Acting on Impulse, oil, 9 x 8.

The studio windows on the north reveal majestic mountains, that change color with the seasons from the rich greens of summer to the silvery whites of winter. Zaring can also see her garden, a riot of color sprinkled with bachelor’s buttons, sunflowers, and nasturtiums. She walks outside frequently to get a better view of the landscape from which she draws her inspiration.

“It’s essential to fall in love with what you’re working on,” she explains, “and I’ve always been in love with the Taos landscape.” Back inside, she prepares to work by filling the studio with music—her tastes range from Chopin to Mary Chapin Carpenter. Then she begins to build her paintings, layering the oil paint onto luxurious linen canvases. Cerulean blue. Cadmium red. Raw sienna. She may stop to read for a while.

Zaring’s paintings are discussed by Taos artist Natalie Goldberg in her new book Living Color: A Writer Paints Her World [1997 Bantam Books]. Goldberg devotes a chapter to Zaring’s work, which she describes as totally changing the way she sees the New Mexico landscape. “Anyone who has seen the Rio Grande Gorge, that canyon, knows that it’s real—and also too beautiful to be real,” she writes. “Only with one foot on earth and the other in a dream could a painter [Zaring] capture it.”

Featured in February 1998