Margaret Nes | Open to Art & Life

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Life deals in the unknown, in constantly shifting perspectives. So does art. For New Mexico-based pastel artist Margaret Nes, the intimate intertwining of life and art has always been central to her creative approach. Over the years, encounters with both tragedy and joy have underscored this connection. The result: a body of work that reflects a distinctly personal artistic vision.

One example of the interplay between experience and creativity is the artist’s series of striking, simple images of single vases in various hues. When Nes’ mother was dying five years ago, a friend brought flowers in a small, oddly shaped vase. The vase and flowers were there for the last days of her mother’s life. As a loving tribute to her mother, Nes created a still life of the vase, coloring it green against a blue background as a symbolic celebration of her life.

Six other pieces followed in the “mother vase” series, each a single vase in honor of her mother’s four daughters and two grandsons. For Nes, the vases are portraits in a non-traditional sense. Each is imbued with her feelings for the person they represent, and the color of the vase is a reflection of the loved one’s essence and what that person means to Nes.

“These vases began through my needing to express my grief for the loss of my mother,” says Nes, sipping coffee in the kitchen of her home just north of Taos. “The interesting thing about this is how, throughout my life, I’ve never really planned an artwork.”

Because inspiration arises spontaneously from Nes’ life, the result is a wide variety of subject matter—landscapes, architecture, portraits, and still lifes. Yet a unifying aesthetic reveals itself in her signature style, which features robust color in deeply worked pigments and strong, compelling forms.

The 58-year-old artist’s approach to pastels is self-taught, non-traditional, non-linear, and involves filling the entire space with color. As it turns out, that approach is characteristic of her attitude toward life as well: unconventional, creative, whole-hearted, and full of appreciation for simple pleasures.

Born in Paris in 1950, Nes was surrounded in childhood by the richness of cultures, landscapes, and art that would remain in her heart and strongly influence her own creative expression later in life. The daughter of American Foreign Service professionals, she grew up in various parts of North Africa, including Morocco, Libya, and Egypt. She absorbed the feeling of earthen architecture, semi-desert and mountainous landscapes, and ways of life far different from those of her parents’ country of birth.

At home, young Margaret absorbed her mother’s love of art. Paintings by Nes’ maternal grandmother, a California painter and photographer, moved with the family wherever they lived, along with art from her father’s side of the family and artwork her parents collected together.

Much later, as she sifted through relics of family history following the death of her parents, Nes was struck by the realization of how art had been an integral part of her life, long before she was aware of it. “As a kid you don’t pay much attention to what’s always around you,” she observes. “Now I’m really seeing it with different eyes.”

When she was 15, Nes was sent to the United States to a boarding school in Maryland, where an aunt and uncle lived. There she was introduced to pastels and the fundamentals of art. Then, as now, experimentation with the medium took precedence over a need for realistic depiction, and she delighted in working directly with pure pigments, using only her hands.

Nes intended to enroll in Boston University’s College of Fine Arts. But a visit to her grandmother in California during the summer of 1968 changed her plans. The West Coast was alive with counterculture energy, and it was a world to which Nes, at 17, was instinctively and passionately drawn. “I was totally caught up in it. I loved the gypsy life, the travel, the music,” she remembers, adding that singing and playing the guitar and other instruments were important in her life then, as they are now. At one point, “A group of friends was coming to New Mexico,” she recounts, “and I came with them.”

As the bus full of young people rolled into the mountainous, high-desert terrain of northern New Mexico, through villages whose earthen structures had an ancient, familiar feel, Nes was moved by a powerful sense of coming home. Echoes of North Africa were everywhere in the adobe architecture, the landscape, the arid air, and the strong, clear light. She soon realized there was also a connection with the age-old lifeways of Hispanic and Native peoples who had maintained their traditions and cultures. Like the hippie communes and emerging communities of counterculture enthusiasts and other artists making northern New Mexico their home, she had found a place that suited her well.

Nes settled on Lama Mountain, north of Taos. There she lived for almost 30 years. She married musician Bob Aldo, and with their own hands they built a two-story log home on the mountain, surrounded by forests of piñon and ponderosa pine. That landscape—the sentinel presence of Lama Mountain, the dramatic gash of the Rio Grande Gorge near Taos, the profound silence of immense landforms and whispering trees—informed her artistic vision and fed her soul.

In the same way, building a house provided unbounded inspiration for her imagery in pastels, which frequently featured aging adobe churches and homes. Often Nes was, and is, particularly drawn to corners, edges, rooflines, angles, and other architectural elements that evolve in her work into abstracted forms.

“I tend to need some simple concept to start with: I’ll have a craving for red or a feeling I want to capture this part of the landscape. There’s always that thread, that connection with the physical, even when the work becomes more abstract,” she explains. “I’m always surprised by what happens. It’s never what I imagined, and that’s also the exciting part.”

Surprise—not always of the pleasant kind—is an inextricable part of life as well. That fact hit home with devastating effects in the spring of 1996, when a furious, quick-moving wildfire swept over Lama Mountain. In what seemed like an instant, their home of almost three decades, including Nes’ studio and large body of artwork, went up in smoke.

In the immediate aftermath, Nes continued creating art, incorporating melted objects into a series of sculptures for a gallery show originally intended for her two-dimensional work. She and Bob waded through government red tape and eventually moved into a home—coincidentally built by an artist—closer to Taos.

Today that home, with views of massive Taos Mountain to the east and endless sky and mesa vistas to the west, contains a studio Nes set up very similarly to the one she lost. Proximity to town means she has more opportunity to indulge her love of music, including a capella singing. It means she can share recipes and heritage squash seeds with neighbors and friends. But she and Bob still long, at times, for the quiet life on the mountain. In recent years they have worked with young craftsmen and builders—including grown children of longtime Lama Mountain friends—to build a simple retreat on the foundation of what once was their home.

The new structure, naturally, has provided inspiration for new works in pastel. FLAGSTONE STEPS WITH BENCH took shape after Nes stepped outside one winter night. Looking back at a corner of the retreat under the porch light, she was struck by the sensuously curving steps and the contrast of soft-edged adobe walls against the black night.

Another piece, BRIGHT BUILDINGS IN LIGHT, captures geometric shapes and deep sunset colors, while an open guitar case and guitar against a South American weaving became GUITAR ON STRIPES. “I’m influenced by sudden visual inspiration. I can see something that I’ve seen every day, but at that moment, it strikes me in a different way,” she relates. New sights produce the same effect, as when Nes and a friend roamed back roads near Los Lunas in central New Mexico last year, encountering structures the artist translated into RED CARPORT & WALL.

“It’s always a discovery,” she says, referring both to life and to art. “I often joke that if we could live life like a work of art, we’d be in better shape: You have a blank paper, no preconceptions, no expectations—and you just see what happens. There’s a huge freedom in that. If you try to plan and predict, the mystery is gone and there’s no room for new things. It’s the unknown that keeps me going.”

She is represented by Hahn Ross Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Wilder Nightingale Fine Art, Taos, NM;

Featured in March 2009