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Carrizozo gallery brings New Mexico into sharp focus

CARRIZOZO – Nancy Siddens and David Johnson peer at Wayne Suggs’ “Sunset on the Past” more as if it were a memory than a beautifully composed photograph.

Photographer Suggs took the photo – boulders enriched with detailed rock art in the foreground, a sun hurling out last-gasp lances of light as it sets in the background – at the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site in Otero County, midway between Tularosa and Carrizozo.

“We were just there this morning,” Siddens said.

Unassuming but amazing

As they gaze at Suggs’ photograph, Siddens and Johnson are at the Tularosa Basin Gallery of Photography in Carrizozo, the Lincoln County seat.

Housed in the old Lutz building, constructed during the years 1915 to 1917 and used originally as a mercantile establishment, the gallery displays hundreds of photographic images by more than 35 photographers. All of the photographers live in New Mexico and all of the photos displayed here were taken in the state.

There are color and black and white prints, matted prints, framed prints, metallic prints and canvas wrap prints. Cards and photo books are available, too.

“You usually don’t see this large a collection of really good photographs and very few galleries devoted to photographs,” Johnson said. “It’s amazing to find this in small towns.”

Johnson, 72, a longtime Florida resident who now makes his home in Truth or Consequences, and Siddens, 64, who escaped the bitter winters of Boston to live in Las Cruces, were enjoying a midweek getaway to explore their adopted state.

“I’m always interested in where there’s art,” said Johnson, who paints landscapes and does some photography himself.

Siddens said she liked experiencing art in the unassuming, laid-back atmosphere of tiny Carrizozo, population 950.

“The quality of what you are seeing here is really impressive,” she said.

Surround-sound mountains

Warren Malkerson,72, a retired business executive who worked with companies such as General Mills, Pillsbury, PepsiCo and L.L. Bean, opened the Tularosa Basin Gallery in October 2014. But he credits Joan, his wife of 52 years, with their transition to the world of art and small-town life.

Joan, who is from Denver, has been doing art for 25 years. She paints, works in ceramics and recently started creating bronze heads.

As he contemplated retirement, Malkerson asked Joan what she wanted to do.

“She said, ‘I want to find a small town in the Southwest and make a difference in the art world,'” Malkerson said during a phone interview from Minneapolis, his home town. “We are back and forth during the summer because we have family in Minnesota, including six grandkids. But in winter, we are solid down in New Mexico.”

The Malkersons, who bought a house in the Ruidoso area in 1995, were familiar with New Mexico. Malkerson zeroed in on Carrizozo as the site of their new venture.

“You had (U.S.) highways 380 and 54 bringing people in,” he said. “Carrizozo is halfway between the Bosque del Apache (National Wildlife Refuge) and the White Sands. People have to come by Carrizozo to get from one to the other.” He said the gallery had more than 2,000 visitors last year and that traffic is up 15 percent this year.

“And I can get from Carrizozo to Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Las Cruces in two hours or a little more,” Malkerson pointed out.

But there was more to Carrizozo, in Malkerson’s view, than good business sense.

“It’s on high plains with surround-sound mountains,” he said. “The town has some great architecture in there. Bricks (from the long-gone Ancho Brick Plant 20 miles north of Carrizozo) went into the photo gallery but there are some old adobe buildings. I like that it is not a suburb to a big city. It has its own independence, its own residents, people who care about their little town.”

Arts community

Joan shows her art, along with that of other artists, at her Malkerson Gallery 408, a fine art gallery at 408 12th St. in Carrizozo. She opened Gallery 408 in 2005, nine years before the photography gallery made its debut.

Gallery 408 is at the hub of a growing arts community in Carrizozo and at the heart of an artists-in-residence program that brings in 20 guest artists a year.

“When Joan opened her gallery, there were five artists who called Carrizozo home,” Malkerson said. “Now there are 43.”

And there are now at least five galleries along Carrizozo’s 12th Street, including the Tularosa Basin Gallery of Photography. The photo gallery’s second floor provides space for 14 artist studios occupied by photographers, a painter, a jeweler, a sculptor, a surveyor and Lanelle Hopson-Lemons, from Mound, Texas, who teaches fiddle playing.

“This is a fun, creative group of people here,” said Hopson-Lemons, 56, who is also one of the six sales managers who work at the photography gallery on different days of the week.

“Photography has been a lifetime passion of mine,” Warren Malkerson said. “My photos are family and trips, but I don’t have any of my photographs in the gallery.”

He said the 15,000 square feet of exhibit space at Tularosa Basin makes it the largest photography gallery in New Mexico. One 75 feet by 14 feet wall is devoted to the display of panoramic photos such as Robert Flaherty’s “Christmas at Midtown,” taken on snow-covered Sudderth Drive in Ruidoso at 4 a.m. a few days after Christmas 2015.

The color tableau captures both sides of Sudderth Drive’s holiday-decorated business district as it stretches away, illuminated by a nearly full moon, toward towering Sierra Blanca. It looks more like a painting or a huge Christmas card than a photograph.

Sales manager Hopson-Lemons said Flaherty was challenged by a Ruidoso policeman who wanted to know what he thought he was doing standing on a ladder in the middle of the street in the middle of the night. Flaherty told him he was a photographer, which must have been enough explanation. He got his photo.

Picture perfect

Elsewhere in the gallery, Klaus Priebe nails the hard toll of ranch work with “End of the Day,” a black-and-white photo of a cowboy standing between two horses, using them as support, his head tilted so far forward in a posture of fatigue that only the top of his black hat is visible. Priebe’s “Lost Love,” depicting weathered wooden crosses in a cemetery near an adobe church, tells a different but affecting story to everyone who sees it.

Landscape photographer Nancy Gregory, also a sales manager at Tularosa Basin, tries to convey her deep feelings for New Mexico’s natural places with photographs such as “Sculpted Dunes,” “White Sands, Blue Mountains” and “Sunset at White Sands.”

In her photographer’s statement, Gregory said she tries to capture in her images “the places you yearn to visit to get some peace of mind, some rest, or even rejuvenation.”

Hopson-Lemons understands that. She and her husband moved to Carrizozo last year and are living in and renovating an old building on 12th Street.

“You come here and see the open spaces, the quiet, the beauty draws you in,” she said in an accent that is still Texas strong. “I like the sun. I have always wanted to do over an old building. I like the climate and the people – the people from here and the people who have moved here. Joan and Warren are like “What do you need to make art and be happy?'”

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