Donna Clair

Southwest Contemporary Artist

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



WORD PAINTINGS # 136 (How I Came to New Mexico and learned about Life and Art)

 28 August 2023 – Art Gods and Life Arrows ! Reunion! How amazing that this image came back into my life after I saw the original painting for first time over sixty years ago!  Looked for it everywhere, but mistakenly attributed it to an Italian painter named Mantegna. Last month a Facebook friend who works at the Amsterdam Museum posted a Mantegna and I sent her a query about this painting. She is an amazing art resource and found this photo the same day even though it had been painted by an artist named Rimpata! 

During the early ’60s I worked as a secretary for Holiday Magazine on the 23rd Floor of the Prudential Building.  The Chicago Art Institute was only blocks away from the office and I spent many, many lunch hours looking at paintings….Impressionists, the Orientalists and Renaissance rooms. This image still takes my breath away!  Stopped in my tracks I sat in front of it for hours studying the magnificent pattern of light on the figures.  With all my heart I wanted to be a “real” painter. This piece enthralled and humbled me at the same time because it showed me the obvious – I was very young and I didn’t even know what I didn’t know!  

Signed up for night classes in the basement of the Institute.  Bought a portfolio and large newsprint pad – some charcoal and a kneaded eraser.  The fumes of oil paints, turpentine and linseed oil in those hallways gave me so much joy! I wanted to live in that place. After several “lessons” it became clear that my teacher had no idea of what I needed from him.  He kept telling us to BE FREE! What the hell did that mean? Not knowing where to begin – unaware of even the basics that underlie a finished painting, I was a blank canvas.  He was a beatnik and this was his night job and he was not at all inspiring!  Picked up my portfolio before the end of the semester and walked out – a little sad, but still determined to find My Way!

Put my portfolio together and sent in my application to be a full-time student at the school. One of about 4000 applicants only 600 hundred were accepted!  Full tuition needed to be paid the first year and  applications for grants and scholarships would be determined the second year of study. I was accepted as a  first year student.  Asked my father to forego the financial help I was giving them so I could pay my tuition.  Even today I can still feel him standing over me and barking “No daughter of mine will ever be an artist!!!” I was determined to find a way out. 

Painting is a craft – a puzzle and it takes a whole lifetime to fit the pieces together. These figures in this great work were composed on a very large well-prepared canvas (how do you prepare a canvas?) and the lights and shadows tell the story of the importance of the figures.  I later learned about “glazing” but that word did not exist in my art vocabulary! 

This painting still resides at the Art Institute. In
a way it was good that I never really made it to art school. My path of
learning took me to Santa Fe, Truchas, Taos, Guatemala – many years and
many adventures!  Who knew?
Expressing my gratitude to Signor Rimpata (my first Art God) and my kind friend in Amsterdam.  What I didn’t know about painting then has taken me a lifetime of searching and learning – and several thousand paintings later there is still so much to learn – one day at a time. DC