21 Stories of the Santa Fe Painter's Life


      Mariana Benavides worked mornings for the painter Alabaster Prynne, doing the studio tasks that Prynne, at her great age, did not want to deal with anymore. She stretched canvases, cleaned the brushes and the knives, and she was learning the secrets of framing a canvas in Prynne’s distinctive style. Prynne knew she had found a young jewel in Mariana, an agreeable sponge eager to absorb any of the studio knowledge that the older woman chose to divulge.
            The morning was coming to a close when Prynne broke the silence that was customary in their working hours. “Mariana, my dear, how are you doing in your own work? What are you painting now?”
            “I’m working on a large canvas. A scene of Santa Fe with the cathedral.”
            “Large? How large?” Prynne asked.
            “Thirty six inches by twenty four inches. I bought a linen canvas at the art supply, already stretched.”
            “But that’s not very large by modern standards, thirty six by twenty four.”
            “Papa says it is too large. He thinks that a retablo is just about the right size for a painting, any painting,” Mariana said.
            “Well, your papa is not wrong. He is, however, accustomed to working in the manner of the eighteenth century. Things were smaller then. Big pieces of anything were in short supply. Artists were lucky to find even a small piece of flat wood.”
            The two women continued work on the last of the canvases Prynne had ready for Mariana to stretch. Prynne held the frame square while Mariana pulled the linen fabric with the canvas pliers.
            “So why is it better to paint large?” asked Mariana.
            “It releases you as nothing else. A small painting can never be more than a painting; a large one can hope to be a universe or a new idea.”
            “How large?”
            “At least fifty inches by fifty inches,” said Prynne, describing with her long hands a canvas of that size.      
            “I will try one this week, Miss Prynne.”
            “Good. You’re strong and can easily work on a panel of that size. There is the added value, Mariana, of your producing a piece that shocks, not expected from a young woman. A large size alone might be able to do that.”
            “That would please me.”
            “Take some of my stretchers and some of the primed canvas. You can pay me back when the painting sells. You’ll love it so much, Mariana, you will never want to go back to the smaller sizes.”
            “Let me tell you what I have in mind.”
            “Absolutely not. Keep it a close secret until you show me the finished work.”
            Mariana left the Prynne Studio with her new supplies and walked a block up Canyon Road to her father’s gallery, El Santero, subtitled Santa Fe’s Best Family Art. For many years the Benavides sold the santos and retablos carved and painted by their family artisans. Both her father’s family, the Benavides, and her mother’s, the Sanchez y Pinos, produced famous santeros for many generations.
            Talent from both the Benavides line and the Sanchez line combined in Mariana; the judges at the annual Spanish Market picked the expert crafting of her santos for special mention when she was just fourteen. To have such ability in one so young was clearly miraculous, a gift from on high.
            She worked for her father, a widower, at El Santero on most afternoons, selling the highly colored religious pieces that collectors expected from the Benavides clan. In the past years there had been a change in how pieces were produced for El Santero. Mariana’s prodigious output had eclipsed that of her older brother, Juanito, and even of her father. Her artistic vigor was a major family asset, especially since their mother could no longer add to the family enterprise.
            “Mariana, please stay here while I walk down to the bank with the deposit.”
            “Yes, Papa.”
            “If I’m late, my dear, please close up the gallery at five.” He left with the small canvas bag under his arm like a purse.
            Mariana knew that Papa would be late. The trip to the bank was customarily followed by several hours with his friends on the benches of the Plaza, and it could conclude with a look into the Plaza Bar. Papa could be very late on bank deposit days.
            The tourist traffic was slow on Canyon Road, so Mariana retreated to the small studio at the rear of El Santero, where she could work and watch the front door. She put aside the pile of retablo blanks and put her thirty-six by twenty-four canvas on the easel. The rest of the family preferred to work sitting at the kitchen table, but Mariana early on asked for an easel so she could paint standing up.
            She attended to the last touches on her cathedral scene for a few minutes. The clouds behind wanted a thin white line on the sunny side and the church needed some red touches in the shadows. Painting in oils on canvas was a release for Mariana from the tight-fisted renditions of the santos. She took to the oily medium right from the start and now, ten paintings later, she showed a natural bent for easel painting. A few more minutes of deft tweaking on the cathedral and it was done.
            Putting aside the finished cathedral scene, she stretched the large canvas. It was on the easel when Juanito came in the back studio door. The years of sitting at the kitchen table combined with the generous portions of beans and chile were already showing on Juanito, heavy for his young years.
            “What are you doing?” he asked.
            “A large, modern painting.”
            “You know that Papa doesn’t approve of modern paintings.”
            “Go away.”
            “You’ve been listening to Miss Prynne.”
            “What if I have?” she said.
            “Papa says you shouldn’t spend extra time with people like her.”
            “I don’t care. She’s an artist, and Papa also says that talent is a gift from God. If that’s so, God loves her very much.”
            Contradictions did not sit well with Juanito and that ended their exchange. He sat down at the studio table with a stolid thump and continued his work on the rays of light from Nuestra Senora. Juanito’s retablos of the blessed Virgin were sought for their painstaking detail, from collectors for whom painstaking detail was all that mattered. The delicacy of the nimbus around his Guadalupe images was unsurpassed by anyone else in the Benavides family. He returned to the comfort of working on it in times of personal stress, his own island of solace.
            Mariana started to mix the colors for her painting. She admitted, but only to herself, that the project frightened her in a new way. She had faced and solved the many problems of replicating the traditions of the santos, giving them an authenticity that eluded the rest of her family. She knew all about the small pieces and how to make them sing.
            Now, there were new dangers in this large canvas, unknown ideas and concerns that she must guide through or around. First, she realized that while standing at the easel in front of her large canvas she could not look at it all at once. She had to look left and then right, up and then down to take it all in. It seemed a massive ground of white, pristine and threatening. It could be a blizzard already or the sun-washed white wall of an Aegean house or the hallway of the Loretto nunnery. Maybe that was what Miss Prynne meant about its being a universe and the beginning of an idea.
            She hesitated so long that Juanito, looking up from his nimbus rays, sensed her lack of direction.
            “You’re afraid, aren’t you? Afraid of what Papa will say?” he said.
            “Leave me alone, Juanito.”
            “So what is it going to be?”
            “I think a landscape. But maybe not a real landscape.”
            Mariana was accustomed to painting with others of her family around.
      She could not imagine working any other way, in fact. So Juanito’s interruption of her thought process did not endanger her as it might an artist adapted to solitude in the studio. His attack actually galvanized her into making the first stroke, a red horizon line across the whole canvas, high with only a sliver of space for the sky and mountains.
            She stood back and looked. She could hear Miss Prynne saying, A good beginning and you’re halfway there. The old woman had a store of maxims about art that Mariana let come up in her mind like opera subtitles while she painted. They often steered her away from dangerous turns in the process of painting.
            Juanito left the studio after an hour of work. Mariana felt that this part of her painting would come best if she was left to herself, without family comment. A trickle of customers, including the sale of a large milagro, slowed her painting. Papa would be pleased when he finally returned after sunset. Otherwise, she virtually had the afternoon to herself.
            It was to be a landscape of the mind. A landscape of New Mexico, however, because that was the only landscape in her mind. Range upon range of distant mountains made receding purples above the horizon. Below that came successions of sienna hills dappled with pinons, barrancas, river banks with side choirs of chamisa and a foreground of grasses in many varieties. In several hours, she had the whole painting sketched in one coat of thin paint and it excited her as nothing else she had ever done. She knew that Papa would be angry about the drips on the floor, but Miss Prynne’s voice was clear on that: Neatness is the death of art.
            Something was still missing. Mariana sensed its lack, but could not identify it. Perhaps it would become apparent further on. With so much progress in a single afternoon, she quit at dusk with a feeling of pride and thrill. Promising as it was to her eyes, she knew it would be better to present the family with a finished painting than letting them in at this stage. Keep the studio door locked.
            Hiding it in the basement was out of the question as one of the family went down almost every day for the supplies stored there. There was a false ceiling in El Santero; Mariana climbed the studio ladder and pushed open the trap-door. Her painting would be safe there until she could work on it again. She cleaned up her splatters on the floors and pushed the easel away against the wall.
            Juanito came in the back door. “Where is it? You look guilty. Didn’t work out, did it?”
            “I gave it up.” She felt that was not exactly a lie.
            “Good. Papa will be happy. Then you can get back to family work again.”
            Mariana looked without expression at Juanito.
            When Papa finally arrived after sunset, he went right to his bedroom in the back house where the whole family lived. Juanito and Mariana had already eaten and cleaned up the kitchen. If they sparred over the studio work, they worked together in the kitchen without quarrels since their mother died three years ago. Juanito had become a good cook, food being important to him, and Mariana was a quick study as kitchen help.
            More often than not, it was a dinner for three at the kitchen table of the back house, except on the nights Papa made the deposit. Occasionally cousins or uncles and their families would join them. Juanito and Mariana kept the tradition of family dinners going, sensing its importance in Papa’s recovery. The two children knew the grief that Papa still felt and allowed his occasional misbehavior without comment.
            For the next several days, she did not have time to work on her landscape. She spent mornings with Miss Prynne, but her thoughts were on the painting.
            “Ca va, Mariana?” said Prynne.
            “Well. I will show you my painting soon.”
            “It’s wise to keep your own counsel now. Everything is too tender to touch, like new skin on a wound.”
            “Now, let’s gesso those panels over there. They’ll need three coats with sanding afterwards.”
            Then one afternoon when Juanito was out with his friends while Papa napped in the back house, Mariana saw an opportunity to work. She retrieved the canvas from the false ceiling.
            Two hours were enough to turn the corner. She brought up details in the chamisas and the grasses, refined the shadows along the riverbank and the barrancas. It still needed something she could not put into words or thoughts. Maybe the next session. Keep painting through the middle of a painting, don’t lose momentum.
            It was a journey to a place she had never been. She was aware that she was on the right track, however much she hid her efforts in the ceiling. The next deposit day, Juanito was away again with friends and she had another entire afternoon for work. She made further refinements everywhere on the canvas, and replaced some whole areas of color with different colors, often only the thinnest change of shade. The purple-blue of the distant mountains, now more intensely blue, shone against the reddish earth colors below. Mariana thought she was nearly done, except for that something. Miss Prynne would know.
            “May I show you, Miss Prynne?” she said on the phone.
            “How exciting. Come right away,” was the answer.
            Closing El Santero early, she carried the canvas down Canyon Road, face away from the traffic, to the Prynne studio. The front rooms of the Prynne studio were reserved for display and viewing, so Mariana hung her painting on the wall across from the front door. To her it still looked lacking, unfinished.
            Prynne came in the front door behind her. “I’ll bring us some chairs, Mariana. This is an exciting day.”
            After they were seated, Prynne said, “Let’s just look for a while.”
            Early on Prynne made a ceremony of viewing paintings with respect and silence. It was Mariana who brought the chairs when one of Prynne’s canvases was done, so she understood this reversal of roles. The two of them often sat looking for several minutes and then discussed the work.
            Prynne broke the silence.
            “To start with, it’s an impressive work for one so young. Do you like the fifty by fifty?”
            “Yes. It’s difficult to see it all at once when I’m at the easel.”
            “Exactly. I see some unfinished areas, there and there and there.” Prynne got up from her chair and pointed to each. “Mystery is good in a painting. I would not change or refine them at all. That will be hard for you to resist, I know. It gives the viewer a little something to do, to find answers for himself to some of the unknowns.”
            Mariana knew that Prynne could see the ingredient that was missing, but she waited for her to bring up the subject.
            “People from elsewhere are misled that New Mexico is all sunny days and bleached bones,” said Prynne.
            “What then?”
            “In the years I sketched in Galisteo, I looked across the landscape there for long afternoons. There were always those treble notes and trills, high-lights and brightness, which you have captured admirably. Especially those hot grasses in the foreground. But I could always see a darkness somewhere to alleviate the brilliance, to give it gravitas.”
            Mariana did not know what gravitas was. She said, “What must I do?”
            “Sometimes I saw a cloud’s shadow moving somberly across. Or perhaps a maroon-black outcropping of lava rock. Or a group of junipers turned to a black-green in the midst of lighter green fellows. There are many ways that night finds its place in the day.”
            They sat looking in silence for a few minutes. Mariana asked, “Could I put a long dark shadow here?” indicating a place in the high background.
            “That’s for you to decide, dear. You’re almost there, though. Be careful not to go too far. You mustn’t spoil this wonderful start.”
            By the time she got the painting back in its hiding place in the false ceiling, it was dark. She went to the back house to help Juanito, who was assembling a chicken enchilada. While she chopped the onions and the cilantro, Miss Prynne’s words reeled about in her mind.
            Juanito, noticing her distraction, said, “You’re still working on it, aren’t you?”
            “Yes. It’s almost done.”
            “What do you think of it?”
            “I think it is good, Juanito. At least, almost good.”
            “When are you going to show it to Papa?”
            “Tomorrow. When it’s done.”
            “I want to be there. By the way, it doesn’t look exactly square to me.”
            “You’re so cruel, Juanito. Why don’t you help me?”
            He smiled as he put the enchilada in the hot oven and said nothing. The subject was not brought up during dinner. Instead, Papa talked about family news: funerals, ailments and confirmations. Mariana was eager to go to bed, so she could get up early and work on her canvas.
            Morning came. She left the back house quietly, hurried to the studio building and set up her painting on the easel in the studio. Considering Miss Prynne’s advisement about darkness, she opted for a long black shadow in the far distance. It took half an hour to insert the shadow, an active thin line across the whole canvas, just below the horizon line. It skirted around some of the trees, enveloped others, widened and narrowed. Then the colors on either side of it needed slight changes, to make the shadow “sit” properly. Then the line itself, slightly lightened to make it sit even deeper. Finally, the fifty by fifty was done.
            She stood back to observe. The dark shadow pulled the elements of her landscape together as nothing else, drawing the eye deep into the canvas across layers of grass and sagebrush. Miss Prynne was right as usual. Mariana felt an elation and a first glimmer of the fulfilling companion that art would become for her.
            Then she heard Juanito and Papa talking as they approached the studio. The door opened and the two walked in.
            “Good morning, Mariana,” said Papa, not taking in the situation yet.
            “Hello, Papa.”
            “Look what Mariana’s been doing, Papa,” said Juanito.
            Papa first opened in surprise, then narrowed his eyes, seeing only the huge size of her canvas from his vantage. He came around to view the painting from Mariana’s point of view. He stood in silence.
            “It’s so much larger than what we do. I don’t know what to say,” he said.
            Mariana had expected his anger and now, for the first time, she felt guilt over her project. It was as if she had hit him and he was reeling. Papa was clinging to what remained of his family and she knew any change for him was a threat. Even her growing up was a threat. Now this open rebellion. Somehow the threat of a dangerous Papa disappeared and was replaced by a lonely, aging Papa this morning.
            Juanito said, “She’s going to be famous, Papa. We should be happy for her.”
            Mariana could barely believe her ears. Juanito supported her after all. The three of them stood for a few minutes just looking at the large painting, which seemed to burst with light on the easel. Mariana knew that the secret Miss Prynne had given her of the power of a large painting was what made this possible.
            “I am proud of you, Mariana,” Papa said, putting his arm around her shoulder. “Juanito has just been telling me how hard you have worked. I would not have expected such a painting from a young girl.”
            “Thank you. I promise I will keep painting the santos, as well. I am sorry if I have hurt you.” She kissed his cheek. She had a sense of herself growing taller and taller, and Papa diminishing, his slumped shoulders looking lower than ever.
            “Your birth gave your mother pain. Now it is my time.” He walked closer to the painting on the easel. “I do not know about modern art. Is this good?”
            “It is good, Papa.”
            He said, “I thought so, but it doesn’t look exactly square, as Juanito says. Look out for that on the next one. Now let us decide where we will hang it. A place of honor in the front gallery. After all, our sign says ‘Santa Fe’s Best Family Art’.” If the star of Mariana was rising, the rest of the Benavides were not going to be left behind in the dark.