ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Mary Ann Weems is a cyclone of creative combustion.
Sapling slim crowned in a cloud of blonde hair, this doyenne of the Albuquerque art scene is finally pursuing what she has spent 33 years of her professional life encouraging others to do – putting paintbrush to canvas.
It all started with two heart attacks in 2013. Her doctors blamed them on stress. Oh, and before that, she had battled bladder cancer five times. She’s 66.
“They said, ‘Sell the gallery,'” she said, her voice churning in a smoky rumble. “I said, ‘I can’t.’ They said, ‘You’ll die.'”
So she slashed her seven-days-a-week routine down to three and starting painting again for the first time since she opened the gallery.
Souvenirs of her gallery life paper the walls like decoupage. Snapshots of family, friends and her beloved dachshunds Oscar and Mayer dizzy her office walls next to photographs of celebrities who have attended the Weems International Artfest. There’s Sophia Loren swanning down an Italian street. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Weems bowling in the White House. A framed and signed 45 single of Neil Sedaka’s “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.” The list goes on – Lily Tomlin, Anthony Quinn, Bo Derek, Jane Seymour and “Sex and the City’s” John Corbett. Lauren Bacall was one of her favorites.
“She’s a shopaholic,” Weems said. “She just walked around and was so fascinated. She was just a hoot.”
Loren “walked around the fairgrounds in 5-inch heels,” she added.
Weems wound around a warren of offices behind the gallery before opening the door to what she jokingly called “Pollock’s studio.” Echoes of the abstract expressionist’s explosive style cover the floor in rainbows of spaghetti-like drips. Weems’ paintings lean against one another and the walls. They reveal the work of an artist still searching for her own style. A quick glance reveals abstractions, landscapes, snowscapes and cityscapes, as well as cartoon-like portraits of dogs and pigs.
“I do everything,” she said. “I’m a chameleon.”
Close friend and chair of Weems’ annual International Artfest, Thelma Domenici, has long encouraged Weems to pursue her own creative path. She says her friend accepts both feedback and criticism about her fledgling artwork.
“I think the diversity in her art comes from the creativity of knowing (other) artists personally,” she said. “I think what she’s doing magnificently well are the Southwest scenes and the latilla fences.
“She continues to want to grow,” Domenici continued. “I’m sure most artists have that. She wants to challenge her creativity.”
Through the years, Weems has nurtured the careers of such well-known artists as B.C. Nowlin, David Vega Chavez, Sarah Blumenschein and Paul Murray.
She started the gallery in 1981 with $5,000 borrowed from her parents.
“I paid it back in two years,” she declared proudly.
She tried to be a stay-at-home mom but her relentless energy freed her from that prescribed role. She had two children, Elizabeth and Brian.
“They had a room in the house where they could paint all the walls,” she said. “It was very fun, but I was restless. I had to get out of the house. I was a terrible cook. It was a passion. I wanted to be like my mom, but I can’t.”
She tried hawking her own pen-and-ink drawings to local galleries but found no takers. So she made a list of names of the artists she knew and put them all in a 400-square-foot strip-mall gallery at Eubank and Candelaria. Selling only on a commission basis, she emphasized craft, a category some well-meaning advisers admonished her to avoid. Today pottery is her top-seller.
“I had great respect for it,” she said.
“Of course, the gallery led to the divorce,” she acknowledged. “I became married to the gallery.”
She deliberately avoided art-centric enclaves like Old Town and Santa Fe’s Canyon Road to eliminate what she calls “the intimidation factor.”
“I wore shorts,” she said. “People can walk in at Christmas and say, ‘I have $25, what can I buy?'”
She launched the Artfest 32 years ago; it opened with about 100 artists and drew from 5,000 to 10,000 visitors. Today it attracts 285 artists and has lured as many as 50,000 customers from as far away as New York, Philadelphia and California.
Today the gallery prices range from $3 to $12,000.
Art has been her first love since she first scribbled chalk on a Carlsbad sidewalk at age 3.
“When I was in second grade, I used to trade art for pencils,” she said.
She eschews what she calls “avant-garde” art: “rocks on the floor, white canvas on a wall.”
“If an artist walks in and all his stuff is $10,000, I don’t have the market for it,” she added.
She still smokes unapologetically despite her health issues. A ceramic sign on her desk reads, “Be kind to smokers. We haven’t got much time left.”
Three small porcelain jars sit atop a bookshelf brimming with the many dachshund toys given to Weems by her friends.
“Those are ashes,” she said quietly. “Of customers.
“One asked me,” she said. “It just sort of happens. They had such a good life at the gallery. They became so much more than friends. I feel so honored to have them there.”