Contributed by Sharon Butler / In the early days of the Covid lockdown, Lauren Dana Smith, a former organizer of Bushwick Open Studios, left Brooklyn and moved to Taos, New Mexico. Recently I received notice of the inaugural show of a new oufit, the Taos Abstract Artist Collective, opening in September at the Stables Gallery at the Taos Center for the Arts, and it turns out that Smith is one of the organizers. She also has a solo show, “Box Breath,” curated by former Bushwick resident Paul Behnke, on view in the Project Space at Wright Contemporary, Ann Landi’s new Taos gallery. I reached out to Smith to learn more about her experience of exiting Brooklyn for Taos.
Sharon Butler: Can you start by telling me a little bit about your 14 years in Bushwick and your decision to move out west? How did you ultimately land in Taos? Has it been a big adjustment in terms of the art community out there?
Lauren Dana Smith: I moved to Bushwick in 2007 but my true love affair with New York started in 1997 when I studied painting during undergrad in upstate NY. Moving to Bushwick in 2007 was an adventure. I had previously lived in Williamsburg and Manhattan. In Bushwick, I spent a lot of my time exploring experimental and/or community art spaces with artist friends in the neighborhood. I remember warehouse/loft parties in the early 00s – it was something of an otherworldly art fantasy life back then. My partner and I lived on Troutman Street between Knickerbocker and Wilson and before a lot of the building development started, we very briefly had a view of the city skyline from our bedroom window. Around 2012 I became involved with the group Arts in Bushwick and was a core organizer for Bushwick Open Studios for several years. At the apex of AiB, we had close to 1200 artists participating in the festival. It was a hugely energizing time of creative exploration. I co-directed the Arts in Bushwick community projects team and had a team of working artists, arts educators, community organizers, gallerists and art therapists: we curated exhibitions, events, community murals and partnered with a lot of Bushwick organizations, galleries and local businesses. At the time, I was a student in the graduate school at Pratt Institute where I’m now a faculty member. I was also involved with a couple of other groups — Lady Painters and NYC Creative Salon — and working as an art therapist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. Looking back, I was very much overworked but I soaked it all in.
Taos came about organically. My partner had connections to the Southwest but I had never been there. In my mind, the desert was another planet. I had no frame of reference. I was born in Philly, lived for part of my childhood in Massachusetts and then moved to NY (brief hiatus in Seattle, but that’s another interview). I was a true East Coaster. But in 2016 we came out to Albuquerque for work and decided to drive up to Taos to find a quiet place for our week away from Bushwick. I wasn’t expecting to fall so dramatically hard for this place.
We were staying in an airbnb in the middle of the mesa and I had just never seen that many stars at one time before; and I had never smelled piñon pine or wild juniper or desert sage. Something definitely unlocked for me, but we didn’t think in any serious way about making a move. I felt like I was going to be in the city for life. Taos became a creative respite, and we returned over and over, whenever we needed to clear our heads. On a trip in early February of 2020 we fell in love with a home on the mesa. It was on 7 acres at the base of the Sangre de Christo mountain, down the road from the Rio Grande. We decided we wanted to live out there, but we didn’t have any concrete plans to leave NYC for at least a few more years. We returned to NYC, and a couple weeks later the pandemic arrived, and the world shut down. Suddenly we had to make this crazy decision: stay in Bushwick where I would continue my hospital job (I was a psychotherapist for hospitalized Covid patients and their families) or…move to this incredible sanctuary in the desert. The decision was difficult and emotional, but in the summer of 2020, we rented a 30-foot RV and drove cross country with all two cats and all of our houseplants.
Before we left, I was working part-time as a therapist, painting, and occasionally showing my work, but my primary focus was on creating opportunities for other artists, producing community events, and supporting young artists. During Covid, I started a large painting, and working on it helped me survive the mental intensity of that time and brought me back to my primary art practice. When we arrived in Taos, I started painting all the time. It was automatic. I started working with all sorts of media – painting, writing, ceramics, digital art. I felt like I was back in an experimental creative zone – not unlike the first years in Bushwick. I
In 2021, about 10 months after moving here, I was named one of nine emerging artists of New Mexico by the Harwood Art Center in Albuquerque and my studio was featured in Hyperallergic. That was phenomenal. I’m in my 40s – and I was suddenly able to engage in my creative practice in a way that I was never able to tap into in the city. I had a new level of focus. Taos has always been a creative hub in the west– it has a rich legacy – the Taos Society of Artists, the Taos Modernists, indigenous artists of the Taos Pueblo, The Transcendental Painting Group, Agnes Martin…. the list is long. I was connected to the philosophy of moving west in search of community and a simplified creative practice. I’ve met so many New Yorkers out here – and actually a lot of folks from Bushwick. Taos is sort of like Bushwick-West. I think that’s because it is a welcoming space for independent spirits, but it’s not especially easy to live out here. The environment and geography are extreme and you have to truly want to be here. I do think we make our own community. I began reaching out to other artists online (we were all still in quarantine) and began to form new friendships, generated ideas, and planned for life after isolation. It was a beautiful and hopeful time.
SB: You have a solo show in the works curated by another NYC transplant Paul Behnke. Tell me about the show. Has your work changed substantially since you left New York?
LDS: Yes! What a delight to meet Paul Behnke in Taos – and how funny our paths didn’t cross in Brooklyn over all of those years. The show is called “Box Breath” on view at the new Wright Contemporary gallery in Taos, which is Ann Landi’s new project. The show includes a recent series of digital paintings and select sculptural paintings. I presented the digital series at a recent Site Santa Fe PechaKucha night hosted by Creative Santa Fe. Working with Paul has been a delight, and I appreciate the chance to bring a contemporary media to our Southwestern audience.
Since I’ve moved out here, my work has changed dramatically. In NYC I was creating large surrealist-figurative works. In Taos, I’ve totally deconstructed the figure and I’m working in a purely abstract, non-objective manner. I think about light, color, saturation, texture, climate and existential themes in what feels like a departure from the familiar iconography of traditional Southwestern art. I still think my work is about bodily experience, but it’s less cognitively driven; I’m integrating a less conscious experience of the land – my own, and that of the collective – especially given the trauma and chaos of the last few years. I think that appears in the way that I reframe elements so that they work in concert with one another. My digital paintings are realized through a multi-step process: an origination image is created through digital painting and drawing, and then I gradually manipulate it through collage into a unique composition. This collection comprises hundreds of digital objects, all claiming relation to the origination paintings, but varying in degrees of color, light, saturation and transparency. I’m excited to show this sort of work in Taos.
SB: I’m intrigued that you and two other artists decided to to organize a collective for abstract artists in your new neighborhood. The inaugural exhibition for the Taos Abstract Artist Collective opens in September at the Stables Gallery at the Taos Center for the Arts. Has the process helped you find other like-minded artists in the region? Is the conversation around abstract painting different in Taos than it was in New York?
LDS: When Kari Bell, Aleya Hoerlein and I decided to organize TAAC, we weren’t sure how many artists would come out of the woodwork, and we were curious to see what would happen if we made the platform and created an open invitation. Of course we knew that there are a lot of abstract artists working in the area, but we were surprised and delighted to see how many people came forward, grateful to meet one another, and eager to share their work. Our early conversations generated the necessary momentum to put together an Instagram account and social media presence, host an in-person meet-up and plan our Inaugural Exhibition – 64 artists are participating from across Northern New Mexico. We chose artists working in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and surrounding areas who are aligned with the spirit of the Taos legacy of artists-in-community. We are carving out a space for truly contemporary and diverse work in what is largely a representational art market. We have existing models for this in the Southwest — for example, Site Santa Fe, 516 Arts in Albuquerque, Red Line Contemporary Art Center in Denver – and others. Southwest Contemporary magazine does a tremendous job covering innovative work, but Taos itself has felt more traditional.
It was also important for us to be expansive in our definition of the collective. When we developed our statement of purpose, we felt it was imperative to communicate that TAAC is an inclusive group that amplifies self-identifying abstract artists living and working in Northern New Mexico, honoring our intersecting identities across race, national origin, ethnicity, culture, size, gender identity and expression, disability, sexuality, age, socioeconomic status, neurotype, religion and/or spiritual practice. All abstract artists are welcome in their pursuit of provocative expression. As a result, the work represented in the collective is diverse and phenomenal. We have folks who identify across so many unique identity markers and we learn from each other.
Our goal beyond the show in September is to organize curated and juried exhibitions, artist talks, studio visits, and collaborative community concepts. We have a large group of Taos artists who have been living and working here for most of their lives, and then there are artists like myself, Kari and Aleya who are relative newcomers and who are invested in growing new roots. After living in New York for so long and understanding the implied hustle of the art world, I can reflect that the spaces I appreciated most in the city were the collaborative, generative spaces where artists could enter at all experience levels and learn from one another without threat of competition. I’m more interested in artists’ creative processes and the unique ways each chooses to make meaning in their lives. Taos is the perfect backdrop for that. It’s incredible to witness what happens in the studio when we aren’t feeling the pressure to attend openings every week or maintain a pace that erodes creative development. In many ways, living and working in Taos for me is like being on a perpetual artist residency.
SB: What is your favorite season in Taos?
LDS: Taos is what we call the high-desert. We are 7,000 feet above sea level. As a life-long East Coaster, I had no idea what living in the the desert was like. At this altitude, in the summer we have 85-degree days and 40-degree nights; winters are very snowy and at night temperatures can go below zero even though during the day it’s still sunny and warm. I live on a mesa but we have an alpine climate nearby because we are at the base of the rockies –that’s the view from my studio window. In the winter, it feels like living in a snow globe. We have a family of deer who stand feet away from me while I paint. I’m hard pressed to decide between summer or winter. In the summer I grow 8-foot tall sunflowers, and orange hummingbirds and lizards are everywhere. Regardless of season, Taos is by far the most unique place I’ve ever lived or experienced.
Lauren Dana Smith, The Project Room, curated by Paul Behnke, Wright Contemporary, 627 Paseo del Pueblo Sur, Taos, NM. Through September 18, 2022.
Taos Abstract Artist Collective, inaugural exhibition, Stables Gallery, Taos Center for the Arts, 133 Paseo Del Pueblo Norte, Taos, NM. September 2 through 10, 2022.