Sanitary Tortilla Factory gallery owner uses art to forge community bonds, reach out to others

Sheri Crider is both a sculptor and a painter. Here she works on a painting in her Sanitary Tortilla Factory space. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “My name is *****! I’m 15 but I will be 16 on Nov. 14, and I am currently in jail. I have been in and out of jail sense (sic) the age of 12. I’ve been to a treatment center 3 times! It all started when my oldest sister Angel pasted (sic) away in February 19, 2014. She may have committed suicide!!?? But I don’t know for sure. I don’t think she would leave me like this …”

The letter is from a girl incarcerated at the time in the Bernalillo County Juvenile Detention Center. It goes on, becoming more heartbreaking as it does, twisting knots in your throat, squeezing tears into the corners of your eyes even as it opens them to the unimaginable challenges faced by some people in our community.

This young girl’s story — frank and frightening — came out of a sketchbook-exchange program between local artists, Working Classroom students at Albuquerque’s South Valley Academy and girls in juvenile detention.

Sheri Crider, Albuquerque artist, contractor and owner of the Sanitary Tortilla Factory gallery, 401 Second St. SW, organized the program. The results of the sketchbook-exchange project, which continued for three months, were displayed Dec. 9 in “The Story of Ourselves,” an exhibit at Sanitary Tortilla Factory.

“It’s much like their lives,” Crider said of the stories and sketches coming from the jailed girls. “Very fractured. But it strengthens their understanding of themselves and their environments, gives them the chance to ask themselves questions.”

Crider is committed to social change through art, to giving both art and artists a boost. She makes studio space at her gallery available to artists at low rental fees, welcomes artists to exhibit at her gallery free of charge, sponsors six-week residency programs for artists that include housing, $500 in travel funds and a $1,500 stipend.

She sees the sketchbook project as a first step in creating a mentorship strategy and building bonds between the community and the visual arts.

She firmly believes in the positive influence of art, and she has good reason. Crider has been in jail herself, and it was art that saved her from a lost, desperate and, very likely, abbreviated life.

Crossing the line

Crider was in seventh grade the first time she drank alcohol.

“And then it was pot, heroin, everything,” she said during a recent interview at her gallery. “In the end I was homeless, living on the streets in Phoenix. There is a line that you cross. In the beginning, it is kind of fun to drink and use drugs. But, at some point, you drink and use drugs to forget what you have become.”

Crider, now 49, was adopted as an infant and grew up in Phoenix, graduating from that city’s Trevor Browne High School in 1986. She had been suspended for drinking at school but was not arrested for the first time until she was 18. The charge was driving under the influence. During the succeeding years, she served time in city and county jails for substance abuse and violation of release conditions.

When she was in her early 20s, she was in a court-ordered drug-treatment program at Casa Grande, Ariz.

“I had been in that program twice before,” she said. “But this time the counselor asked me ‘What are you good at? What do you want to do?’ The big thing was that no one had ever asked me that before.”

The question prompted Crider to assess herself, just as she hopes the sketchbook project helps incarcerated girls examine their own lives.

She told the counselor that she was good at art, that in the fourth grade she had been selected to attend advanced art classes in Phoenix.

Things happened fast then. She was enrolled in a community college with an academic tuition waiver and then got a fine arts scholarship to attend the University of Arizona. Life was looking good.

“The bad thing was I decided I could drink,” she said.

Bigger than clay

Crider had managed to find her natural mother and two half-sisters and learn the circumstances that led to her being given up for adoption. She also learned that her birth mom was an alcoholic.

“I think there is a genetic disposition to substance abuse,” she said. “The minute I drink alcohol, it is different from most people.”

But settled into college on scholarship, she made the mistake of thinking she could control her drinking.

“At the end of that first year (in college), I was doing crack and heroin,” she said. “I lost all those scholarships.”

Having found hope before, however, she managed to find her way back. She got straight and got back into the University of Arizona.

“I got the biggest student loan known to man,” she said.

She graduated from Arizona in 1995 and entered the master’s of fine arts program at the University of New Mexico in 1997. Her concentration at Arizona had been in ceramics. But that changed when she got to UNM.

“She had bigger ambitions than clay could accomplish,” said sculptor Steve Barry, who was a professor in UNM’s art department when Crider was doing graduate work there.

“I pointed her in the right direction, telling her what tools and materials to use. She started doing pieces big enough for people to get into. She did this one large cylinder, tiled on the inside with graffiti-like text on the wall that provided emotional atmosphere. It was a self-portrait in a way, her way of getting inside her skin.”

Crider had subdued her demons before she met Barry. She has been sober almost 25 years.

“I learned about that part of her life because it became part of talking about her work and where it came from,” said Barry, who retired from UNM in 2011. “The Sheri I know was always so responsible and hard working. That is the only part of her personality I have ever experienced. And her generosity.”

Barry said Crider supports the arts community by renting out studio space at very little cost and by making space available to two UNM graduate art students each year for their thesis exhibits.

“She represents the kind of community-building ethos I subscribe to,” he said.

Free bird

Crider would not be in the position to attempt the kinds of changes she hopes to accomplish in the Albuquerque community if she had not found a way to make a good living.

“I was coming to art from a very naive place,” she said. “How do you make money in art? I was like, ‘What are you going to do for a job? You get out of school and you have to pay those loans.’ It was a disaster.”

But she worked at laying tile all through graduate school and just out of graduate school she taught art for a year at the University of New Mexico-Gallup. She started a tile-installation business and then went into general contracting. Her work on construction sites not only paid the bills but provided inspiration for her art.

“She was noticing immense amounts of waste,” Barry said. “She is always trying to repurpose materials. Her major thrust is recycling material.”

Crider also does paintings of large public arenas such as the Rio Olympics stadium re-created as a refugee camp.

Earlier this year, she was a recipient of a Right of Return fellowship, presented by the Soze Agency of Brooklyn, N.Y., to formerly incarcerated artists. The fellowship is a $10,000 prize plus an additional $10,000 for the materials and production time required to create an original work of art advancing criminal justice reform.

Crider’s fellowship project, scheduled for exhibit at the UNM Art Museum in August 2018, will be an installation comprised of wooden birds made from old chapel pews. It will be accompanied by stories from immigrants held in detention centers.

“The bird was a vehicle for me to talk about being free and immigration,” Crider said.

A bird Crider’s grandfather made for her when she was a child inspired the installation. She still has that bird.

“My grandfather was this remarkable person who was able to embody empathy,” Crider said. “He was my adoptive mother’s father. He listened and he really cared about things. He made me a bird out of trash. He was very resourceful.”

Building bridges

For eight years prior to renovating and moving into the Sanitary Tortilla Factory gallery, Crider had a combination business headquarters and gallery in Albuquerque’s Wells Park neighborhood.

“I built five studios in that space and rented them out to artists,” she said. “Then I did an option-to-buy lease (on the Sanitary Tortilla Factory building) in 2015 and exercised the option to buy in 2016.”

For many years, the 13,700-square-foot building housed the popular M&J Sanitary Tortilla Factory restaurant. She retained part of the name in homage to that Albuquerque institution.

The Sanitary Tortilla Factory gallery includes 15 artist studios, an exhibit space and a fabrication shop. The latter, Crider said, is used for sculpture work.

“The larger vision of the gallery is to highlight Albuquerque as a center where there are artists creating really great contemporary art,” she said. “I think Albuquerque is a great place to look at culture because everything is so disrupted here. The homelessness, the poverty.”

She said she wants the gallery and its mission to live beyond her, but she is still figuring out what the gallery’s legacy will be.

“I know I want to be involved in the community,” she said. “I know I don’t want the gallery to be part of the elite class structure. I hope one day to offer a scholarship that would provide free studio space for a year to an Albuquerque-area artist, a person of color, any age.”

She hopes also to create an extension of the sketchbook program, to continue reaching out to incarcerated girls.

She wants to show them how visual art can help them, make sure they know about her gallery and about Working Classrooms, a program that supports talented young artists from historically ignored communities.

“I want to build bridges,” she said. “Like that counselor did when she asked me ‘What are you good at?’.”

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