Marylou Reifsnyder: Artist as “Awed Spectator”
While Georgia O’Keeffe in Abiquiu captured the rugged austerity of red rocks and of white and black places, and Agnes Martin in Taos produced paintings as spare and silent as Buddhist meditation, a flame-haired housewife on Lama Mountain was making fantastical paintings, drawings, watercolors, prints, books and toys by interpreting her own connection to the mystical. Marylou Reifsnyder was her name. Reifsnyder created some 4000 works that were never seen by the public until after her death, at age 67, in 1990 — and then shown only rarely. The Harwood Museum of Art, which possesses close to 500 of her works, recently hosted a modest exhibition of her works on paper, The Picture Book of Days, that closed on May 3, 2015. Who is this artist of great depth whom no one has ever heard of? (All images courtesy Harwood Museum of Art.)
Marylou Reifsnyder was a self-taught artist. Her work combines influences from European medieval manuscripts and Italian Renaissance paintings to santos and retablos from the North American southwest, to folk art from India, Persia, Africa and Mexico. She drew also on imagery from mythology, medieval alchemy, Tarot, astrology, Christian mysticism, the Jewish Kabbalah and other sources of the numinous. The images are fairy-tale-like, yet suffused with esoteric gravitas.
The Picture Book of Days exhibited a small number of works on paper and toy sculptures, installed in a hallway gallery that visitors pass through en route to the main galleries (including the Agnes Martin room). The museum relates that many of the pictures in The Picture Book of Days were derived from “automatic” drawings that Reifsnyder did around 1962. In automatic drawing, a Jungian technique of accessing the unconscious, the hand moves randomly across the paper.
Although the museum now possesses 448 Reifsnyder works — and has been promised the rest of her vast oeuvre — further exhibitions, sadly, seem stalled. The Harwood lost its exhibition curator when Jina Brenneman resigned in September 2014. In July 2015, Harwood executive director Susan Longhenry will decamp to the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
Yet the relevance of Reifsnyder’s work and its validation of ecstatic states of feminine consciousness are unmistakable. The work deserves to be shown, to expand the conversation about New Mexico women in art, to which Reifsnyder’s work makes a strong contribution. She interprets a sacred feminine vision by which to balance masculine energies having tilted far out of balance in her own lifetime as well as today.
According to her daughter, Cheryl Lama, “shelf after shelf” of her library was filled with metaphysical books by the likes of Krishnamurti and Carl Jung. Socially anxious and reclusive, Reifsnyder made art to unfold a remarkable exploration of female consciousness years before Mary Daly and Merlin Stone challenged Christian orthodoxies and the suppression of the goddess, and before artists Mary Beth Edelson and Ana Mendieta interpreted the numinous female body in their work.
Reifsnyder had experienced crushing poverty and abuse as a child; she described, in an autobiography that she wrote for her daughter, witnessing her father beating her mother bloody. But Marylou had perceived in her own mother a clairvoyance. “My mother . . . could hear and see things not perceived by others” Reifsnyder wrote.
Reifsnyder started drawing at age 3, copying illustrations from a Mother Goose picture book, using pencils and butcher paper. “I did not like crayons because of the blunt ends, and I wanted detail.” For her, art-making was “a home activity not to be done anyplace else;” her first external exposure to art came during brief attendance at San Francisco City College in 1941–42. In 1943 she married her first husband, Steve Hall, with whom she had daughters Rita and Cheryl. By the end of 1944, Hall had abandoned them, and for the next decade Reifsnyder would support her household with office jobs while her mother stayed home with her daughters.
In 1954 Reifsnyder married William Reifsnyder, a forestry professor at Yale University, and relocated to Connecticut. She got hired as a museum assistant at the Yale Art Gallery, where she spent eight years immersed in the history of western art.
But even with the newfound stability of her strong second marriage affording her the chance to turn to her art, she suffered a spiritual breakdown that she described as “the underworld of terror and anxiety, DARK NIGHT, lasting six years.”
Reifsnyder credited being treated for skin cancer, when she was “struck by a cosmic ray,” as a metaphysical turning point. She wrote:
“I was catapulted ALL FREE into REALIZATION, three days of GREAT AURORA, February 1961. I knew by this time that birth–death–satori–art–kettle boiling–baby crying and love IS all One.”
A form of intuitive enlightenment found expression in her art. She had begun studying Carl Jung in the 1950s and had adopted his “automatic drawing” technique. Around 1960, she was visited by a vision of an angel holding a grail, with a heart emerging from it.
Reifsnyder regarded herself as “the awed spectator of the inner pageant.” (She wrote many words, including AWED SPECTATOR, in capital letters in her autobiography.)
Hundreds of “psychic sketches” served as the basis for paintings in which she expressed visions of the sacred feminine principle, long suppressed, carrying archetypal values of the feminine such as compassion, respect for children and animals, harmony with the earth and connection with the holy. “She was getting whammy’ed with all this information,” says Lama. “Of course when you’re an open-minded person you value the feminine as much as the masculine, which I think was part of her message.”
In 1964 she and Bill adopted Gawain, her biological grandson (Rita’s child); she then created more than 30 children’s books, of which two were published. Three years later the Reifsnyders visited Taos for the first time—Cheryl had moved to Lama Mountain, just north of Taos—and were captured by the land. In 1970 they purchased a piñon- and sage-covered tract on Lama; they relocated to Lama permanently in 1986.
In spite of a recurrence of cancer in 1985, Reifsnyder kept working on her art, always reclusively and without connection to other Taos painters, until she died in July 1990. She had come to believe her art had an important message for the human race. She was working with Tiska Blankenship, associate curator of the University of New Mexico Art Museum’s Jonson Gallery, to organize her first public exhibition.
Reannunciation: The Visionary Works of Marylou Reifsnyder was first shown in 1991 at the Taos Art Association/Stables Gallery, then traveled to CAFE in Albuquerque and the Boulder Art Center. The Harwood Museum of Art presented a second exhibition of Reifsnyder’s work, Head into Heart, curated by director Bob Ellis in 2001.
“On her deathbed she said she wanted her art to go to a museum collection,” says Lama. “She probably had a sense of destiny that her work was meant to be seen and exposed.”
“She’s pulling on eternal information,” Lama adds. “It’s partly connected with the concepts of . . . equality and harmony. She was like a precursor for that information.”