Masking Art

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Usually used to hide and shield, masks have become a way for one Valencia County artist to express her inner emotions and work through difficulties in her life.

“I remember the day I made this one,” Joan Artiaga says holding up a black ceramic mask, twisted in turmoil. “I felt just like this.”

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Holding a “self portrait” in clay, artist Joan Artiaga has spent the last several years expressing herself in masks that reveal inner emotions instead of hiding them.

She smiles peacefully and sets it down on a workbench in her studio.

Warm sunlight floods in from the south-facing windows, floor to ceiling glass. The yellow walls absorb and reflect the light and the scent of oranges wafts through the studio.

For most of her adult life, Artiaga was deeply involved in the corporate world, then government and politics. She remembers a time in her life when she wore $500 suits with matching heels.

Now, sitting on a folding chair with a glass of wine in her studio is Sausalito Estates, Artiaga is far removed from the formal world she used to inhabit.

Comfortable walking shoes, capris and a colorful shirt layered with a paint-splattered denim button-up is the “uniform” the artist wears today.

“I always wanted to be an artist, but my father wanted me to be something, do something that would make money,” she said. “Art wasn’t something that had value to him.”

But it had value to Artiaga.

So much so that after stepping down as county clerk in 1989, she decided to devote her time to a new cause. Artiaga began attending classes at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus, where she received a certificate in art studio in 1997.

No stranger to the arts, Artiaga had spent years expressing herself as a painter, poet, singer and songwriter. It was during a class at UNM-VC that she discovered clay.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Joan Artiaga, who works from her studio at her home in Sausalito Estates, embellishes her clay masks with materials such as feathers, bone and faux hair.

“You get your hands in there, and start pushing and pulling,” she said. “It stimulates the right brain and you just start moving with the clay.”

Artiaga made the transition to three-dimensional art, when, to her delight, something about creating masks resonated with her.

The process begins by casting a person’s face with plaster permeated gauze. Then after the cast has cured, Artiaga pushes clay into it and out pops a face.

She smooths out imperfections, changes the features and goes to work, adding swirls, wings, horns, antlers.

As they dry, sometimes they shrink and crack, but Artiaga says she fires them anyway.

“Sometimes, they are distorted or frightening, sometimes sweet or mischievous,” she said. “I let them be what they are.”

She glazes each one to exemplify the mood of the mask by pouring different glazes to get new effects. Artiaga said after firing, sometimes the glaze will have blistered, bubbled, dripped or pooled.

“I just keep working — add wood, bone, stone, sea shells,” she said. “If they crack, it’s OK. I see mistakes or failures as miracles. I get new ideas from each ‘happy accident.’”

And the clay has offered Artiaga not just a creative outlet, but also a physically therapeutic one as well.

In 2004, she suffered the first of five heart attacks. After that one, she developed arthritis in her hands. Working with the clay actually offered relief.

“You know, you’re using your whole body — shoulders, elbows, down to your fingers,” she said.

Working in clay has also given Artiaga a reminder that the primary goal of being an artist is about the creative process, not the end piece.

“I had this yellow sun mask. I’m so happy with it. It was my master piece. One day, the wind came through and it fell and broke,” she said. “But I didn’t get sad. Somehow it all works. Sometimes to see what is possible, it’s required to let it be what it wants.”

Artiaga learned about art being the process not the end product when she was taking painting classes. Feeling very happy with an almost-completed landscape, her instructor took a large, paint-filled brush and painted a huge line through it.

“He said, ‘Now fix it. Don’t fall in love with the object. Art is more than putting paint on a blank canvas. Art is the process not the end product,’” she said.

Artiaga says her masks are not her work, but rather the by-product of her work.

“My life is my work,” she said. “Day by day, I witness wonderful changes in my work, my body, my relationships and my perception of the meaning of it all. Every day is a new beginning — another step in an everlasting journey.”

For now, Artiaga says she would like to spend all her time teaching and creating, finding and expressing her joy. She found a picture of a petroglyph — a little man with arms akimbo, one leg crooked up.

“What is that? He’s dancing. It’s about movement,” she said. “He is expressing what people do and say when they fully do the thing they love. I want to go back to that place.”

And Artiaga says she can think of no better place to find that creative joy than right here in Valencia County.

“I love Valencia County. Every time I drive into Belen, I say, ‘Gosh, I love Belen.’ Every time I drive into Los Lunas, ‘I love Los Lunas,’” she said. “I have been all over the world — Italy, Israel, Central and South America — and the people here are part of your heart. This is a really special place.”

Artiaga will joke that as someone who has done a little bit of everything, she is still “master of none. I always come back to my creative past time. I’m just expressing myself.

“People shouldn’t be afraid to express themselves using material, color and shape,” she said. “I want to use these next years to heal and create. You need to give yourself permission to nurture yourself.

“The Bible says to love each other as you love yourself. If you are hard on yourself, you can be mean and not give much to each other.”


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.