Margaret Nes

The Wizard, pastel, 13 x 203⁄4. painting, southwest art
The Wizard, pastel, 13 x 203⁄4.

By Sally Eauclaire

Margaret Nes smiles about the number of painters who come to her crying, “Help! I don’t know what I’m doing.” Without missing a beat she replies, “Of course you don’t. You’ve never done this painting before!” In her art and in her life, Nes’ motto is, “Be here now.”

Never interested in riding the fast track to success which sooner or later sends many career-obsessed artists skidding into a ditch Nes clearly does not believe in worrying. At 46, she remains an unpretentious woman who is pleased by her success but not swayed by it. She favors big hats, sandals and dresses reminiscent of the counterculture. Speaking quietly of living on the land and finding peace amid the rush of modern life, her homespun wisdom is gained from experience and deepened by Buddhism.

Late Night Cafe, pastel, 131⁄2 x 121⁄2. painting southwest art.
Late Night Cafe, pastel, 131⁄2 x 121⁄2.

In her teens and 20s, Nes hitchhiked and lived an alternative lifestyle, first on the beaches of California, then riding into northern New Mexico on an old bus full of hippies. When she arrived in Lama, NM, her heart leapt. Nearly 30 years later, she still lives in northern New Mexico, making stark, flatly colored, hard-edged near-abstractions of old adobe homes, churches, courtyards and clear skies. “Buildings are fun for me,” she says. “For years, they’ve been my mantra.”

Nes cannot say exactly why that is so, but she wagers that as the daughter of an American foreign-service officer, she must have wanted a place to call home. “I’ve always been curious about where people live and the spaces they create to live in. People create unique environments more than other sentient beings. It’s a human trait.”

Born in Paris in 1950, Nes grew up in Morocco, Libya and Egypt and was sent to an American boarding school at the age of 15. The school provided the next best thing to a home an art class where she could play music, dance and sip tea. “I had no talent in art whatsoever. There was no question of that. Or of the fact that I wanted to be in that room!”

Little House With White Door, pastel, 173⁄4 x 221⁄2. painting, southwest art.
Little House With White Door, pastel, 173⁄4 x 221⁄2.

Having grown up around the Arabic architecture of North Africa, Nes was predisposed to appreciate New Mexican adobes with their sensuous shapes and curves. “Don’t you love the way the shapes resemble the landscape or a human body? Adobe does that.”

She particularly enjoys painting adobe ruins such as those at Pecos National Monument. “Even though the buildings have long been deserted, they carry the sense of people coming together there,” she says quietly. “You don’t know whether you’re inside or outside. I find that uncertainty haunting.”

By homing in on deceptively simple spaces, Nes finds her themes: the oppositions of light and dark, flat and round, angles and curves, symmetry and asymmetry, form and vacuum. Odd croppings and fragments prove more provocative than complete objects; details give promise of multiple possibilities. Colors are subtle or garish, rarely in between; color combinations tend to be “off,” with a bit of an edge. As a formula, Nes’ style could turn facile and decorative, yet she maintains a surprising intensity in images that seem imbued with inexplicable mystery and drama.

The Infante of Delight, pastel, 191⁄4 x 191⁄8. painting, southwest art.
The Infante of Delight, pastel, 191⁄4 x 191⁄8.

Physically, the deceptively simple pastels require a tremendous amount of hard work. Proof of this is seen in Nes’ fingers, which are cracked and worn from rubbing and smoothing the pigments into the matte board. “I feel like I’m shaping the building, finishing adobe. It’s all done with my hands,” she says. “Most artists talk about heart and mind. They’re very important, but for me, art also has to be physical.”

Physically, emotionally and spiritually, 1996 has been a rough year for Nes. The two-story log home she and husband Bob Aldo built with their own hands burned in New Mexico’s spring 1996 wildfires. With it went many of Nes’ pastels and proof of her rich and varied history. All that survived was a 1966 pickup, a sweat lodge and, remarkably, some presents from Nes’ four sisters, including a yellow ceramic pig turned blue by the fire.

Nes is not a New Ager who waxes on about the “opportunity to grow spiritually” afforded by this disaster, though she has photographic proof of the appearance of a pink heart that formed in the smoke plume shortly before her home went up in flames.  “I’ve never been one to think that the goal of life on earth is to be without suffering. That’s very Buddhist. If no pain were the goal, we’d all be escapists or addicted to something.”

Electric Bowl, pastel, 153⁄4 x 191⁄2.
Electric Bowl, pastel, 153⁄4 x 191⁄2.

Already weary of endless meetings with government officials, paperwork and voluminous red tape, Nes does not know yet whether she and Aldo will rebuild or just move on. As a first step in her healing journey, she created a series of “fire sculptures” from burned objects such as film canisters and stovepipes. “This melted beautifully,” she says, pointing to the fused metal parts of a camera. Several 55-gallon oil drums blew up in the same way, she says, adding that they now resemble beached whales.

Nes’ fire sculptures and a series of photographs of the blaze and aftermath were exhibited during her summer 1996 solo exhibition at Edith Lambert Gallery in lieu of the many pastels that went up in smoke. Although she grabbed a few paintings including a serene view of a rural barn little could be saved. With black humor, Nes points to a post-fire photograph displayed in the gallery that shows her poking around in the ashes. “Looking for Bob,” she jokes. That they both survived is a blessing they are very much aware of. Hold the Baby, the first painting she completed after the fire, sums up her attitude: Pay attention to what’s really important. Let go of the rest. Enjoy what you have, but don’t be too attached to it.

Margaret Nes. photo, southwest art
Margaret Nes

Nes describes herself as “too undisciplined to be a traditional practicing Buddhist.” Nonetheless, she has referenced bardo boats (Buddhist symbols of the crossover from life into death) in works commemorating the death of her close friend, artist Bill Gersh. Nes undoubtedly saw the boats as vehicles for movement, change and growth. On a more humorous note, she painted What Will the Angels Do With Gersh, a portrait of Gersh smoking a cigarette and holding a heart-shaped palette. “It’s gold because I see him in the sun. He is so soulful.”

However iconic the portraits appear, they are very intimate pieces for Nes. “That’s why I don’t do a lot of them,” she explains. “I call them portraits but they’re not specific likenesses. They always take on their own life, with my feelings determining the piece.” Of The Infante of Delight, Nes says, “The feeling I wanted was that sense of sheer delight children have. The little boy was playing with a huge woolen hat. Otherwise the outfit is mostly made up the whole thing is a spoof on the Renaissance.” Similarly, The Wizard depicts a young man dressed in robes: “He really would like to be the wizard,” she says affectionately.

Bright Colored Boats for Bill, pastel, 201⁄4 x 291⁄4. painting southwest art.
Bright Colored Boats for Bill, pastel, 201⁄4 x 291⁄4.

Many of Nes’ images have a rhythmic quality, like the swing of curves and points, glissandos and staccatos of Bright Colored Boats for Bill. “I close my eyes when I listen to music and see it in motion,” she says. Few viewers realize that music, not art, was Nes’ first love. An amateur folk musician, she plays the accordion, guitar and auto-harp and is married to a rhythm-and-blues musician who was for many years the DJ of a black gospel show.

While Nes’ subjects are objective, nothing in the pictures is literal. “I pursue abstract shapes in a flash they will appear,” she says. “In lines and shapes, angles and curves, we can see ourselves, our essence.”

Nes’  belief that art and life should be an adventure has led to new techniques. Her first collages came about when she cut up pastels that didn’t work. Of her monotypes she says, “They are the only time I really get to play with paint. I almost always do ‘double drops’ so I can have a whole layer of color on top of something.” The effect of overpainting was so amazing to Nes that she has since used it as a technique in her pastels.

Passageway, pastel, 231⁄4 x 19.
Passageway, pastel, 231⁄4 x 19.

Whatever the result, Nes learns and grows from it. “Ten years of poverty teaches patience. Building that house taught me patience big-time. It taught me to deal with the elements at hand, which could be a crooked board or a bent nail. It’s been the same thing with art. A mistake can lead to something you never envisioned. You set out and work at it until it pleases you. People experience so much angst over whether or not something is on the cutting edge. I’ve never understood that anxiety I’ve always painted for myself.”

As before the fire, Nes still believes that art keeps her together. “I don’t fit into the destructive, disconnected, rushed modern lifestyle. I believe it’s part of our very humanity to be creative. To be human is to draw and dance and make music. It shouldn’t be relegated to artists. I don’t feel that it’s a special thing to be an artist, but I do feel very, very lucky to be a part of that culture.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Edith Lambert Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Dartmouth Street Gallery, Albuquerque, NM; and Collins-Petit Gallery, Taos, NM.

Featured in March 1997