Donna Clair

Southwest Contemporary Artist

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



Once I faced the financial disaster it looked as though bankruptcy was the only answer.  My friends urged me to clear it all out and start over.  This didn’t feel right to me.  It was impossible to know what the future held in store, but it was a no-brainer for me to decide to pay back the creditors.  Even though my salary from the law office covered very little, I had received another invitation to the Albuquerque Arts and Crafts Fair for the summer of 1969.  I applied and was accepted.  All I had to do was work my job at the law office during the day and paint at night and on weekends.  I wrote to the creditors and mentally gave myself five years to pay all the bills.

I filed for divorce.  Joe Lawler represented me at court.  He was on my side.  Somehow I upset Judge Donnelly and my gut told me he did not approve of the decision to end my marriage.  We were negotiating final property settlement and the amount of support payments.  I was “awarded” $250 a month.  Nothing was ever mentioned about my forged signature on the $25,000 Los Alamos loan.  I learned fast that it was a “man’s world”.

Found a house in Casa Alegre which was $100 a month cheaper.  It hurt to leave that cute little place in Casa Solana.  My new landlord was a dark soul and I knew he would never ever ever give me a break on the rent.  The house itself had seen better days, definitely kind of dingy which well suited my mood at the time.  After setting up the bedrooms for John and the girls, I put up my easel in a corner of the “den”and got out all my art supplies.  As my friend Margaret Jamison would always say, I had gotten down to the “nut cutting”!  I was on my own.  Some days independence was my friend and, usually at the end of every month when the bills came due, it was my fiercest foe!

My first bold move was to advertise an evening sketch class.  Bruce Rolstad, Pastor, rented classroom space to me for a small fee.  About 20 of us met in the basement of Unity Church once a week.  I taught the basics of drawing to a really nice group of adults – 12 lessons for $40.00.  Every little bit helped.

The shock of the separation and the move was hard on all of us.  Slowly we all began to adjust to the changes. A babysitter/housekeeper named Mrs. Quintana was hired at $40.00 a week. She showed up on time each weekday morning, however my neighbors told me that as soon as I left her husband appeared with a truckload of their family laundry – she had ten children of her own.  My children also became familiar with that monster, Kokoman; if they didn’t behave she threatened them with his wrath!

Ernie was in the process of building his new house on the ridge of Stagecoach Road north of town.  Even though he remained friends with my husband, I knew I could count on him to help out in a pinch.  He would come over for a cup of coffee and check out the fridge.  If it wasn’t full, the next day he would appear with several bags of groceries.  It seemed to make him happy to be Father Christmas that first year.  John went along in Ernie’s pick up truck out to Pecos. They crunched through the snow and cut down a pretty little tree.  Once we put up some lights, that dark old house came to life.  He gave me $200 and we went to Albuquerque. I was able to buy some toys and clothes for my wild bunch. We had a lovely Christmas.

A solid routine developed for us that winter. After work I would stop at the grocery store for supper fixings.  It was a relief to get home.  My babies were becoming great little people and we were forming quite a team.  After supper I would take a hot bath and all three of them would lean their elbows on the side of the tub and we would just talk.  After my bath I would put on my painting clothes and tuck the munchkins into bed.  My second workday was beginning.  My estimate was that I would need forty or fifty small paintings for the Arts and Crafts Fair that summer. No choice but to work every night until past midnight – sometimes two or three in the morning.  I would go to bed in my work clothes.  One by one three little bodies showed up at my twin bed – I lifted the covers – one next to me, two at the bottom.  Best part of it, we were all together!  The next morning I would fix breakfast, put on my big lady law office clothes – Mrs. Quintana would show up and we would do it all over again!

Just a few days ago I was having lunch with a friend here in Taos and told him about my work routine so long ago.  I continued that crazy schedule and produced 400 paintings that year – small plein air studies.     Truth is it was basic training.  I had no choice but to produce work to support my family.  Little did I know then but this was the true beginning of my life as an artist.  This was my “trial by fire”!