Latin American Art | Deborah Rael-Buckley


By Rosemary Carstens

History and culture often inspire artists, and Deborah Rael-Buckley is no exception. She feels a profound connection to memory, family, and ethnicity that shines through in the sensitivity, muted hues, and allegorical symbolism of her large-scale ceramic sculptures. For Rael-Buckley, working the clay and meditating on a theme is a spiritual experience that allows her to commune with the past and explore her roots. “I love being in my studio,” she says. “I take immense joy in working out my ideas and seeing them revealed in each piece.”

Rael-Buckley’s family name has a 400-year history in northern New Mexico and runs back through centuries to Mexico and Spain. The high-desert landscape and wide-open skies of New Mexico are both home and cultural context for much of her work today. Growing up, Rael-Buckley’s parents didn’t emphasize family history or the past, but her imagination and curiosity often set her wondering and dreaming about her ancestors and their lives. That imagination and curiosity became the wellspring for her life’s work. However, it wasn’t until she moved to Milwaukee, after graduating with honors in art history and architecture from the University of Illinois at Chicago, that she began taking introductory courses in studio arts and fell deeply in love with ceramics and sculpture. Over the years, Rael-Buckley has lived, studied, and exhibited in such diverse places as Cortona, Italy, and Brussels, Belgium, and her sculptures continue to receive international accolades.

Rael-Buckley often finds inspiration when combing through old photographs, enjoying the captured moment. The artist collects images and text that catch her eye and trusts her instincts to make associations. Whatever the source of her themes, each piece engages the mind, heart, and eye of her collectors holistically. According to Denise Phetteplace of Blue Rain Gallery, which represents Rael-Buckley, her works “provide a narrative that references a historical relationship between family, cultural identity, and the female experience. She offers a unique interpretation of the human form as art through abstraction, negative space, and a bit of whimsy.”

Living once again in Taos after 13 years away from New Mexico, Rael-Buckley has most recently been creating a series of pieces based on life-size figure- and chair-based forms. Personal memories are combined with inspiration drawn from gothic stained glass, the architecture of Antoni Gaudí, Renaissance painting, and the art and architecture of ancient Mexico. Her process is lengthy, complex, and physically demanding. “It was the sheer technical virtuosity of the piece that immediately struck us,” says Rebecca Meyers, director of permanent collections for Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art, which has acquired one of Rael-Buckley’s pieces.

Rael-Buckley begins her creative process with hand-formed coils that create each piece’s base and works upward from there. She doesn’t use forms or armatures, but keeps building and molding the side walls, smoothing and shaping as she goes. Then she sketches onto the clay where images and details will be added or painted. Next she carves out the negative spaces, continuing to build upward. Once the overall form is complete, a gesso-like under-glaze is applied, and the piece is fired and cooled. In the next phase, she repeats a series of glazes and washes, laying on and wiping away each again and again, then over-firing to mute color intensity and gain an aged effect. She frequently adds commercial decals at this point, then fires again at a lower temperature. In the final phases, she adjusts hues, adds detail, and seals. In some places her fingerprints are purposely left visible, adding the artist’s presence to the piece’s ongoing narrative.

The stories embedded in Rael-Buckley’s pieces are a large part of what attracts collectors. For example, the title of TIEMPO PERDIDO refers to the text on the lilac ribbon encircling the form and to the adage, “el tiempo perdido no se recobra” (time lost is never recovered). It refers to a forgotten past in the natural world and to the remnants of a family history not told or acknowledged. The base of the form is comprised of opposing natural symbols: stylized waves reference the Atlantic crossing to the new world; cacti represent both America’s and Spain’s deserts; entwined bones pay homage to ancestors buried on both continents. The upper part of the form is clothed in a bullfighter’s bolero, a symbol of a fight to the death, while a golden painted butterfly at the neck symbolizes transformation from one form or one world to another.

Another recent piece, RECOUNTING, explores memory and remembering. The red knotted ropes on the skirt of the figure recall the quipu, an Incan method of storytelling. The quipu is a length of rope gathered, twisted, and knotted to relate specific, important information. Here, the red knotted ropes also serve metaphorically as a bloodline, a fabric woven to tell a family history. A white hand lies on the shoulder, appearing to urge the figure to look backward in time, and the cloudlike, wintry landscape at the side of the torso references the passing of time and the end of an era.

Rael-Buckley’s new work has received enthusiastic recognition. In 2005, her first year to participate in the annual Contemporary Hispanic Market in Santa Fe, she won both Best of Show and Best in Ceramics. She has continued to win awards each year since, and the state of New Mexico is considering several pieces to be displayed as part of their art in public spaces program. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally and is in both museum and private collections.

Blue Rain Gallery, Santa Fe, NM.

Upcoming show
Hybrid Nation, Costello-Childs Contemporary Fine Art, Scottsdale, AZ, April 9.

Featured in February 2009