The 2013 Governor’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts

Art Stars Aligning

In a state like New Mexico, where artistic expression comes to so many about as naturally as breathing, there are myriad people and organizations within the arts community worthy of praise. Since their establishment in 1974, the Governor’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts have honored 276 artists and arts supporters for contributing something meaningful and lasting to the cultural fabric of the Land of Enchantment.

This month we spotlight four of the seven 2013 award recipients: 100-year-old folksinger Jenny Vincent, of Taos; painter Darren Vigil Gray and ceramist Frank Willett, both of Santa Fe; and the Mimbres Regional Arts Council, based in Silver City. In the October issue, we’ll cover painter-printmaker Edward Gonzales, of Rio Rancho; painter-furniture maker Jim Wagner, of Taos; and potter and arts educator Aria Finch, of Roswell.

Jenny Vincent, Folk Musician

Born in Minnesota in 1913 and raised in Chicago, musician and longtime Taos resident Jenny Vincent was introduced to international folk music at a very early age. She graduated with a degree in piano and composition from Vassar College before visiting New Mexico with her first husband, Dan Wells, in the mid-1930s.

“That was sort of the spark,” says Larry Vincent, Jenny’s son with her second husband, Craig Vincent. “My mother fell in love with New Mexico after visiting Taos at the request of Frieda Lawrence [widow of writer D.H. Lawrence], although her love of music started before all of it.”

Following her ear helped propel Vincent into what would become her life’s biggest passion: preserving the musical and Hispanic heritage of New Mexico. It began in 1936, when Vincent and Wells purchased a ranch property near the village of San Cristobal, near Taos, and transformed it into San Cristobal Valley School, the town’s first high school. “She was also approached by a teacher from Questa who didn’t want her Spanish-speaking students to lose any of their culture,” Craig says. “Teaching in Spanish and speaking Spanish in school wasn’t allowed, but my mother had made up her mind and started to perform at schools around the state. No one ever said singing in Spanish was a crime!” he laughs.

Jenny Vincent traveled throughout the state, playing traditional songs and recording them for posterity. Without her, according to Enrique Lamadrid, chairman of the Spanish and Portuguese department at the University of New Mexico, much of the traditional music of New Mexico would be lost, if not to time and indifference, then to the social inequities of the period that disenfranchised farmers, Latinos, and Native Americans—inequities that Vincent railed against and sang about alongside other musician activists, including Pete Seeger and Malvina Reynolds.

Vincent recorded two of her own albums, Spanish American Children’s Songs and Spanish Folk Songs of the Americas; created a Taos-based radio program to highlight New Mexican music; and established the Taos Recording and Publishing Company. She also performed for three decades in one of one of New Mexico’s most notable folk ensembles, Trio de Taos.

Jenny Vincent still gathers with friends every Tuesday at her Taos retirement home to perform with other musicians, and her archive of recordings and written materials has been donated to UNM’s Zimmerman Library.

Darren Vigil Gray, Visual Artist

One of painter Darren Vigil Gray’s favorite quotes, found in a sketchbook created by former mentor and late Kiowa–Caddo painter T.C. Cannon, begins, “Tradition is not necessarily a remnant of the past that goes on and on . . .”

It’s a sentiment that Vigil Gray (Jicarilla Apache–Kiowa Apache) still finds helpful when describing what he sees as his rightful place in the art world. Often touted as one of the “golden boys” in a third wave of Native American artists redefining traditional Native art, Gray considers himself lucky to have been exposed to art and music at an early age through life on the powwow circuit. But he wanted more experience, and deeper connections to artists off the reservation.

After a visit to the Institute for American Indian Arts at the age of 15, Vigil Gray left the Jicarilla Apache Indian Reservation to study in IAIA’s high school program, then went on to attend art classes at the University of New Mexico and the College of Santa Fe. Today Gray, 54, is a grandfather. His perspective on his life as an artist hasn’t changed much over the years, however.

“There was a fork in the road for me early in my career: become commercially accessible right away, which is easy by sticking to the Native-art formulas of the day, or spend a little time starving. I starved; but I didn’t starve my integrity.”

Vigil Gray’s expressionist portraits and dreamscapes, brimming with spontaneous brush work, are ripe with mythological symbols and subtle references to Native American iconography. His process, which he sometimes refers to as “a journey through chaos,” produces sublime imagery that transcends Native clichés without denying his cultural roots.

As an internationally celebrated painter who mentors budding artists of all ages, Vigil Gray passes along to students another lesson from T.C. Cannon. “I tell them to create their own mythology. I remind them that there’s a difference between the traditions of your ancestors and the traditions of your own creative mind and spirit. I know very few artists who are happy knowing just one or the other.”

Vigil Gray is represented by Kristin Johnson Fine Art, in Santa Fe. (505) 699-6576; kjfagallery.com

Frank Willett, Ceramist

Potter Frank Willett’s earliest memory of clay is of squishing it between his fingers and toes as a little boy along the Columbia River, near where his father worked on the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam, in central Washington.

Willett received a master’s degree in fine art from California State University at Los Angeles, and taught high school art in California while building up a successful stoneware-manufacturing business. In 1971, lured by New Mexico’s natural beauty and what he describes as “the people who were my kind of nuts during that era,” Willett abandoned the security of his teaching job and moved his stoneware business to Santa Fe.

His Santa Fe Pottery shop and studio on Guadalupe Street, now closed, was the perfect location for him and his wife of 30 years, fellow ceramist and frequent collaborator Luisa Baldinger, to sell their popular manufactured forms (such as the sleek yet organic architectural light fixtures they produce under the brand name Santa Fe Lights) and functional, eloquently executed, hand-thrown pieces. (They now operate a Web-based gallery, sunridgepottery.com.) Willett’s kiln-fired bowls, pitchers, teapots, and covered jars range from playful to stylish. One piece may be perfect for an elegant table setting, while another may seem more appropriate for a country cabin. Willett’s flexibility in the studio, and his ability to mimic in clay the colors and shapes of New Mexico’s skies and landscapes, have earned him a devoted following.

In the 1970s, Willett was also a co-founder of the New Mexico Potters and Clay Artists organization, which continues to develop and foster educational programs and arrange exhibitions for ceramists of all ages.

Mimbres Region Art Council (MRAC),Major Contributor to the Arts

Now in its 32nd year, the MRAC provides quality programs in visual art and performance in and around Grant County. These include Gallery shows, youth-outreach performances, a public-sculpture program, the Youth Mural Program, and two popular music festivals: the Silver City Blues Festival, and the three-day Pickamania acoustic-music festival.

“We’re really proud of the annual music festivals because we’ve been able to maintain them as free events,” says Faye McCalmont, who has been executive director of the MRAC since 1995. “They fill up Silver City and surrounding areas with visitors, and the council makes a point of putting New Mexico acts on the bill, to give them exposure alongside nationally touring acts.”

In 2003, McCalmont and Silver City artist Diana Ingalls Leyba recognized the serious need for an arts program to serve at-risk youth in Grant County, and the Youth Mural Program was born. The program pairs students in grades 1–12 with professional artists and others, who teach the students about the history and culture of their surroundings. Today, artists and teens working as paid interns mentor kids ages 6–12 during a two-week summer camp.

The council’s Fine Arts Friday Program, which is supported by a grant from the PNM Foundation, brings artists into K–5 classrooms in 14 Grant County schools to share their talents and artistic passions. “It’s something powerful to see a child look at a beautiful painting and realize, ‘Hey, I can be a part of this, too,’” McCalmont says. “This council is in it for the long haul.”