In Cary Ennis’ studio, her cat springs silently into a chair, settles down, and becomes a still life—a mound of jet black fur resting on a dark red afghan atop a green cushion. The backdrop, a tall, wooden cupboard, is appropriately shadowed in the waning light of a cloudy afternoon.
The cat’s name is ap-propriate, too. Camatkara (its shortened version sounding like “chama”) is an ancient Sanskrit word with two meanings, which together describe the essence of Ennis as a painter and a person. It means “delight of artistic experience” and also “bliss of pure I-consciousness.” In the artist’s own words, this translates into a lifelong goal of being “centered in awareness, simply being present and awake—not lost in my thoughts.” It’s a way of living, she says, that “makes me very receptive to the beauty around me.”
Clearly, such a state is also conducive to the creation of striking still-life paintings that draw the viewer into a similarly serene and focused frame of mind. With a single source of light on carefully chosen objects, Ennis produces images that combine a powerful sense of clarity and solidity with a feeling of deep and penetrating quiet.
Across the room from the cat in the chair is the corner where the artist paints. Her large easel stands near a tall table that holds her still-life arrangements. Beside the table is the studio’s most important asset: one north window, its view overlooking a canyon and ponderosa pine-covered fingers of mountain land on which is perched the northern New Mexico town of Los Alamos.
This is Ennis’ hometown. In fact, her large, comfortable studio was produced by removing walls in the house she lived in from the age of 10 through high school. In a town full of scientists em-
ployed at Los Alamos National Laboratory, many young people are pointed in the direction of science, she says. But as the youngest child of a physicist father, she left that path to her older brother and sister. Instead, she followed her mother’s encouragement to express herself with art.
“My siblings got all the pressure [to pursue science]. I just got to grow like Topsy. They fed and watered me and didn’t push me in a direction that wasn’t natural to me,” she recalls. “I grew up playing in the woods. The beauty of the natural world was so much a part of my life, and our family took camping trips to Colorado. My father was an avid rock hunter, which was another avenue of finding beauty in natural things.”
Ennis earned an art degree, and later a master’s in jewelry making, from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. She embarked on a career designing and creating jewelry, with particular inspiration from Japanese aesthetics and metal-working techniques. She also did some painting in watercolor. But her present medium of oils was an unknown world until about 20 years ago. That was when she happened upon a brochure for a painting workshop with Gregg Kreutz.
“I saw this brochure with a picture by Kreutz, and I was stunned,” she remembers. “Here was a painter working in oils and doing exactly the kind of realism I loved.” Ennis signed up for the workshop and quickly followed that with six months of study under Kreutz, David Leffel, and Sherrie McGraw at their studios and at the Art Students League in New York. Happily, a friend in New York had a little-used apartment at the time and invited Ennis to consider it her home while she was there. “That was such an endorsement from the universe,” she reflects. “It was like being told, ‘Go. Do this.’”
Along with learning life drawing and painting techniques, Ennis says one of the most important lessons she absorbed from these master artists was their philosophy. Following Leffel around as he critiqued other students’ work, she listened intently to everything he said. It boiled down to the existence of an integral connection between painting and life.
“The kind of attention and care one gives in daily life will become the kind of attention and care that goes into a painting. You can’t be totally thoughtless and inattentive in life and then suddenly become present and mindful of beauty just when you’re painting,” she explains. “If we chop a painting up into things that are important and things that are not important, we’ll probably chop our life up that way too. If a painting is unbalanced, maybe that’s reflective of a life that’s unbalanced as well.”
In daily life, Ennis fol-lows a meditation path called Siddha yoga, with roots in South Asian spiritual trad-itions, that helps train her attention to return to the present moment. This aware-ness not only opens her eyes to the beauty that exists but can also work the other way. “Sometimes beauty itself stops me and throws me back into the present,” she says. “That’s what I hope my paintings do for others. If I can portray the beauty of light and color and edge, maybe it will throw the viewer back into the present.
“But also, my natural re-sponse to seeing beauty in the world is just to pick up a paint- brush,” she continues. “I get grumpy if I don’t paint. It’s like nourishment to participate in that beauty.”
When she’s painting, Ennis draws the blinds on all but the single north window and uses no electric light. As a result, her ar-rangements receive a constant, single source of cool light, and her working day is bounded on either end by too-dark-to-see. At the moment, the gently fading light is touching one side of a large, early southwestern Pueblo pottery bowl adorned with curving designs in rust-orange and black. Ripe plums surround the bowl, and the arrangement sits on a woven textile with a simple, pale-colored pattern.
On the easel, mirroring the scene, is an almost-completed painting. The painting contains the addition of a couple of curving slices of cantaloupe and a small bunch of purple asters—items whose limited span of freshness took them out of the live arrangement once they were painted.
“For this painting I started with the color in the cantaloupe and the orange color in the pot. And there was the arc shape in the painting on the pot, and the shape of the cantaloupe wedges. So there were some echoes in shape and color. And then there was seeing what was in the yard, like the purple asters, that could enhance and contribute to that combination,” Ennis says, explain-ing one way inspiration arises and shapes a new work.
“Often it comes from seeing something beautiful and trying to figure out what it is that captures me about it. Maybe it’s something I’ve seen before that didn’t seem that interesting, and then suddenly it resonates,” she says. “It can be the way one thing looks, or the way two things look together, that will grab me. I’ll put it up there, and then there’ll be an impulse to put something else with it. It’s very intuitive—just the feeling of what enhances that original idea.”
She opens the tall wooden cupboard. There, her eye may fall on a tarnished old silver-plated teapot, a china saucer and cup, or a Japanese porcelain vase—“fun things,” she says, that in that moment may elicit an ap-preciative “ooh” for their shape or design. Other storage shelves hold Oriental and Native American rugs, southwestern pottery, corncobs of various colors, and an intricate brass dragon whose curving form is accented strongly against a large red lacquered plate. The plate and dragon combination is one that will someday find its way into a painting, the artist notes.
Throughout the experience of choosing and arranging objects and then painting, Ennis contin-ually, gently returns to an inten-tion of clear perception, “without the veils of preconception.” This way of seeing, she adds, is about “loving a deeper sense of still-ness. I enjoy painting from that place as much as I can.”
Featured in December 2002