Pastel artist Margi Lucena finds endless inspiration in the New Mexico landscape
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the April 2016 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art April 2016 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.
In Margi Lucena’s vision, the wide embrace of spreading limbs and branches in her painting FAMILY TREE reaches across hundreds of miles. These sturdy cottonwood limbs and delicate branches casting shadows on the snow represent the unseen connections of family—in particular, Lucena’s extended family in the La Rambla neighborhood of San Pedro, CA, where she grew up. For the past 14 years the artist has lived and worked in central New Mexico, infrequently getting back to Southern California. One day this past winter, she learned of the passing of a beloved cousin. Working quickly and with her heart absorbed in family memories, she began the striking image of a grand winter tree. She completed it the next day. “I thought about how beautiful an old tree is in the landscape, and all its roots and branches,” she remembers. “But mostly, because I was so far away, it was about those branches, and how they spread and reach.”
Although much of Lucena’s award-winning work these days focuses on pure landscape, there is often an undercurrent of human experience in her art. Living in New Mexico, in particular, has heightened her awareness and appreciation of human interaction with the landscape over time: fields that have been cultivated for centuries, stalwart old pickup trucks slowly rusting in the sun, the 120-year-old adobe house south of Socorro where she and her husband live. She has even come to appreciate the quirky charms of an aging adobe structure: “If you spill something on the kitchen floor, it’s definitely going to roll northeast,” she jokes. More seriously, she notes that in settings like these, “past and present are one.”
A few miles away from Lucena’s home is the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, where cottonwoods, willows, and shallow lakes attract thousands of sandhill cranes, geese, and other migratory birds and where Lucena frequently goes to photograph and paint. It’s a very different environment from where the 61-year-old artist grew up, and also quite different from the landscape where her career began to emerge. Lucena’s first 10 years were spent in San Pedro, where her outdoor-loving and musically inclined father worked as a lifeguard for the city of Los Angeles and spent as much time as possible painting. Lucena spent hours watching her father at his easel, quietly absorbing an understanding of things like color and light. Lucena’s mother was strongly supportive of Margi’s interest in art and of her brothers’ musical talent. “Art was just part of our life. In our house, no one thought you were wasting time if you were going after elusive things like art,” she says.
When the family moved to the Owens Valley just east of the Sierra Nevada range, Lucena discovered her own relationship with the outdoors. “I totally fell in love with the land, with those massive mountains. I connected with the landscape, and it had a big influence on the ways I looked at shapes and light. I was just a kid, but I remember noticing those things,” she says. After the family moved back to Southern California, she finished high school and met her husband. Next came 17 years in her husband’s home state of Hawaii, where they raised four children and Lucena took art classes at a local community college. While busy raising a family, the time she squeezed in for landscape and figurative painting in oils and watercolor was just for enjoyment, she says. “I didn’t dare even dream that I would have a career in art.”
But circumstances eventually allowed that dream to emerge. In 1990, Lucena’s husband’s job took the family to northeast Oklahoma. The landscape there was lovely, but more importantly, Lucena became involved in a community arts organization where she met a part-Cherokee woman and serious painter named Clesta Manley. Manley invited local artists to her large studio each week to paint with her. Recognizing Lucena’s talent, Manley took the younger artist under her wing. “It got me back into really working at art,” Lucena says.
The experience also resulted in the first formal recognition of her art. Manley encouraged Lucena to enter her first art show, and one of Lucena’s paintings took first place in the landscape category. (She recently reconnected with her former mentor—now in her 90s—and was pleased to learn she is still painting.) Since that first honor, Lucena has gone on to earn numerous regional and national awards. Among the most recent: first place in the 2015 MasterWorks of New Mexico show, a Special Media Award from the Pastel Society of New Mexico in 2014, a Special Recognition Award from PleinAir Moab in 2014, and the Outstanding Pastel in the 2014 BoldBrush Painting Competition.
New Mexico’s diverse, magnificent landscape became the focus of Lucena’s art after she moved to the Socorro area in 2002 to be near her father, who was living there. New Mexico is also where she connected with pastel, which has become her medium of choice. In Socorro she met artists Natasha Isenhour, Skeeter Leard, and others and soon was painting with them. Before long she was part owner of Fullingim-Isenhour & Leard Galleries, which later became a gallery and studio space called Curious Crow. After running the gallery/studio for about a dozen years, Lucena and her partners closed the business to concentrate on their own art. Today her studio is a converted sunroom at her rural home, where cottonwoods spread their branches and noisy cranes fly over the wide Rio Grande Valley and cluster in nearby fields.
During her first couple of years in New Mexico, Lucena continued to paint in oils and watercolors. But several of her artist friends worked primarily in pastels, and she was intrigued, having previously used pastels only as accents in watercolor works. When a friend gave her an extensive set of Great American Artworks soft pastels, she quickly became hooked. “I loved what the colors did. I like laying one color on top of another—with a little swipe you can hit something with light,” she says. As she taught herself to apply a direct medium, she became increasingly excited about the freedom to work loosely yet still retain control. She further honed her approach by painting on archival hard board, rather than paper. She prepares the board by brushing on a gritty primer in random strokes. “I can add more pumice to it, or leave it. I can make it as messy or as smooth as I want,” she says. The energetic patterns of texture on the board’s surface give her finished work an appearance that some viewers initially mistake for oils. Yet the brush strokes are generally laid down well before the artist has decided on the image she will paint on top of them.
While much of Lucena’s early work was figurative, these days it’s the landscape that “really turns my wheels,” she says. “The amazing and magical landscape of New Mexico keeps me simultaneously grounded and floating on air. The light, atmosphere, and color in the Southwest are constantly changing.” Partly as a result of these ever-shifting elements—and the fact that Lucena often works on location—she enjoys painting quickly. “I like to see results. I have to slow myself down sometimes,” she admits. But one benefit of working on hard board is that if she’s not satisfied with the results, her painting surface is very forgiving; she can wash off all or part of it and start again.
Lucena’s ever-active creative impulse has also led her to explore a very different artistic form—bronze sculpture. Modeling figures in clay, she approaches this work primarily for her own pleasure, although a neighbor was so impressed that she commissioned the artist to create a table-top-size sculpture of her late husband on his horse. “I love sculpting because it’s using my hands directly, like pastels,” she says. “It’s like painting in 3-D.”
In another recent shift, Lucena has begun scaling up her work. While her plein-air pieces remain smaller, her newest studio paintings measure up to 36 by 48 inches. One such piece is THE TURNING, a serene yet radiant image of cottonwoods at the Bosque del Apache in fall, their rich colors and the brilliant blue sky reflected in the still water of a small lake. “I’ve painted that same spot several times,” she says. “This time I was drawn to the contrast between the leaves and the reflection of deep sky in the water, those opposites, the blues and reds.” In the same way, whenever Lucena is out driving or walking in her favorite New Mexico landscapes, her eye is inevitably caught by visual aspects of the land that reflect its preciousness to her. “When I’m looking at something to paint, it’s something I want to keep seeing,” she says. “I’m wanting to capture and keep that, and I’m hoping to come close to expressing what it’s showing me—the beauty, and how important that is.”
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