Artist’s Studio | Randy Pijoan

Interview by Bonnie Gangelhoff, Photos by Eric Swanson

Randy painting near his studio

Describe your studio.

It’s mountain-town convenience-store tacky meets western gas station with a pinch of rugged Spanish land grant. It’s like the perfect blending of the aesthetics of New Mexico and Colorado border towns. It was, in fact, an old grocery store. When I bought the place in 2007, it was full of soda pops and cash registers. In the café area of the store I set up a table by the window for my models. I’m surrounded by wilderness in all directions, in the heart of an 80,000-acre Spanish land grant called the Rio Costilla Land Association. There’s a green valley with huge cottonwood trees, irrigated pastures, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Where do you get your models for the café scenes?

Local talent. One model I’ve used a lot is named Zlata. I’ve taken her with me to Taos to pose at local cafés and bars. She’s perfect because she has a relaxed, European air about her. Another model is Amy, an environmental attorney who works in the San Luis Valley. She’s a chameleon. She can look very professional one moment, and then, with a wardrobe change, turn sassy and fun.

Randy Pijoan painting live models

Why do you enjoy painting interiors and café scenes?

I painted night exteriors for awhile. I would stand on the street in the dark, looking into cafés as if gazing into a fish bowl. I got to see the natural, unposed human interaction. About 12 years ago in Chicago, I decided to move from the street and go inside to the interior action and artificial light. I fell in love with artificial light, from the ambiguous light of bars to the garish light of fast-food joints.

Why do you paint nocturnals?

Everything about them appeals to me—the multiple sources of artificial-light, the effects of seeing things spotlighted, and even struggling to see into the shadows. There’s more of a natural drama to nocturnal subjects, whether exterior or interior scenes. It reminds me of stage lighting. I do a lot of stage productions and theater design. Lighting and design are two things that painting and theater have in common.

Why do you have a pinball machine in your studio?

A gentleman asked me to design a war memorial he wanted to create for veterans in upper Taos County. He owned a pizza parlor down the street from me. He didn’t have any money to pay me so I said, “What’s the story with the pinball machine?” And we did a trade. Now in mid-afternoon I may take a break and play pinball. It clears my mind and resets my internal mechanism. It’s like hitting the reset button on my computer—I’m able to reboot Randy’s eyeballs. I’m always looking at color and details, so my eyes get tired before the rest of me.

Describe the Amali Inn, which you recently opened.

Plein-air painters come and stay at the inn so they can paint in this valley. It’s been kind of a well-kept secret. The building had been apartments, but once I bought it and remodeled it, I said to myself, “Heck, it will be an inn now.” It has artwork and Navajo rugs so people feel like they are staying in my home. I created an artist-in-residence program here for painters, writers, musicians, and photographers. If they have references, they can stay here rent free to work on a novel or whatever. It’s another way to give back to the next generation. I would not be where I am now without the people who helped me—like the Boulder, CO, collector who gave me studio space at the beginning of my career.

Why attracts you to the Texaco station as subject matter?

The old station is just down the street from me, and for a while I never painted it. It’s such a mundane building that I could never find the visual poetry in it. But then I found an old black Triumph convertible. Now I can do things like put two models in to create a scene—for example, of two girls lost and asking for directions.

Why did you open a second studio in San Luis, CO?

In 2003 I had a near-death experience. My neighbors found me but I spent quite a bit of time on “the other side.” There was so much bliss on the other side that when I recovered from open-heart surgery, I grew depressed and needed to do something. The only thing that felt right was to volunteer. So I volunteered at a homeless shelter, fixing toilets and washing machines. It felt so good. It made me happy. Eventually, I decided to start my own non-profit for something I was more passionate about—helping gifted but disadvantaged children. Costilla and Conejos counties, primarily Hispanic, are among the poorest in Colorado. There is a lot of poverty but there also are a lot of gifted kids. So I decided to start an open press, a printmaking facility to teach kids about art and the art business, and in April 2007 I founded Ventero Open Press. We get the kids paint, brushes, and canvases and then hook them up with art shows. We also have an art gallery with a coffee shop in the front to get people in the door. And there’s an open-mike night for musicians, poets, and other artists.

What is the Taos Art Group?

It started several months ago. An art collector from Denver decided to get together 10 artists, mostly from the Taos area, to have shows in the Blumenschein Studio Gallery, and then take the shows on the road. He wants to create a group like the Taos Society of Artists, but at the turn of this century.

Describe yourself in one word.


If your house was on fire, what one thing would you take?

I would take my Navajo rugs, books, and photographs.

Randy Pijoan in his studio

If your studio was on fire, what one thing would you take?

My grandfather’s easel. The brief story on my grandfather, Michael Pijoan, is that he was a doctor for the people and pueblos around Española, NM. He made house calls throughout the San Luis Valley and to Taos and Ghost Ranch. He was Georgia O’Keeffe’s doctor, and she would also ask him if he could care for the medical needs of her pets and animals. He was also a founding member of an artists’ group that included Peter Hurd, Gustave Baumann, and his best friend, Randall Davey, whom I’m named after. My grandfather got me painting seriously when I was just 5 years old, and he continued to coach me off and on throughout my childhood.

When you are not painting, what do you enjoy?

Hiking. Exploring pre-Columbian and Native American sites. I’m so excited about the history in this area. My great-grandfather, José Pijoan, was the poet laureate of Spain and a famous art historian in the 1920s and ’30s. He taught all over the world and wrote 26 volumes of art history. I grew up hearing stories about him, such as how he was friends with Picasso and how he once introduced Diego Rivera to [José Clemente] Orozco in California. I’ve inherited his curiosity for history.

What’s the one place people will never find you?

Wherever there are babies with dirty diapers.

Peterson-Cody Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Hilligoss Galleries, Chicago, IL; Fountainside Art Gallery, Wilmington, NC; Ventero Open Press Fine Art, San Luis, CO;

Featured in “My World” October 2010

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