Where Space Meets Time
Nancy Ortenstone stands at the crossroads of memory and promise.
by Suzanne Deats

Nancy Ortenstone loves to go for long walks in the mountains near her home in northern New Mexico. It is an expansive landscape, with vast meadows below and La Jicarita peak in the far distance. Yet it is not overwhelming. As Ortenstone gathers it all in, she finds that she is calmed and exalted by the beauty before her.

The splendor of the natural world, no matter what the season, is spellbinding. The profound quiet is enhanced by the rushing river and the wind in the trees. The light, sometimes clear and sometimes richly golden, falls on an ever-changing landscape. Summer brings afternoon showers and spectacular sunsets. Hawks wheel and turn overhead. In autumn the aspens and cottonwoods shout with color. Winter blankets the deep, dark pine forests with snow.

Ortenstone returns to her studio to paint magnificent abstact canvases that seem at first glance to have little to do with the landscape. In fact, they have everything to do with it. Outside her studio window is a sweeping meadow and sky that rushes in and twirls around with the memory of the forest from which she just returned. The same wind moves through the trees, and the same hawk circles overhead. She stands in the synapse between her internalized impressions and the ones that are coming to her afresh.

Then she paints the moment itself. She describes the splash and boom of tumbling water instead of the actual river. She captures the motion of the breeze in the leaves, rather than the aspens and the cottonwoods. The warm feeling of the sun on her skin, the crackle of the air on a snowy day, the way the light actually looks, all make their way onto the canvas.

"There is a way in which I am letting the colors, forms, and light come to rest within myself," she says. "It is as though I'm looking out at the colors, but from the standpoint of recollection. At the same time, the colors are still moving toward me. It is a form of alchemy."

While Ortenstone's painting emerges from deeply personal experience, she always remains very conscious that a work of art is meant to be an offering to an unknown viewer. "When nature has had sufficient time to awaken a connection to our own inner selves," she observes, "it brings us serenity. I want to restore the same feelings to those who live daily in the presence of my work."

Ortenstone has a certain way of absorbing her experiences and painting their essence. For instance, she may study how light affects color and how feeling affects both. In this case, she addresses the act of being present at the intersection where her sense memories collide with the echoes of things yet to come. In abstract terms, this juncture is the relationship of the natural world to the inner being. She paints the actual instant of meeting a new experience with a consciousness of all that has gone before.

"The most important thing I am dealing with right now," she notes, "is the very fact of being fully present in the moment--not recalling the past or anticipating the future but centering my thoughts on the place where they intersect."

Perhaps because of this emphasis, her recent work seems more fully realized. The forms are more definitive, and the intervals are clearer. There is an easy crossover that connects the inner and outer worlds. Ortenstone feels that she is on both sides simultaneously, inhabiting them with an easy flow that is reflected in her work.

A recent trip to New York merely underscored this harmony. The paintings she saw in the museums enabled her to see her own art more clearly. She found the experience more validating than influential, for her focus remains on the calm, enchanted New Mexico environment she calls home.

Nancy OrtenstoneEach morning, she opens her eyes to see the brilliant skies and the clear light for which the region is celebrated. With her husband, noted author Pierre Delattre, she walks beside the tumbling streams and into the deep pine forests. She watches the elk drift across the meadows, and takes note of the changing weather. Every day is a new adventure; every experience adds to her storehouse of memories and dreams. There is simply nothing that inspires her so much as the grandeur of the natural world around her. "When splendor is alchemized to its essence," says Nancy Ortenstone, "it becomes serenity."

(Reprinted with permission from FOCUS/SANTA FE/JANUARY/FEBRUARY/MARCH 2001. Photo by Don Wolf)