ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Edwina Milner rose from the darkness of near blindness into the illumination of color.
The 84-year-old Santa Fe artist has returned to put brush to canvas in her recent series “The Gold Standard.” The exhibition runs through March 4 in Silver City.
Throughout the past 20 years, Milner has focused on promoting museums through an orbit of board positions. The 33 paintings celebrate her return to her own art after the devastating effects of a detached retina and macular degeneration.
“That’s why I started doing abstracts,” Milner said in a telephone interview from her Santa Fe home. “I don’t have to do it at a distance and reproduce it close-up.”
The problems began about 15 years ago as the sharpness of her vision dimmed. Hard contact lenses helped for a while.
“When you get your eyes dilated and the sun hurts you – it’s like that, only more so,” she said. “It’s all just a big blur.
“I can’t see details up close, like to put on makeup or do my hair,” she continued. “To really recognize people, I have to be within 6 feet of them.”
Still, she remains hopeful and grateful for the eyesight she has.
An overview of Milner’s past work first reveals department store ads, then pieces both representational and figural. The current paintings shimmer with gold leaf, acrylic and mixed media. Rife with fleeting images of tree bark, branches and pathways, they represent her life’s journey through the turns, twists and curves of her own choices in a bold color palette.
Former Governor’s Gallery director James Rutherford has known Milner since the early 1990s.
“It’s a very direct expression of her love for art and also her love of life,” he said. “I’m amazed at the positive outlook she has maintained throughout (her vision problems). The beauty is she’s created some super lovely work.”
Milner was born Chickasaw in Oklahoma City during the Great Depression. Her artistic talent surfaced early.
“My second-grade teacher made me the official artist of the room,” she said with a laugh. “We were oilfield trash and not accepted. I found myself through my art.”
Her traditional father told her she could be a secretary, a teacher or a nurse.
“I didn’t want any of those,” she said.
Her high school superintendent wrangled her a scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin, where she majored in art.
To support herself, she drew fashion illustrations for a local department store. When she graduated, she became its director. She has been showing her work since the 1950s and been featured in exhibitions at the Dallas Museum, San Antonio’s Witte Museum and UT.
During this time she grew acutely aware of the plight of women artists who were routinely banned from gallery and museum shows because of their gender.
“Women were placed in a mold,” she said. “Women were just not accepted in galleries. They’d say, ‘You paint like a woman.’ Very few women were shown in museums.”
She put her own career on hold, became a member of the Art League of Houston and joined the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She founded the New Mexico Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in 1997.
Milner and her husband moved to Santa Fe in 1990, where they served as the lead donors for Museum Hill’s Milner Plaza, bridging the Museum of International Folk Art and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.
“It has been wonderful to get back to my studio and painting,” she said. “I love color. I’ve been using gold leaf for about 25 years.”
She makes preliminary sketches beforehand, but says her technique is largely intuitive. She began making multiple series to fit her home’s curved walls.
“It’s just a joy to create,” she explained. “You go in there and look at a blank canvas and do it. You sit back and look at it and think, ‘I did that.'”
Milner received the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, the Governor’s Award for Outstanding Women in New Mexico and has served on the boards of the Museum of New Mexico, the International Folk Art Market, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and the New Mexico Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.