Donna Clair

Southwest Contemporary Artist

How I Came to New Mexico and learned about Art and Life



The light in northern New Mexico is absolutely brilliant.   It was a challenge to adjust my vision.  A sunny day in Chicago is like looking through a gauzy window curtain.   There is no comparison to daylight in the high desert.  It took some time for me to realize the difference.  I thought light was light until day trips with my painting buddy Edda Lynne.  This indeed was a whole new beginning.  It was a good thing that I hadn’t established my own way of painting in Chicago.  Everything was falling into place and I could move forward, learning something new almost every day.  The move to Santa Fe, the workshop and now some rather intense field work made me realize I wasn’t in Chicago anymore!

The ghost towns fascinated me.  Ernie, my husband and I would explore the villages along the Turquoise Trail – especially Madrid, Cerrillos and Golden.  Some Sundays we would head toward Taos to photograph and explore the abandoned adobe houses along the Rio Grande River.  On a really good day we might meet a “local” who would share stories of life in these places.  Old timers were the greatest and the best story tellers.  I learned to listen and appreciate the history – it was all new and I was enthralled.  It felt as though I was falling in love for the first time.

Edda Lynne wanted to paint the old mining shacks in Madrid.  Most of the town had been abandoned after the mine closed. With great anticipation I packed up my paints and lunch for this new adventure.  Plein air painting on location was a first for me.  Ernie decided that we “girls” needed protection.  He put his fully loaded .357 Magnum into my straw tote bag.  I protested.  He said it was “just in case”.

We headed out Highway 14.  Edda parked the car on a secondary road in full view of some crumbling old shacks up on a hill.  Once our easels and paints were set up we both went to work.  It was a beautiful day – the sky was a bright New Mexico blue and the only sound was the flutter of an occasional bird as it flew past.  In spite of being surrounded by goatheads (sharp little hazards), I took off my shoes.  I was oblivious to everything but the canvas right in front of me.

Suddenly I heard someone approaching.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw a tall man coming toward us.  I looked over his shoulder toward the road and he had blocked our car. I began to feel danger.  He was staggering and in no way appeared friendly.  Now this sounds crazy, but I shouted to him “Don’t come any further, I have a gun!”  As he came nearer I realized that he was either drunk or on drugs.  I reached into my tote and grabbed the gun.  Standing up I first held the weapon down at my side.  This was not a friendly approach and I was frightened.  I warned him off again; he pretended not to hear.  When he was quite near I lifted the gun and pointed it right at him.  “If you come any closer, I will shoot!”  He turned, walked to his car and drove off.  We put on our shoes and packed up our paints. We worried that he could be waiting for us at the end of the road.  All was clear and we headed for home.  My first field day of painting in the wild, wild West!

Annie Oakley I am not.  Did Ernie have a premonition when he put the gun in my bag?  Were we in real danger?  Did I over react?   I will never know.  Fifty years ago these abandoned places were much different than they are now.  Actually I have done field painting and photography in some very isolated places since that experience and never again felt the need to carry a weapon.