Fine art

Art of elementals

Works by Taos artist Dora Dillistone debut at Encore Gallery


Earth-shifting mud flows, raging torrents cutting grand canyons, hoodoos wounded by wicked winds, fiery deserts skinned by glittering icebergs – these elementals are the artists that Dora Dillistone curates.

“The medium is the message,” as Marshal McLuhan famously states, noting it is definitely “not something neutral” – as we’ve been so harshly reminded over the past hurricane season. This medium, this earth, “takes hold of people, roughs them up and bumps them around” (from “Understanding Media,” 1967). Dillistone says we can see the handwriting on nature’s wall, if only we are curious, if we will pay attention.

The latest works from Dillistone’s inquiring mind are exhibited in “The Literal Landscape,” opening Monday (Oct. 30) at the Encore Gallery of the Taos Community Auditorium, 145 Paseo del Pueblo Norte. The gallery is hosting an opening reception Thursday (Nov. 2), from 4-6 p.m. Dillistone is also planning an artist discussion Dec. 7 from 4-6 p.m.

“These are literal landscapes,” Dillistone said. “They’re made by the land and the elements and can never be repeated. I’m just the coordinator.”

Intrigued of late as to how to make marks without actually making marks, Dillistone lit upon the modus operandi of carefully choosing locations in the natural environment, where she sets out large swaths of heavy watercolor paper for Mother Nature to work upon.

The evidence is there: Earth and wind, fire and water work together and mark the movement of land, its displacement during rain, sleet, snow and impedimenta. Nature’s dirt and mineral paintings are the reaction to wind, water and fire, marking artworks of coiling vortices, dancing forms behind diaphanous veils, sometimes suggesting sinuous and muscular limbs, soft brown mounds and cliffs or stellar winds of sparking fire currents. The elementals move the land in ways a human artist could only presume or perhaps copy.

The record of an event “leaves delicate and spontaneous marks fixed in time and space,” Dillistone noted. She added a bit ironically, “The attempt to ‘not make art’ makes art.”

Escaping from the rigid concrete and steel of city life in Houston, Texas, the wide-open mesas and verdant forests of Northern New Mexico finally claimed her in 2008 – after nearly 30 years of part-time, annual explorations of Southwestern landscapes, skyscapes and archaeological sites.

“It’s all about hydrology, the flow,” she said, pointing in an arc around the 10-acre plot of piñón and juniper she and husband Carl own north of Taos town proper. “If you just look around, you’ll see how this land is affected by water,” both the lack of it and the abundance. “You’ll realize there’s a lot more about the land; you’ll notice the climate changes.”

She finds that the five “sipapus,” or places of “emergence” into physical life recorded in Native American histories, jive eerily well with her research of the previous five “massive earth extinctions.” It gives her great pause, considering the planet is being hailed by world scientists to currently be in its sixth massive extinction, as evidenced by the rapid die-off of animals and humanity, due to water and soil pollution destroying health and habitat.

“I hope with this work, there will be some thought about the science of it all, that it will provoke some thinking about how we affect our own little corner of the world,” she said.

Using an uncommon medium helps an artist make a statement, such as that seen in street art or incorporating found objects in a piece or, in Dillistone’s work, incorporating the commonest medium on earth – dirt.

She is particularly fond of a charcoal strata unearthed in a weathered gash on her land. “Using dirt and paper is as old as the paintings in the caves of Lascaux, using dirt and hands and soot. That was the original charcoal and paper artwork.”

Of the new works, Dillistone said, “It’s the hand of the mother, the beauty of the marks and the beauty of the land.” A graphite cuneiform of GPS coordinates locates each piece in the place, time and dates of nature’s creation of that landscape. That information is noted at the edge of each elemental work.

“Houston floods, but you can’t see the effects. But here, here I can go out and see the cuts the water makes in the earth. It’s a slow-moving dance of the elements. Here, there’s seasons of wind and seasons of rain and snow. I use that to let the land orchestrate and make its own marks,” she said.

In the wind drawings, wind disperses particles of graphite on the substrate “in strong yet delicate directional marks. The particles shift and dance upon the surface just as the wind disperses dirt as it sculpts the land,” she says in press materials, noting these forces have made her “more aware of their influence on the ever-present force of fire. Works are burned and the ephemeral ash is laid delicately on a canvas. The viewer is confronted with a provocative image of a transient and ephemeral event on which our lives have a direct impact.”

Admission to the reception and discussion are free. For more information, call the Taos Center for the Arts at (575) 758-2052 or visit