Donna Clair

Southwest Contemporary Artist

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


                                    Bearers of Light – Easter 1991 -Chichicastenango, Guatemala

 (How I Came to New Mexico and learned about Art and Life) – Had been angry with Anthony Bourdain ever since I heard the announcement of his suicide.  What a waste! He had it all.  Truth is he had seen it all and  finally the world he witnessed became too much for him.  Remembering one episode where he visited another forlorn and  war- ravaged country, trying to make sense of the devastation, his weariness was palpable.  After writing about my experiences in Guatemala recently, I  understand why he became too weary.  He saw the world with open eyes. ! It isn’t always pretty, is it? 

My blissful ignorance followed me my little nest in Taos. I was clueless! Naively I still believed that my country was that shining city on the hill! Deciding to know the truth of my experience, I bought books – lots and lots of books!  The story of Rigoberta Menchu hit hard. She became an activist for indigenous rights after her entire family was either murdered or disappeared. In 1992 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Several years later we met when she lectured here in Taos. She is still one of my heroes – I stand in awe of her courage.. The civil war in Guatemala was called the Silent Holocaust and lasted for over 30 years. Over 200,000 people were either murdered or disappeared.  One of the darkest years of the “war” was 1991!! 

Sadly all my red, white and blue blinders were removed by the books I bought and read. To quote Sr. Diane Ortiz  (The Blindfold’s Eyes)….”Maybe I survived simply because I am a U.S citizen.  But because of that very privilege, I have a huge responsibility.  The U.S. Government funded, trained and equipped the Guatemalan death squads – my torturers themselves.  The United States was the Guatemala army’s partner in a covert war against a small opposition force –  a war the United Nations would later declare genocidal.  I am answerable for what my country has done and is doing and is likely to do, as the world’s only “superpower”. I have a responsibility to be vigilant and speak out.”  “Don’t forget. Even if you can’t see the light, it’s there.”  

Everyone responds to truth in their own way. Truth can break your heart. My first reaction was a kind of numbness as I began to go through my huge pile of books. School of the Americas in the U.S. indeed trained the Guatemalan military…..knowledge hurts!  Denial was my first reaction.  There was a time that I believed that the war in Vietnam was just and our invasion of Iraq was necessary.  I didn’t know what I didn’t know until my eyes were opened by my Great Adventure! 

Years later I have come to a certain peace knowing that I have absolutely no power to change the world.   In reality I think of all the lives affected by the insanity of war…the inhumanity, the waste of all that once was promising and beautiful.

It took seven years for me to produce my first and only paintings from Guatemala with the full knowledge that I wasn’t doing them for the money or prestige.  I had changed and my work changed with me.   Like the Velveteen Rabbit, I started to become real (still have some way to go)! Following Forrest’s advice I recalled the honesty I felt from the Wyeth paintings in his exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1967.  Slowly some honesty crept into my work.  Larger canvases – open spaces – peace.

My disenchantment with galleries and the art world grew and I backed away slowly.  Roaming became a habit.  A small lunch, my camera and a spare flannel shirt and I was off to places unknown in my little blue Dodge Dakota pick-up truck. Falling in love with all the small villages on the High Road all over again and seeing them in a new light I recovered my sense of Place.  They are a part of me. One afternoon in Amalia.  a surprise detour on a little dirt road led to open spaces so silent that I heard the sound of bird wings overhead.  I am grounded. My true “home” is in these mountains. So grateful. DC