Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
As a little girl, Joanna Keane Lopez remembers forming clay animals from mud.
Today, she creates adobe sculpture from clay.
Adobe walls sparkle in the sun, with its rays catching mica chips that glitter like stars. Lopez turns this ancient home-building material into geometric works of art.
“SITElab15: Joanna Keane Lopez: Land Craft Theatre” showcases her work in a new commission at SITE Santa Fe. The exhibition runs through Jan. 9, 2022.
Some of her forms rise into half-moons against gallery walls; others incorporate stair-step pueblo architecture. One piece combines mirrors, mica, cotton and the blood-red of cochineal insects found on cactuses.
“I’m really interested in geometric shapes,” Lopez said. “I’m interested in pushing my work toward being as minimal as possible.”
The Albuquerque artist and co-president of the Santa Fe nonprofit Adobe in Action, Lopez has exhibited at Arkansas’ Crystal Bridges Museum of Art, the National Hispanic Cultural Center and Blue Star Contemporary in San Antonio, Texas.
Through the combination of clay and sand, Lopez smooths together work, seeking healing and reparation of the splintering of families, homes and community connected to her New Mexico roots.
“My father’s family comes from Socorro,” she said. “We have an old land grant there, so the family has been out there since the 1700s.”
Her ancestors christened the neighborhood Lopezville. Lopez visited the area regularly as a child.
“Mainly, it’s in a state of fragmentation,” she said. “There’s been a lot of inter-generational trauma in the family. There’s been a pull away from living on traditional land.”
Across the decades, her family history took darker turns, infected by drug addiction, imprisonment and suicide. For Lopez, her adobe work serves as a kind of healing balm.
When she was studying at the University of New Mexico-Taos, Lopez contacted two women who taught her the tradition of adobe-making and plastering. At the time, she was working on her bachelor’s degree in fine arts. She says enjarradora (woman plasterer) and painter Anita Rodriguez taught her how to process the bricks, while artist and natural builder Carole Crews showed her how to plaster.
“I was so lucky to work with both of them because they are just legends,” Lopez said.
She also learned to use alíz, a milky clay slip used to finish the interior of the walls, mixing it with buttermilk.
“Traditionally, the men would do the bricking and the women would do the plastering,” she said.
Adobe demands a relationship, Lopez said. You have to fix the cracks, you have to re-mud the building. It draws family and friends to the tasks. Lopez wants to reignite that connection.
“I have always been into houses,”she explained. “When I lived in Taos, I lived in a place that was by an artist builder. It was wood; it got me thinking about architecture as art.”
Lopez quickly transferred those skills into sculpture and large installations. She works with five-gallon-bucket loads of clay and hundreds of pounds of adobe bricks to produce her singular architecture-cum-sculptures.
Her colorful adobe sculptures invite viewers to move freely around them, inspiring reflection and playfulness. She also created paper sculptures suspended from the ceiling.
Next year, Lopez will have come full circle. She will return to her alma mater, Albuquerque High School, as an artist-in-residence through 516 ARTS.
She also teaches an adobe architecture workshop at Albuquerque’s New Mexico Earth Adobes. Both the Andy Warhol Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation have supported her work.