It was Valentine’s Day of 1986 when Teruko Wilde first arrived in Santa Fe. “I didn’t know anyone in the whole state,” she recalled. “I had one contact someone had given me, and when I called her, I found she was about to leave town the next day. But she put me in touch with a friend, who invited me to a gallery opening. That was the artist Joan Potter, and we are still friends today.”
Three decades later, Wilde is an acclaimed Taos artist with a long list of awards and exhibitions. “Conversations with Nature,” an exhibition of her new work, opens Friday (Aug. 12) with a reception from 5-7 p.m. at Total Arts Gallery, 122-A Kit Carson Road.
Wilde came to New Mexico after many years of painting in Ohio. “I wanted to pursue my dream as an artist, and I heard that there were 6,000 artists in Santa Fe, an incredible number. Some people could look at it as a lot of competition. But then I thought, ‘With that many artists, there could be an opportunity for me, too.’”
A day trip to Taos proved to be love at first sight. “Coming out of the gorge and seeing space open up, the sky, the mountain — it’s different than the mountains I knew as a young girl in Japan, but it felt like home to me. I settled here, and I am so happy I did.”
A visit with Wilde at her studio-home begins with her outdoor workspace, where newly begun paintings hang in the open air above festive paint-spattered gravel. “I like to start a painting out here, where I don’t need to have any worry about making a mess,” she said. “Then, I bring them indoors to finish them.”
The house itself has been a creative work in progress since Wilde purchased the rudimentary 1970s earthship in 1986. “The realtor told me it was the cheapest house in Taos,” she laughed. “It was very dark, sunk down into the ground, and all of the inside walls were painted brown. It was like walking into a cave, into the earth. I painted the walls white to bring more light. And then every time I made a few sales, I put some money into building on to it.”
The result is a welcoming, multileveled home with elements reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. In the sun-filled art studio, paintings in various stages of completion show a rare combination of masterful skill and coherent voice across a stunning range of stylistic explorations.
In an art market where financial success is often achieved by producing endless variations of the same painting, Wilde has made the deliberate choice to prioritize constant growth over guaranteed sales.
“Staying out of a groove is not as easy as most people think,” she said. “If your income is only from the sale of art, you have to survive. People who are used to seeing the kind of paintings they like from you may not come with you if you do something else. Even though I need to survive, I don’t want to do the same thing over and over. I have too much curiosity for that.”
Wilde began her career using primarily watercolors and pastels. The expansive landscape of Taos inspired her to work in different media.
“When I first moved here, I was so impressed with the sky. I suddenly wanted to do big paintings. I switched to oil painting on big canvases. Then I used to go outdoors into nature a lot and work that way. I painted sky because it moved me. But everything in the sky changes so fast! So I started sitting and meditating outside, and then the next day, I would paint what I’d seen. I became a studio painter.”
She described her work regimen, which she acknowledged is nothing like the “impulsive artist” stereotype. “I think discipline is essential for any occupation, including arts. I don’t think, ‘What should I do today?’ I’ve planned the night before what I’ll do the next day. Then the morning is like this: Make coffee. Walk around with coffee. Check email. Make oatmeal. Start painting.”
The show’s title, “Conversations with Nature,” reflects the artist’s listening to the constantly changing landscape and light. “Some artists literally, visually paint nature — the way they paint the chamisa, for example. I like to interpret. Chamisa in wind, rain, sun will show a different personality. My intention was to simplify, not necessarily to present a realistic representation. These are trees, but not literally real trees. They’re stylized; they’re my feeling of trees talking. Mystic trees.”
“Conversations” also encompasses the interactions of viewers with the work and with the artist. “People sometimes ask you to explain your painting,” Wilde said. “I don’t think that’s for painters to do. I want to know, ‘How do you feel looking at this particular painting?’ Put yourself into it, ask questions if you want. I would hate to tell people what they should see. I want them to tell me, and then I will speak. I’m curious to hear what you say about this painting, and often, it’s not what I thought!”
She talked with emotion about the milestone of three decades of work in Taos. “Such mixed feelings about these 30 years. It was a scary leap to come here. I’m pleased with the confidence I’ve gained, and in other ways, I feel like I haven’t done enough. I try to be humble, to keep going, keep creating. I’m so happy that after all these years, I still feel passion and have energy to go on.”
Harold Geller opened the Total Arts Gallery in Taos in 1969. “Teruko [has] been with us for 30 years now, and she has developed quite a following,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the audiences seeing her new techniques in this show. It’s always exciting to see what the response is.”
Of all her accomplishments and life experiences, Wilde talks most glowingly of her relationship with her daughter, Emily. “When Emily was born, I felt, for the first time, there is such a thing as a miracle. I’m so very pleased and proud of my daughter for being a good human.”
Emily Wilde has been assistant director at Total Arts Gallery for the past seven years. She spoke about her personal connection with this exhibit. “Mom’s 30th year in Taos is an emotional mile marker for her and for us as a gallery. Since she’s my mom, it’s hard to put into words, but it’s a special event. It’s a signifier – this show. She’s got 44 pieces, and she’s entering a new phase. Well, she’s constantly entering a new phase, constantly moving forward. There is a lot of pressure to stay within a field, and she juggles that, she struggles with it, but she somehow does it, and we have this fabulous show as a result.”
The show runs through Sept. 6. For more information, call (575) 758-4667 or visit totalartsgallery.com.