Creating Art on the Land
Two Silver City artists who find inspiration outdoors.
Not all artists make highly designed and verdant gardens like the one impressionist painter Claude Monet called his "true masterpiece." For those like Carlene Roters and Jeffrey Smith, it is the natural landscape that dominates their artistic vision.
Where Jeff Smith lives he can see the forest for the trees. On his wooded land south of Silver City, where ravens, rabbits and coveys of Gambel's quail scurry among the underbrush, Smith's clay raven sited atop a pole is nuanced ornamentation
Calling Smith's three-acre domain a garden is a misnomer. Although he has made vegetable gardens in other places, including one in Phoenix, the preponderance of rodents and deer on the site makes gardening a bit far-fetched. So these days, his only contact with seed is the bird seed purchased for the quail.
"I do manage to keep a nice pot of mint on the upper balcony," Smith says.
His non-garden features an untwisted view of four century plants, the tips of their spires in blossom, that stand sentinel over the property. There is also the less-flashy presence of juniper, pine, shrub oak and cholla cacti that consort as backdrop for the passive-solar house that Smith's late father built 30 years ago.
In this setting, the forms that Smith molds from clay become land, not garden, art.
The land and being outdoors have been constants in Smith's life. He grew up hiking in Cloudcroft's Sacramento Mountains.
"When my two dogs see me put on my boots, they go crazy — knowing we'll soon be hiking together," he says.
A retired Arizona bureaucrat, Smith describes his former life in social services as "precise, regulatory and the opposite of my art thing."
Clay claimed his interest five years ago at WNMU, where he studied first with retired professor emeritus Claude Smith, and the last two years with assistant professor Jessica Wilson.
He became displeased with throwing on the wheel and decided to focus on hand-building instead. "Jessica suggested that l make a totem as a wonderful way to express my love of birds and natural forms."
As part of the university's clay program, Jeff Smith has participated in several extracurricular field trips to Mata Ortiz, Mexico, and collects the work of some of those potters.
This month he travels farther afield — to Japan — where, accompanied by one of his grandsons, Smith plans to "check out the ancient kilns and the ceramic culture park in Shigaraki."
When he returns, Smith says, "there will still be time to catch the Clay Festival and also go camping at Mount Graham near Safford, Ariz."
Clay classes resume in mid-August — meaning that by Thanksgiving, the critters on the Smith property may be mingling with more totems celebrating their presence.
Silver City artist Carlene Roters lives on an arroyo, and her observations of nature predominate in her painting, sculpture and printmaking. She believes "gardening in the southwest should be an extension of nature."
Interactions with wildlife occur frequently. Once, Roters noticed her "two pet cats behaving anxiously — running from window to window." Looking outside, she saw a bobcat asleep under one of the bird feeders. "He slept there about three hours, content as can be."
A century plant (Agave Americana) in bloom near Carlene Roters’ arroyo. The plant has naturalized throughout the southwest and blooms in several colors. (Photo: Vivian Savitt)
One night, she and her husband heard a deer screaming in distress — perhaps under attack by a mountain lion. Over a period of days, they observed its carcass consumed by coyote, raven and hovering turkey vultures.
Less-dramatic intervals also transpire on the Roters' eight acres facing a ridge — like watching birds building nests. One species found a cozy home in a sculptured head on the patio. Others use the hats that Roters assembles from dried plants and places atop a Zoe Wolf sculpture, "Earth Mother," as a kind of Home Depot for nest-building material.
Images of Roters' beloved fauna and flora also found their way into the piece de resistance of the patio garden: her 23-foot-long wall.
Plantings for such dazzling hardscape or art must complement, not compete. Hardy vinca, nandina and pots of succulents were worked around the wall to serve that purpose.
The Roters also planted a large pine tree on the patio to assure privacy and enhance the tranquility that shade provides.
Floral images portrayed on the wall mirror those found on the land, including coyote gourds (Cucurbita palmata) — happy in the arroyo's sandy terrain and bestowing yellow blooms in gratitude for monsoon showers.
Carlene Roters’ 23-by-8-foot wall of glazed and glass tiles plus mirrored mosaics appears to reflect the arroyo behind it. The top scalloped portion was sculpted from foam and strengthened with rebar. (Photos: Vivian Savitt)
Requested as a 65th birthday present, the wall ultimately took Roters three years to complete. She describes the process on her website, paraphrased below:
The glazing and using a gas-fired kiln were so new for me; I could never quite predict what the outcome would be for the tile colors I created. It took me a month, literally, to cut the thousands of mirror pieces. The color glass tile for fill changed my design one more time. Sculpting the wall top out of foam and rebar was an education in construction and a lesson in persistence. It again changed my design.
Another daunting task was moving the huge mural off the floor of her second-story studio to the patio wall downstairs. This had to be done in segments — sometimes on cookie sheets, sometimes on wide taped strips. Carolyn White, a tile installer, assisted in this effort, which included grouting — while Lee Gruber, Syzygy Tile owner, advised on materials.
Certainly Roters' talent and training aided in the accomplishment of this feat. Both her parents were artists of standing. She also taught college-level art for many years. Inspired by tile muralist Isaiah Zeger's "Magic Gardens" in Philadelphia, Roters took a workshop with him. Zeger is renowned for creating visionary art environments.
As for Roters' personal vision, when the early afternoon sun illuminates the wall's mosaic mirrors — and her tile ravens, great horned owls, turkey vultures and other creatures and plants — the reflection transports the arroyo onto the patio as one glorious illusion.
See the preview of this month's Silver City Clay Festival in the Arts Exposure section. Carlene Roter is represented by Blue Dome Gallery in Silver City.
Vivian Savitt gardens at Ditch Cottage in Silver City.