By Jenna Duncan, January 2019 Issue.
Life is a cycle, and after the cycle for any living thing on earth comes death. Some people think of these as opposites. The same can be true of light and dark. But just as some light may linger in the dark — take moonlight, for example — sometimes some resonances of the living may linger in certain sacred places, even after life has moved to the beyond.
Since 2002, multimedia and sculpture artist Mayme Kratz and her life partner, Mark Ryan, have been visiting Bears Ears National Monument and Cedar Mesa, parks in the region of the Arizona-Utah border. Designated lands are maintained by the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service as well as Navajo and Hopi tribes. The lands are honored by the Ute and Zuni, as well. Countless Native American archaeological and ancestral sites have been discovered throughout the decades.
“Beyond that, too, is that it’s a sacred place,” Kratz says. “I became really attached to the spirit of the area.”
“I remember the first time I went there, I was a little spooked. There were no tourists there. Mark and I were camping deep in a canyon and we felt like we were being watched. I mean, you felt like you belonged there. But you also felt like just a visitor.”
For Kratz, the spirit is benign, not unfriendly. Sensing the spirit indicates the place is not just beautiful but also revered.
“My work is always tied to nature and it really is about treating nature with reverence,” Kratz says.
In the last two years, the sanctity and conservancy of the area have become threatened by government moves to open the area to private mining operations. In February 2018, Pres. Trump withdrew protections from millions of acres of Utah wildlands, allowing private claims for mining copper, gold, silver, and uranium. “In 2017, the administration cut about 85 percent [of the protected land]. And I just thought, what do I do? Because at this point in life, you really don’t have that much time left on the planet, so you have to attribute it in the biggest and best way you can with the work you already so.”
“So, I thought I would bring the spirit of the place back and share it — celebrate it,” Kratz adds.
Kratz says she does not want to get too far into the politics about the changes to Bears Ears, because that brings a sort of negativity into the conversation. But she says she plans the show to be an homage and a celebration to the area.
Visiting the area has allowed her to see even familiar flora and fauna of the desert in new ways. Perhaps it is something about the altitude, she speculates, or maybe something about the light. “It’s so open, that you end up seeing things differently than you do in different places.”
Kratz says Navajo tea (also called Mormon tea) for example, up North, has colors that are more vivid. “Perhaps because it is more desperate,” she says.
To begin one of her paintings, Kratz begins with the background color. She covers her canvas with color — turquoise, or sunshine yellow, black or white. And then she layers in geometric designs of found natural objects. For example, a patch of dried Broom snakeweed or threadleaf snakeweed collected from the side of the road might be arranged in a circular manner with a hole in the middle, like an iris and pupil. This piece is part of an ongoing series called “The Vanishing Light.” Another painting shows a broadened circle designed from more of a variety of objects: sticks, the cross-sectioned bone of a deer femur, the tiny fragile hooks of a snake’s ribs.
“A lot of the images come from my dreams,” Kratz says. “A lot of this is what I see when I close my eyes.”
Kratz explains that everything she collects had already finished its lifecycle and is ethically and legally reclaimed from the side of the road (public land).
In addition to the paintings, Kratz will use an atrium in the gallery to create an immersive sound and space installation. She says on some of the Bears Ears camping trips she brought microphones and mounted them in trees, leaving them to capture the sounds of the desert and canyons overnight. She also set a mike in a tree near the San Juan River to catch the river sounds overnight. On one recording, a bird landed right on the mike and her audio recorder collected the sounds of its rustling feathers and birdsong, crisp and clear.
Gallerist Lisa Sette says she has known Kratz for around 30 years. “To me, Mayme is sort of like a modern-day Georgia O’Keefe,” she says. “I think she’s always been interested in life and death cycles,” she says. Kratz has the ability to capture the spirit of the West but also gives special dedication and homage to things that have already completed their life cycles.
“She memorializes, not in painting, but by preserving in resin, a man-made substance,” Sette says.
Kratz received the Mid-Career Artist award from Phoenix Art Museum’s Contemporary Forum in 2010. Her other recent solo shows include: Distances, Dolby Chadwick Gallery, San Francisco (2017); Long After the Echo, Lisa Sette Gallery, Phoenix (2016); Lost Light, Dolby Chadwick Gallery, San Francisco (2015) and The Brief Forever, Lisa Sette Gallery, Phoenix (2015). In 2018, she also participated in several group shows in San Francisco, in Phoenix, and at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. Her work can be found in dozens of public and private collections and she has completed commissions for a number of businesses and organizations, including America West Airlines; Bank of America; Biltmore Bank; the cities of Chandler, Glendale, Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tempe; MGM Grand Resort in Las Vegas, Phoenix Art Museum, the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington; and Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.
There seems to be a sense of urgency for Kratz that comes with celebrating Bears Ears, Sette says. Perhaps it is the threat of permanent destruction for temporary gains. And for the artist, this connects to an acknowledgment of her own life cycle and where she is at right now. Kratz turned 60 in December 2018. She continues to work, always — right up to the end. Her worry lately is that she will not have enough time on earth to complete the works she envisions, she says.
“She still is genuinely producing and creating things that are truly hers,” Sette says. “No matter what happens to Bears Ears, she is preserving pieces — like an archivist.”
Dark is Light will be on view at Lisa Sette Gallery, 210 E. Catalina Drive, Phoenix, Arizona 85012, Jan. 12, 2019, through Feb. 23, 2019. An opening reception will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on January 12. Learn more about the artist and view her work at maymekratz.com.