DRIVE past crumpled hills, quilted like earth-colored counterpane with tufts of gray-green grass; every mile or so a billboard announces a pueblo bingo game, a reservation area, a resort hotel. The sky dips down to scallop out the two-lane highway. Cracked soil reaches out for moisture and drops back, taking rocks and scrub brush with it. This is the road from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, an unremarkable and yet strangely affecting landscape. The hills have a mysterious timelessness that red-clay dust can't cover up. And distant mountains stand aloof, unwilling to take a passing traveler into their confidence. It is an area that few artists can resist.
With Santa Fe's convergence of geography and history it is not surprising that the majority of the artists who live here paint landscapes. Inger Jirby (pronounced ENG-er YER-bee) is a painter who uses the surrounding land and its links with the Anasazi Indians and Hispanic peoples as catalyst for her inspiration. Swedish by birth, Jirby has lived in many different countries but she says the austerity of the New Mexican landscape is the closest to the tundra of the Arctic region where she lived as a child.
Wearing a stunning black hat for our interview, Jirby has the instinctive elegance of European women who know how to dress, and who dress to make a distinct impression. Her accent is still exotic after many years in the United States, and she radiates tremendous energy and warmth.
Her good-sized modern adobe home was full of sunlight, canvases, carved New Mexican furniture, and her grandmother's red velvet Victorian furniture from Sweden. The artist's current hobby is a doll house, built by herself and a friend, for which she has begun to collect miniature paintings commissioned from her artist friends. An easel temporarily dominated the living room.
We sat in a shaft of sunlight at her dining table to talk about her work in Santa Fe. Some excerpts follow:
Many landscape artists in the Southwest paint the vastness and loneliness of nature. Your paintings have an inhabited quality, you usually include a village or church. Why is that?
I look for signs of the human being in the landscape; I always look for a church or dwelling to put in.... [Places like] the Grand Canyon are almost too much, all the empty spaces become temples, indeed they are named after temples. I want to show the trace of the human being - to give it human scale.
Landscapes are subjective; there's nothing new in the idea that we experience a landscape as it is filtered through our mood. What moves you to paint?
There is a feeling that is carrying me at all times, not just an intellectual idea. I set out to paint for myself - pretending in my imagination that I will keep a painting. And I drive it to the point where I do not want to separate myself from that painting; the separation comes later [when it is sold].
It's almost a clich'e that New Mexico is called the `land of enchantment.' Do you think that quality is captured in the art that is done here?
I find it's true, but it also depends on your makeup as a person what inspires you. Many people who live here are not landscape painters, but I think there is a magic in this place that creeps into your work.
The communal Indian villages - pueblos - in this part of New Mexico are a favorite topic for artists. Do you ever visit the pueblos?
I go frequently to the dances in the different pueblos. I have thought that it would be nice to paint the dances, but I haven't done it yet. I painted the Taos Pueblo [one of the best-known of the settlements] and pueblo architecture is woven into my paintings. But sometimes painting the Taos Pueblo is a hindrance; it's not only because of the money [the Indians charge artists] but much of [the pueblo] is off limits. They need the money to keep the pueblo up. It's also attracted more tourists and cars.
Churches are everywhere in the Southwest - especially the mission-style adobe ones. Why do churches appear so often in your work?
I'm very interested in the architecture, the shapes. Also, human beings have given everything they have to - how do I say it so it doesn't become sweet? - to praise their higher power. They have given that extra effort to create something beautiful.
Your colors are at odds with the muted tones of the land, where does your color come from?
Many people think I go full blast with color, that my paintings are very intense. If [color] goes beyond a point that you lose touch with nature, if you go too gaudy with color, the painting doesn't become believable. If you lose touch with nature, you walk into pure decoration, and that's not my aim.
I try to create a color climate for a painting. My forms are based on cubism; it makes the forms more solid. I suppress the perspective by distorting it. I'm not interested in just flattening space, I'm interested in illusionary depth that you create by placement of shape and color. I like Gauguin, Van Gogh, and the big colorists like Matisse, Bonnard, Milton Avery.
Some of those painters lived tortured lives.
I'm not a tortured painter. I'm more into creating beautiful works of art. Beauty is the only thing that lasts - that transcends time.
But is there a place for tension in art?
There is a romantic idea out there that painters should be tortured people. I disagree completely. I experience life as an incredible gift. It is for me exuberant. In the past I had problems, I felt burdened, [but] people would still say about my paintings, oh, they are lively, they are exuberant, they are wonderful. That was not what I wanted to hear. Whatever darkness I had in me, that was not what I was painting. But I thought it was more in fashion to be tortured, and my paintings were not tortured. Had I painted the space I was living in [then], I don't think I could have survived. As I learn more about myself, I can accept what my life is. And this is in the painting. I try not to take too much credit for it.