Ortenstone's Atmospheres
by Robert Nott

Artist Nancy Ortenstone has a bird's-eye view of the world.

That's not surprising, considering she spent many days of her Minnesota-based childhood sitting in trees, where she conversed with imaginary friends and nibbled on graham crackers.

About 30 of Ortenstone's acrylic-on-canvas paintings are on display in the exhibit Songs of Silence, which opens with a reception for the artist from 5 to 7 p.m. today, March 9, at Canyon Road Contemporary Art. The exhibit runs through March 19.

Debbi Brody, co-owner of the gallery, describes Ortenstone's work as "atmospheric abstraction." As far as abstract art goes, Ortenstone's is warm and inviting, like a spring day or summer rain.

California Blues, for example, doesn't necessarly summon up a blue feeling so much as it does a blue sky - it's more about having the bright colors inspire you to skip work and go out and play. Maybe you'll want to take a dip in the blue colors of the painting.

That interpretation suits Ortenstone just fine.

"I used to want to give people a calm space to visit in my paintings," she said in an interview in the gallery. "A place where they can find reassurance, like in their own home. But now it's more like I want to give viewers a walk through nature."

Her studio is, appropriately, high up -- on the second floor of a 100-year-old adobe house atop a bluff overlooking fields of grazing cows and forests of pine trees. In short she's still looking over the world like a bird perched in the treetops.

Ortenstone comes off as warm and gentle as her paintings. Viewers looking at her work might come away with a feeling of tranquility and peace, as opposed to that sense of angst and uncertainty that sometimes accompanies the ride you get when you "buy a ticket" to abstract art.

She peppers her color fields with the blues, reds and greens inherent to the region of Northern New Mexico where she lives. Earth, wind, water and fire threaten to escape from her unframed canvases.

Ortenstone's background includes an education that encompassed creative writing, a brief career in dance, and the penning of several books of poertry and a novel (unpublished) about an ornithologist.

She began painting about 13 years ago. Almost immediately she created abstract works. She knew exactly where they were coming from.

"As a child I had abstract dreams," she said. "I lived in an abstract world. The dreams were exciting, baffling and scary. They had three-dimensional shapes that weren't grounded. I was fascinated by them, but I didn't know what to do with them.

"About three months after I began painting for the first time, these abstract figures began to appear in my work."

Her initial pieces had an unsettling feel to them, she said. She's since worked to iron out those wrinkles. Nature has been her ally, making her aware of the way the shifts in wind affect the light, the way mist or rain moves through leafy openings in trees and how wind and clouds can work together to create a rhythmic blend of color.

Ortenstone said she likes to title her works as if they were poems -- Nightglow, Song of Spring, Awakening to Wonder.

"More often than not, the pieces give me the title," she said. "Other times it's kind of difficult to come up with a title, because I don't want to limit them by defining them."

She came up with the title for the exhibit while taking a night walk after her last exhibit more than a year ago. She said she felt euphoric while strolling through the wide-open spaces and was struck by the silence that engulfed her. Hence Songs of Silence.

You may notice a windowlike structure in just about every one of her pieces. That window, which seems slightly at odds with the naturalistic elements that dominate Ortenstone's work, is there to help the artist -- and consequently the viewer -- find her way into the painting.

"You know how you're on a train, and as you're traveling, you look out at the houses, and you see a glow in the windows?" she asked. "I always want to iknow about the life inside those houses. What's going on in there?"

Ortenstone said she gets so caught up in her painting that she forgets where she is or what time it is. To remind her to take a break now and then, a friend gave her a sign that looks like a big white glove and bears the word "Stop." Ortenstone hangs the sign over the work area in her studio. She said it doesn't help much.

Does she ever worry about getting so lost in her paintings that she'll never find her way out again?

"No," she said. "I have those little windows to climb out of."

For the record, she no longer talks with imaginary friends. But she still has a hankering for graham crackers.

(Reprinted from Pasatiempo, The Santa Fe New Mexican, March 9-15, 2001)