By Meg G. Freyermuth
From September 1 through September 30, 2015, I spent every day in the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, painting and drawing the intense peaks and views of my home county. The experience was amazing, overwhelming, and life changing. I grew up in this place, I’ve explored these mountains my whole life, and I’ve been painting them since 2008. So much about me as a person is within these mountains. I have felt connected to them my whole life, and this residency increased my connection and obsession with this place, my home. I gained a greater sense of discernment, obligation, and ambition in my quest to paint these mountains. It also taught me why these lands are important, not just for me but for our whole community, both locally and globally.
Going out to the mountains and painting every single day of the month wasn’t easy, even though this is what my professional choices require. I’m actually a very slow worker. I like to put several layers of paint on the canvas and I certainly take my time with it. I started on about 37 pieces in the month, and completed about 19. I’m very hard on myself about this; I wish I could’ve completed 40+ pieces. However I also realize that much of my time was spent exploring, finding the right views, researching, taking photos, hiking, writing about my experiences and findings, and learning whatever I could about this place. I learned about the geological events that created what we see today; I tried to learn the name of every peak, canyon, and hill; I took hikes with Bureau of Land Management volunteers, and was taken on a jeep ride through the Sierra de las Uvas by a BLM employee where I saw remnants of Ice Age cultures; I surveyed jackrabbits & roadrunners crossing my path every day; I witnessed and heard mountain lions screaming, fighting, and playing; I watched and was watched by a large fox; I observed a squirrel destroying a globe mallow plant so it could eat the seeds; I studied maps as I roamed through the lands to better understand the layout of our monument and county… So much about making art involves multiple types of research. When I first began painting the landscapes of this region, I had little interest in learning names, geology, botany, and wildlife of this place. But the more I painted this place, the more I saw strange and amazing things. I had to learn everything about this wilderness in order to better understand why I need to paint what I paint.
Experience is an important part of my process. Ever since I started painting primarily landscapes in 2008, I knew that experiencing my painting’s subject matter was key in capturing and fully expressing what I love about nature. Thus, all of my work is made from direct observation, my own photographs, and/or my own memories (I typically use a combination of all three to complete paintings and drawings). However, this residency increased the importance of experience for me ten-fold. Being outside, amongst the rocks, trees, and exposed to all types of weather, adds so much to my work: what I paint, how I paint it, and why I paint it.
I lost a dear friend in the Organ Mountains in 2006. She was my friend’s grandmother, and also an NMSU music professor and pianist. Her extreme love for hiking in the Organ Mountains drove her to complete most of the major hikes and climb most of the peaks in the short time that I knew her. She passed away near Dripping Springs, near the very canyon where my studio space was this September. She was one of the reasons I started painting these mountains and seeing this place in a different light. To be in that place every day was very powerful and inspirational for me, as well as emotional. I am still recovering from and ruminating on this experience. My own closeness to someone who has passed away in these mountains has also increased the value of these lands as both monument and memorial: many people have died all over these lands for centuries upon centuries, going back further than our recorded history. These lands are extremely sacred to many people for many reasons, aside from the fact that the land is a gravesite for millions of creatures over millions of centuries.
So why do I find this place to be so important for our community, both locally and globally? For one, the most commonly missed and loved object in this area for people who move away, or visit but do not live here, is the Organ Mountains. These mountains stay within people’s minds, within our collective consciousness, as a beautiful place that defines the perspectives and placement of our community. The rich history of people inhabiting and exploring these lands includes extremely ancient, Ice Age cultures; “outlaws” and/or “heroes” such as Billy the Kid, Pancho Villa, and Geronimo; and of course, the present growth of the second largest city in New Mexico. The diversity of the people who have and still do inhabit these lands is reflected in the diversity of the landscape and wildlife. The land and environment here also affect our behaviors and culture: people here like a challenge; people here are rugged individualists yet also realize that working together benefits their community; people are rough and tough, eating hot chile and withstanding extreme temperatures and weather; people here are kind and beautiful and inspiring and hard-working. One of my greatest revelations of how this land is reflective of our culture, and vice versa, came as I learned about the geology of the area. The Organ Mountains are composed of two very different formations of igneous rocks: the peaks to the north of Dripping Springs are batholithic, slowly cooled magma that was pushed up over time as the Rio Grande rift expanded; whereas the peaks surrounding and south of Dripping Springs are andesitic, violently spewed piles of lava, rock, and ash. The northern peaks are lighter in color and reach up to the heavens as if they are a choir singing, or cathedral pipe organs (the inspiration for the naming of the Organ Mountains). Interestingly, the southern peaks are reddish-violet in color and look more like the organs of the body rather than the organs in cathedrals. Thus, we have a physical and philosophical reflection of the human body and the human community: an unparalleled combination of the traditional and the unusual, the spiritual and the secular, the ethereal and the physical, all working together to be a one-of-a-kind community. This is where the beauty and exceptional qualities of our civic community is most reflected: within the mountains and wilderness surrounding Doña Ana County. This is where we all get our inspiration, our motivation, our love, and our passion. It is within and without these mountains that we realize who we are.