Abiquiu Art Project: following in O’Keeffe’s footsteps

Abiquiu, New Mexico has long been a lure for artists drawn by the mystique of Georgia O’Keeffe who lived in the small hamlet and nearby Ghost Ranch for over 50 years. Northern New Mexico’s annual art studio tours have been drawing visitors for years, but if you’re a visitor, it’s likely your visit won’t mesh with any of these. But, thanks to the new Abiquiu Art Project, you can visit five established Abiquiu-based fine artists in their studios year-round. There are two ways to do this. Organized tours are held on Saturdays, by prearrangement only; or you can arrange a private tour during the week. The tours are the brainchild of Teresa Toole, wife of jewelry artist, Joseph Hall, one of the artists on the tour. The other studios visited belong to photographer/painter/sculptor Walter Nelson, clay artist Debra Fritts and her husband painter Frank Shelton and painter/sculptor Doug Coffin.  Steve and I were invited to preview the tour before it launched in April.

The Abiquiu Art Project artists

The Abiquiu Art Project artists left to right: Shelton. Fritts, Hall, Nelson and Coffin, photo courtesy Abiquiu Art Project

The Abiquiu Art Project artists left to right: Shelton. Fritts, Hall, Nelson and Coffin, photo/courtesy Abiquiu Art Project

Walter Nelson

Abiquiu Art Project - Walter Nelson's striking triptych, Homage to Diego Rivera, photo Steve Collins

Walter Nelson’s striking triptych, Homage to Diego Rivera, photo/Steve Collins

The first stop is at Walter Nelson’s studio. He began is career as a commercial photographer in Texas the late 1960s. He was drawn to art but said he chose this medium “because I thought I couldn’t draw a straight line.” His photographic work included fashion, beauty, and food. “In those days,” he said, “if you could do it all, you did it all.” In 1979 he moved to New York City where he counted top fashion houses among his clients. But that wasn’t enough for Nelson. He was a fine artist at heart. He started working with pastels and gesso. The transition from commercial to fine artist was “a hard journey, it’s very competitive,” he shared.

He first visited Abiquiu in 1981 (and lived there from 1986 to 1987). He was drawn to there by the self-tasked mission of “walking in the footsteps of Georgia.”  He wanted to find the places she painted. He chased them for over 20 years. His 2014 photo-driven book, The Black Place: Two Seasons, in collaboration with writer Douglas Preston, explores O’Keeffe’s beloved Black Place (the Bisti Badlands on the Navajo Nation) with a camera instead of a canvas and paintbrush. Because the landscape is stark rock, mostly devoid of vegetation, he says there are only two seasons discernible to the eye: “snow and no snow.”

Nelson also paints bright canvases. His striking triptych, Homage to Diego Rivera, dominates one wall of the studio. Other works on view include his dreamtime series inspired by Australian aboriginal art. During the approximately 30 minutes you’ll spend at his studio, Nelson will regale you with tales of his live and work. “Walter is the real deal, said Teresa Toole. “His passion is palpable. You can’t be around him and not realize his commitment to this.”

Debra Fritts and Frank Shelton

Abiquiu Art Project - The evocative Pilgrims Debra Fritts series, photo Steve Collins

The evocative Pilgrims Debra Fritts series, photo/teve Collins

Debra Fritts and Frank Shelton call a secluded property off a quiet country road home. It’s where they work and show their art in an intimate gallery they created. The then Atlanta-based couple bought their Abiquiu house in 2012 but didn’t move there full-time until 2014. Heading to the gallery and studios in what was a falling down former chicken coop (local lore claims was built by the WPA during the Depression), we walk past hand-crafted decorative cement walls and whimsical outdoor decor. It’s easy to tell someone with a great sense of design lives here. One of Fritts’ dreams for the property was for it to be home to the clay workshops. She now holds several a year attracting students from around the globe because of her stellar reputation in the world of clay art. “In the clay world, before the recession, I had my heyday of fame.” Fritts shared. “I was very, very fortunate; I was at the right place at the right time.”

She calls her work “narrative story-telling,” and as we walk into the small gallery it’s easy to see why. The first thing we see is her Pilgrim series, inspired by David Whyte’s poetry in a book of the same name. “Wow,” comes out of my mouth looking at these clearly articulated people with their expressive faces and postures. I’d love to take one home with me and the hope is tour participants will want to as well. Frank’s art hangs on the walls. Besides people who arrive via the Art Project tour the couple attract visitors who come to Abiquiu because of O’Keeffe. It doesn’t hurt that Shelton works as a guide at the O’Keeffe Home and Studio a few days a week.

Abiquiu Art Project - One of the pieces from Frank Shelton's Drop Cloth series, photo courtesy Frank Shelton

One of the pieces from Frank Shelton’s Drop Cloth series, photo/courtesy Frank Shelton

We move on to the studio portion of the building where Fritts and Shelton maintain separate work areas. It’s really energizing to see what this talented couple is working on. For Fritts it’s pilgrims and her Lady of Shining Light, a series which is “connected to women of earth and sky.” It was inspired by a Puebloan myth about a woman of changing light at the top of the Pedernal (Georgia O’Keeffe’s special mountain) and by saints depicted in Catholic churches.

In Shelton’s part of the studio we view what he calls his “Drop Cloth” series, collages with “painting elements.” He’s collected old, used painting drop cloths which he uses as canvases. Before using they are washed and cut up. For his collages he uses paints and inks and also stitches on the cloth. The cloths are neither stretched or framed; he wants them to be loose. He’s also working on a series of doll-like clay figures he calls “Secret Keepers,” which incorporate paper, newspaper, tape, canvas and other materials that catch his fancy. Another project: small intuitive paintings. “You can tell by his sensibility,” Fritts says” that he’s really interested in light and space.” She calls his work “very meditative.” We reluctantly end our visit as we have two other studios to visit.

Doug Coffin

Abiquiu Art Project - Doug Coffin's studio is packed with his eclectic work, photo Steve Collins

Doug Coffin’s studio is packed with his eclectic work, photo/Steve Collins

We first met Doug Coffin at an artist’s dinner in his honor held by Santa Fe art entrepreneur, Bobby Beals several years ago. We immediately fell in love with his art. Over the years we’ve seen both the man and his art in passing; it was exciting to visit him in his mesa-top studio. The studio is large and filled to the brim with past and present projects. Coffin is a prodigious artist and collector. Every inch of the space is taken up by art work, supplies and assorted flotsam and jetsam. We spy a witty installation: a toilet that hooks up to a TV set. Coffin is a bit of a mad genius.

He works in a number of different genres including painting, sculpture and jewelry-making. Jazz is playing in the background; Toole tells us it’s on all the time. She calls Coffin “a Santa Fe icon,” and speculates that he has more art in Santa Fe hotels than anyone else. She says that he’s been around a long time and everyone knows him, at least those in the art world. The Native American artist (he’s Potawatomi and Creek) grew up at the Haskill Institute (today Haskell Indian Nations University) in Lawrence, Kansas. At the time, it was a boarding school and his father the Athletic Director. Coffin arrived in Santa Fe in 1979 to teach at the now-defunct College of Santa Fe. He began teaching at the Institute of American Indian Art (IAIA) the following year; he taught there for three years.

If you visit Doug Coffin’s studio, don’t miss the bathroom. The walls are adorned with photos of the artist with some of the famous people that he connected with over the years including Liam Neeson, Miles Davis, Janis Joplin, Jeff Bridges, Dean Stockwell, and Dennis Hopper who was a close friend. There’s even one with Hilary Clinton at the Whitehouse when Coffin’s art was displayed there.

Currently Coffin is working to launch a dream project: totems. He’s been making these 30-feet tall sculptures for a while; now he wants to do a complex installation of them somewhere and is looking for an investor. “The pebbles in the pond on that,” he said; he’s waiting for results. He’s also working on Manifest Destiny, a 12-piece assemblage. He’s got a lot of other projects going including a series of 3-D paintings and some jewelry-making. Before we leave we go out into the lushly landscaped garden to look at the view from the mesa-edge. Then it’s on to the last studio.

Joseph Hall

Abiquiu Art Project - Joseph Hall hard at work in his studio, photo Steve Collins

Joseph Hall hard at work in his studio, photo/Steve Collins

Joseph Hall’s neat, compact Ringworks Studio is in a casita just steps from his home. He and Toole moved to Santa Fe in 2010. For years they’d lived on Washington’s Vashon Island and had a studio/gallery in Seattle. Clients included many recognizable Seattle names.

While Hall works primarily in gold to create his contemporary, fine art jewelry he enjoys working with gold (he uses at least 10 colors of this precious metal) in combination with platinum. Steel, silver and more unusual minerals such as titanium and tantalum. His choice of stones is based on the project. For his MFA thesis (in metalsmithing and jewelry) he published what he calls a “seminal paper” on using and coloring titanium, tantalum, and niobium for jewelry and small sculptures.

Hall straddles both the fine art and jewelry worlds, which according to Toole is unusual. He’s currently working on “sculpture for the hands.” Hall likens his work to the He likens what he’s working on to the work of the Supremacists in the 1930s. Hall says he’s always been fascinated by architecture and landscape and works these aspects into his art. Toole calls some of Hall’s work “pure art pieces.” When asked what she means she clarified. It’s something that functions as a piece of jewelry but when you see it you think “sculpture.” Much of Halls business comes from people who collect his work and are always looking to acquire more.

As we leave Hall’s studio we’re instructed to take a left turn to the end of the road which overlooks the White Place, a unique sandstone formation that Georgia O’Keeffe loved and painted. It’s the perfect end to our time touring the studios of the five artists who make up the Abiquiu Art Project.

If you go

There are two ways to take the Abiquiu Art Project tour. The tour is offered on Saturdays at 2pm and is $40 per person. Advance reservations are suggested. Individuals and small groups can arrange private tours. Contact Toole at (505) 685-0504.

Read more about Abiquiu:
Visit Abiquiu New Mexico: the gateway to Georgia O’Keeffe Country 
Georgia O’Keeffe Behind the Scenes Tour
Georgia O’Keeffe Country: following in the artist’s footsteps



2 Responses to “Abiquiu Art Project: following in O’Keeffe’s footsteps”

  1. Ryan Biddulph
    September 5, 2019 at 11:51 am #

    There is so much character to those characters Billie 😉 Expressive faces and postures indeed! I feel like one may just up and walk away, as I can feel the energy in the artwork through cyber space.
    Ryan Biddulph recently posted..10 Common Blogging Questions AnsweredMy Profile

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