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Identifying with emotions

“Sign of Hope” by Christy Schwathe, oil on hard board, 20 by 24 inches. (Courtesy of Keep Contemporary)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

In a time of pandemic, massive fires and social upheaval, Christy Schwathe paints portraits of loss wrapped in hope.

The New Mexico artist will showcase her work in “Grief and Hope,” opening at Santa Fe’s KEEP Contemporary on Friday, Nov. 20.

Now based in rural Costilla north of Taos, Schwathe grew up in a family of artists in Montrose, Colorado.

“My parents owned a restaurant,” she said. “We lived on the second floor above the restaurant. My Dad was the chef, so he was very creative. My Mom was a painter.”

Schwathe earned her bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of New Mexico, where she majored in printmaking and drawing. She can’t remember how old she was when she first began drawing, but she always preferred portraits.

Portraits can be literal representations of people created on commission. Or they may represent an artist’s attempt to reach beneath the visible skin.

Depicting people, even if she conjures them in her mind, allowed Schwathe to convey emotions.

“Sign of Hope” emerged as the smoke churned through the sky from the Colorado wildfires two years ago.

“It was when the fires were burning just north of the border,” Schwathe said. “I’m staying home watching these plumes of smoke rise.”

The figure of an anonymous woman cradles an errant dragonfly.

“Dragonflies for me symbolize water,” Schwathe said. “That little dragonfly is a symbol of water and hope.”

For Schwathe, invented figures allow viewers to identify with the emotions involved and to find their own place within the composition. None of her figures are literal.

“Grief on the Wing,” oil and metal leaf on canvas, 24 by 36 inches. (Courtesy of Keep Contemporary)

“Grief on the Wing” emerged after a river hike along some cattails. An African American man rises from the marsh, his hands open in horror or ecstasy.

“I started working on that when the whole Black Lives Matter movement was coming up this year,” Schwathe said. “I was on a hike by a river and these red winged blackbirds flew by. It made me think of grief personified.”

Schwathe began the piece intending to convey the sadness she felt. But the painting led her otherwise.

“It didn’t want to go that way,” she said. “His expression is more hopeful and ecstatic. In the end, it became more like grief healing.”

The artist added metallic paint to stripe the sky.

“House on Fire” by Christy Schwathe, oil and metal leaf on canvas, 24 by 36 inches. (Courtesy of Keep Contemporary)

“House on Fire” encapsulates the pandemic and a world in turmoil. A masked and gloved worker stands helplessly before the flames.

“It’s this feeling for the house workers, nurses and doctors during the pandemic,” Schwathe said. “There was this sense of feeling our house was on fire.”

“Crazy Chicken Lady” is based on her own newly acquired birds. Veined lines connect the figure to the forest and sky.

“Crazy Chicken Lady,” oil and metal leaf on canvas, 18 by 24 inches. (Courtesy of Keep Contemporary)

“I just had chickens on the brain,” Schwathe said with a laugh. “It’s about the loss of connection; being out in the environment with your chickens.”

Her Surrealism-meets-Symbolist double portrait “I Was Wild Once” offers metaphorical clues as to the figures whose striations entangle into the earth beneath a glowing crescent moon in gold paint.

“To me, it’s this idea of the veins of our body reaching to the roots of the earth,” Schwathe said.

Schwathe has shown her work at KEEP Contemporary for more than a year.

Like many artists, she falls into a kind of trance as she works.

“Everything else melts away,” she said. “I can just focus and the rest of the world shuts up.”

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