The light and shadow of Shelbee Mares.
By EDWIN DANIELS
My father always told me that the only real movies were Westerns,"
Taos painter Shelbee Mares recalls. "I spent a great deal of my
childhood winters in Maine watching Western films. He also insisted
that the Southwest was the only place in the country worth exploring
after Maine. So when I was old enough to be on my own I came out here
to decide for myself."
Mares managed to develop a broader taste in cinema by the time she arrived
in the Southwest, but she also found her father's awe of New Mexico's
sun country justified. Rather than succumbing to the allure of high
plains drifters, trading posts and smoking chimeras, Mares discovered
something beyond the West's charm and mythology. She found instead characters
of contrary nature and overwhelming impactlight, color, atmosphere,
movement and shadow.
"There is an essence here," Mares believes, "that you
will find nowhere else. It is an ever-changing abstraction of the visual
senses, a purity, and I love pure abstraction. It's the way I see.
"When I look at Taos Mountain I am seeing it from all sides and
at all angles. When I see St. Francis Church I see light and movement
and color. It's like watching a dance."
Mares's paintings reflect the duality of an artist bound by simple realities
and freed by the transitory nature of light and the shadow. It is present
in the pause of window frames and grottos and doorways, and in the startling
absence of gravity inhabiting her canvases. Often Mares's work departs
from representation completely, sweeping the viewer into a whirlwind
of action and surrounding them with an intoxicating glow of spectral
Mares attributes her unique perception to her mother who gave her a
keen sense of light and color. "My mother showed me how to look
at something and actually see it," she reveals. "We would
sit in the grass and examine all the intricate aspects of a flowerthe
color, the shadow, the shape. Then she would point to the grass and
ask me if I saw the blue and the yellow shades. At first I could only
see green. But as she explained how colors are composed and how light
reflects and what shadows are made of I began to see the world as an
artist would see it. I couldn't have asked for a better education."
Mares launched her painting career at an early agechoosing flowers
as her subject matter. But many years would pass before she took the
leap from Maine to Taos and committed her life to art.
"My sister and I began visiting the southwest in the 1980s. We
would stay in Albuquerque and spend the days driving and sketching.
I remember the first time we tried to make it to Taos. We spent so much
time painting and drawing along the way that we only made it as far
as the lookout above the gorge. We never made it into town. "Then
my sister made a big decision. She moved to Albuquerque and tried to
make it as an artist. I continued to work day jobs in Maine, paint as
a hobby and attend art school at the University of Southern Maine. I
watched her make art and starve, and I thought it was just too hard
a life for me. I really learned from her what not to do."
Mares would wait until she found herself in a condition completely unrelated
to art before she began to paint full timeas a newlywed. "My
husband Art is from Taos," Mares explains with a smile. "I
think that's the perfect relationship for me. As soon as we were married
he told me that it was time to focus on my painting. I certainly wasn't
going to argue with him. It was a blessing. He gave me this freedom
to become a full-fledged artist. I had never been able to do that on
"But it was a real challenge at firstbeing married and trying
to paint on a regular basis instead of just when I felt inspired or
had a moment to spare. My sister stepped in and showed me the way. First
she gave me a quote from Mark Twain that I have learned to live by:
'Don't wait for inspiration. Go after it with a club.' Then she started
giving me work."
Mares's sister had persevered through lean times and built a solid business
providing abstract original art and prints on paper to a broad range
"She would have me prepare her paper by applying wild colors and
textures on it and then whitewashing it," Mares explains. "That
provided her with something interesting to paint on and gave the paintings
a subtle but rich background. And it gave me the incentive to start
painting with regularity and discipline. She also taught me to be fearless,
to use the paint as texture and to pair colors together that you never
expect to see. She showed me how to be free with the paint."
Family has always been an integral aspect of Mares's creativity, helping
to define and balance her world. "I believe in the balance of life,"
she affirms. "Kids, family, art, day-to-day livingthey all
mean something to me and all of them require care and attention. The
balance of the family teaches me so much, and the things that I learn
reflect in my painting. One part helps fulfill the other and makes me
Mares's sensitivity to the needs and emotions of those around her has
assisted her in establishing an important bond between artist and collector.
"I like creating work for people who see beauty in what they have,
or in where they live, and want to have it captured on canvas,"
"I recall spending a day with a wonderful collector in her home.
It was a lovely home with doors opening right through the middle of
the adobe courtyard and all the way through the house. So my painting
focused on those open doorways and the way the light created this peaceful
inviting atmosphere as it passed through their home.
When the collector saw the painting she was extremely happy with it
because it reminded her of something her rabbi had told her and her
husbandthat their doors would always be open. She felt like the
painting was a perfect reflection of that aspect of their lives. I love
to touch a collector's life on such a personal level with my painting.
It is a wonderful thing to make happen."
Like many Taos artists Mares's sensitivity, dedication and the support
of parents and grandparents have helped her survive difficult times.
Resources were often scarce and Mares painted in her kitchen for the
first several years of marriage. But she insists that if an artist really
wants to paint he or she will paint anywhere. Her diligence was finally
rewarded with a small bright studio hand built by her husband. Art constructed
a room for his wife with walls of solid windows, a perfect place for
a painter whose stock-in-trade is sun and shade.
In many ways it is light and motion rather than flowers or the adobe
walls of Taos that dominate Mares's iconography. Severed from the bonds
of representation her efforts illuminate the drama and action of pure
painting. Like her father's devotion to romance writ large across the
expanse of the desert plains, Mares's canvases examine the mythology
of movement and celebrate the discovery of unknown territory. Her gifts
lie in the brushstrokes that explore emotions and dreams and devotions,
defining and resolving those challenges that extend above and beyond
the architecture of our simple world.
Michael McCormick Gallery, 106 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, is the exclusive
representative of Shelbee Mares and will open an exhibit of her new
works Memorial Day weekend. 758-1372 or 800/279-0879. www.mccormickgallery.com.
Edwin Daniels is a frequent contributor to Taos Magazine and author
of Ghostdancing - Sacred Medicine and the Art of JD Challenger.
TAOS MAGAZINE March/April 2001
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