This week, my husband and I traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to photograph and interview nationally acclaimed contemporary painter Tony Abeyta. I was excited about this trip. I love Santa Fe… the architecture, the history, the art, the food, the vibrant mix of Anglo, Hispanic and native cultures, the long strings of chili peppers called “ristras,” all of it.
I was eager to stroll the plaza, cup of coffee in hand, soaking up the unique energy that infuses this second-oldest city in the United States. I couldn’t wait for my green-chili-covered breakfast at Cafe Pasqual’s, one of my favorite eateries. Most of all, however, I was looking forward to spending time with a working artist who has come such a long way since his childhood in Gallup, New Mexico.
Abeyta is just 47 years old, yet he has a mural in the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture’s gathering space, one of his paintings was the official illustration for the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and in 2012 he won the Native Treasures Living Treasure award and a New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. Tony Abeyta is, without a doubt, a world-class artist.
He also is a warm, approachable man who graciously spent the better part of a morning with us. We chatted over coffee at La Fonda Hotel’s lovely Plazuela restaurant, then relocated to his second-floor studio just off the plaza. He showed us some of his recent work and discussed his passion for youth mentoring, introducing us to an exciting young multimedia artist named Jaque Fragua in the process.
He also provided some valuable food for thought. As we talked about the business of art, Abeyta fell silent for a moment. Then he said, “Selling is a futile spiritual endeavor. If you’re focused only on that, you’ll wake up one day and think, ‘I’ve paid my rent, I’ve paid for my car. Why am I so unhappy?'”
Where does the happiness come from? Mentoring young people. Teaching. Supporting not-for-profit organizations. Contributing to your community. And following your passion so you can fully participate in the creative dialogue that surrounds us. “Being an artist is about making a contribution to culture,” he said. “Without that, your work becomes predictable. You face banality.”
As we drove away from Santa Fe that afternoon, bound for another story assignment in Mescalero, New Mexico, I found myself reflecting on those words. They have great value to anyone who pursues a creative life, whether you’re a writer, a photographer, a painter, a sculptor, a fashion designer or a jewelry artist. The money part is important; after all, we can’t survive without paying the bills. But it’s not everything, and I’m grateful that I received this valuable reminder. We hear things when we need them most.