Ann Huston, Vadito , pastel, 20 x 16.
By Gussie Fauntleroy
Sometimes Ed Sandoval and Ann Huston load their art supplies into a boxy, aging motor home and wind along the northern New Mexico back roads until they catch sight of an old adobe church or house or some quirk in the landscape that grabs them. The Taos-based husband and wife artists then go about capturing the scene, each in their own unique fashion.
Seen side by side, their finished paintings clearly portray the same weathered building or juniper-covered hill but how differently they do so. The two artists always smile as they watch a viewer’s gaze move with amazement back and forth between their works of art. How interesting, one might observe, that two kindred spirits see so differently.
In other ways as well the two are quite different. Sandoval was raised in New Mexico, Huston in Vermont. He works in oil, she pastel. His manner is colorful and energetic, hers more quiet and still. Are we hearing the old adage that opposites attract?
Ed Sandoval, Life In Truchas , oil, 30 x 24.
Sandoval grew up at the tail end of what he calls the “old days” in northern New Mexico, when life moved to the steady clop of the work horse he occasionally rode as a boy or the rumble of the ’51 Chevy pickup now permanently parked outside his studio. He heard stories of the even older days when donkeys carrying loads of wood were urged along the town of Nambé’s dirt streets by patient old men. These images along with the fresh aroma of warm tortillas on a wood cookstove, the sound of laughter around the family table, the bite of the winter mountain air and burn of the summer sun—are alive in his memory.
“Aliveness” is an understatement for the vibrant, animated quality of Sandoval’s oils. Starting with a bright-red undercoat that sets off the passion of his other colors, he paints movement: skies that swirl, chamisa bushes that dance, roads and footpaths that curve, and shadows that stretch.
He is currently working on a painting commissioned by a collector in London that contains all the elements characteristic of his work: An old man with a walking stick hobbles along a country road, a guitar-strumming man strolling behind him. Beside the road are an aging church and an abandoned, round-hooded truck, and mountains loom in the distance.
Ann Huston, Anciano (The Old Place) , pastel, 22 x 28.
“The collector wanted the chamisa, the viejito [old man], the musician, the truck, and the church. He wanted the whole enchilada,” Sandoval says, smiling. He points to a detail in the painting. “I always put a little spirit in it. See, in the old man’s shadow? His heart.” A lighter-shaded, heart-shaped patch stands out against the dark of the stooped man’s shadow. Sandoval, animated and vibrant himself, points to another detail. “The viejito’s got a bottle in his pocket,” he says, chuckling, “for medicinal purposes.”
As he paints, Sandoval combines stories and recollections of the old days with the buildings and land he sees around him now. “It’s like making a great cake,” he says of the process. “You bring all this stuff together and then you throw in your own magic, your own style, and your own expression, and it comes together as your own painting.”
Ed Sandoval, Chili Field , oil, 38 x 48.
When Huston portrays a similar landscape or old adobe church, using layered and smoothly blended pastels on extremely fine sandpaper, a different aspect of timelessness emerges. Her works are not intense and dramatic but soft and haunting, with a quiet glow and sense of serene solidity.
“Ann’s paintings are like dreams,” her husband says. “They capture the whispering moment of the landscape with an absence of people.” “But the presence of people is there,” Huston adds, her own manner as gentle as her husband’s is impassioned.
Particularly in Huston’s images of interiors—sparse rooms containing few objects—the spirit of the one who lives there lingers as if she (Huston often thinks of this presence as a female) had just stepped into another room. She remembers an old adobe house she rented once where she was aware of the quiet presence of the deceased elderly woman whose home it had been. It was a comforting, not dark, presence, the artist says, like the unobtrusive but ubiquitous spirit of faith in New Mexico. If a small cross or picture of the Virgin Mary hangs on a wall in one of her paintings, or if she creates many images of small adobe churches, it is because that is the steady underpinning of life here as she has come to know it.
Ed Sandoval and Ann Huston.
Huston came to New Mexico from rural northern Vermont, making her first visit to Taos in 1975. The daughter of a graphic artist, she grew up in the company of art, drawing, and painting. Weaving eventually captured her attention, and for a number of years she created Rio Grande-style tapestry weavings in the studio of Taos weaver Rachel Brown. Then, about 12 years ago, Huston began working with pastels, a medium she had always admired. Using her fingers to apply and blend the pigments suits her well, as does the purity of color, she says. But there’s something else.
“When I was a kid I liked the idea that anybody could pick up a pencil and paper and put down their feelings,” she says. “It’s so beautiful that that’s available to anybody. To me, pastel is the same thing: It’s direct; it continues that feeling. You just pick it up and start.”
Ann Huston, The Last Supper , pastel, 22 x 28.
Huston’s process, however, is anything but quick. She spends hours blending and rubbing to create a delicate, muted subtlety of color and soft edges. Because she works on sandpaper, the finished painting needs no fixative, thus eliminating the dulling, flattening effect of the spray. Instead, exquisitely fine crystals of pure pigment sparkle here and there on the surface of the painting.
Huston works in a studio at the couple’s adobe home, which Sandoval built, having made his living as an adobe contractor before settling full time into art. She often paints at night after finishing supper with her husband and their 8-year-old son. Her attention is quiet and inward. “I like to focus. Give me a plate of food, and I’ll eat all of one thing and then go on to another,” she says.
Ed Sandoval, The Healing Room , oil, 20 x 16.
Sandoval, on the other hand, paints by the light of day in the couple’s gallery/studio, Studio de Colores, near Taos Plaza. Visitors and collectors are welcome to watch, and Sandoval enjoys the attention and company while he paints.
Sometimes Sandoval and Huston both work in the home studio, and on those occasions Sandoval is likely to have his portable tape player turned up so high that Huston can hear the twang of country western music coming from his earphones. Yet with all his exuberance and energy, Sandoval has a deep reverence for the gifts of remembrance and strong cultural heritage that are an integral part of his life and art. In the winter he often rises as early as 4 a.m. to paint. He draws on a strong creative and spiritual energy during the quiet hours when others are asleep. That’s when the ghosts of the past, of the old days, can be most clearly felt, he says; it’s when the old man, in his dark coat and hat, leans on his cane and remembers.
In the past the two artists have shown their work in other galleries, but now they are focusing on their own gallery and on commission work. Huston, who has earned top awards in the semiannual Taos Arts Festival, has been selected as the poster artist for the fall 1999 festival. Sandoval’s award-winning work also has been featured on numerous posters, most recently on the poster for the 1998 Taos Talking Picture Festival as well as the cover of the event’s official program.
Ed Sandoval, Long Walk Home , oil, 24 x 30.
Despite their distinctly different sensibilities, Huston and Sandoval find inspiration from many of the same sources. “It’s sort of a triangle: the architecture, people, and the earth,” Sandoval says. “It’s surprising. You can be driving along the highway and something catches your eye and you stop, and it becomes an incredible spot that a lot of people wouldn’t likely have noticed.”
Huston nods. “Even just driving around doing errands or taking my son to school, I may notice a tree or a field or a house I’ve passed many times before,” she says. “In a sense I feel like part of me has grown up here, having come here when I was 17. For me, there’s a natural connection. I think you have to be in New Mexico a while to absorb it, to know there’s green in that adobe, even purple. I think I learned a lot by quietly absorbing. Every day that I go out I think that I understand more. It opens up; a light comes on.”
Outside the home studio, the wind has picked up as storm clouds blow in over the Taos Mountains. Sandoval walks to the edge of a small rise where the land drops off above a narrow road. He shouts, and from the far side of the field across the road the couple’s four horses come racing, thundering through the wind. They stop at the fence nearest the road, ears up.
Huston leans against the sturdy, rounded hood of the pale turquoise ’51 Chevy. As different as she and her husband are, she says, and as different as their artistic styles are, they are making the same statement. They are both telling stories and leaving the ending open. “We capture a feeling, a time and a place, but we don’t give all the answers; we don’t lock it in,” she says. “You, the viewer, finish it, and I think that’s a really nice gift.”
Photos courtesy the artists and Studio de colores.
Featured in June 1999