Alice in the Land of Enchantment
Posted on August 27, 2014
Alice Webb and her studio
Alice Webb arrived in New Mexico by plane in the 1970’s with little more than a pair of flare pants and an 8-track player to her name. The Texas native had met a man from Taos and swiftly left the University of Texas at Austin, eager for a Southwestern adventure.
“At that time in the 70’s everyone was dropping out, so I dropped out too,” Webb says. In Taos, she met artists of all stripes who became her friends and mentors. The little mountain town transformed the young talent into a celebrated professional artist, forever tied to the Land of Enchantment.
“The first time I remember drawing and thinking I was pretty good at it was when I was 5 years old,” Webb tells us over the phone. She grew up in Texas but her family is from Mississippi. One summer on a trip to the South, the Webbs visited a living history farm. “We were drawing the women with their costumes, and I noticed that my drawings looked different from the other kids’ work,” she recalls. “They weren’t stick figures, they had a lot of information in them.”
Alice Webb, Oasis, Oil on Canvas
By 7th grade, Webb knew she wanted to study art. When she got stuck in home economics courses instead, she marched down to the principal’s office to discuss her academic career. “[The principal] was tall and skinny and wore suits in the middle of the summer, and had bouffant hair and long fingernails,” Webb says. “It was pretty scary, but I went and said, ‘No, I want to take art.'”
The gambit worked, and Webb excelled in art classes through junior high and high school. She studied art for a short time at UT Austin, but then Taos called. Webb landed in New Mexico just in time for a revival in the American Arts and Crafts movement.
“Art forms that were never considered fine arts were gaining prominence at the time, like basketry and tapestry weaving,” she says. “I took a class in tapestry, and did that for a while.” The work was so time intensive that Webb eventually turned back to drawing and painting, inspired by the artwork of the Taos Seven.
Webb intently studied paintings by Bert Geer Philips, Ernest L. Blumenschein and others, following in the footsteps of these early 20th century Taos luminaries with a group of like-minded plein air painters. In her self-guided studies, Webb even rubbed elbows with Fritz Scholder and Dennis Hopper.
“I could see a piece and go, that’s a Berninghaus or that’s a Sharp,” Webb says. “I studied those guys so much, particularly their use of color.” As she developed her skills as a colorist, Webb fell irrevocably in love with her surroundings. “The landscape was just so readily available,” she says.
Frustrated by the lack of recognition for women artists in Taos history, Webb and six other local artists formed the ‘Women’s Taos Seven’ and began exhibiting together in the 1980’s. By the time she moved to Albuquerque to complete her BFA at the University of New Mexico in the 1990’s, Webb had already exhibited with many of her professors.
Alice Webb, Ranchos de Taos Church, Monotype
“By then I was in my late 30’s and I was in classes with young people,” she says. “It was kind of tricky, because I could be so outspoken and I think I offended some of the professors.” In this new academic setting, Webb felt compelled to stretch her work in different directions. Years before when she started painting in oil, she had developed her color mixing abilities by limiting her palette to a just few colors and white. Now she eliminated color all together, creating abstract black-and-white canvases.
“[BFA programs] don’t always see landscape as being a valid thing. They want you to be doing conceptual, experimental stuff,” Webb says. However, just below the surface of these monochrome works were colorful underpaintings waiting to burst out. “In a way, it’s like I never really left color because there was so much color underneath the black and white,” she says.
A new world of influences opened up to Webb at UNM, from the stage sets of David Hockney to Franz Klein, Jim Dine and Robert Motherwell. Her thesis project was an edgy art installation featuring painted monochrome walls and brilliant blue lights, but a whole array of colors—and the New Mexico landscape—would return to her artwork soon after she graduated.
Alice Webb, Bosque Dance, Oil on Canvas
“After a while, I thought, ‘I don’t care, I just like to paint,'” Webb says. “Now I’ll switch back and forth between abstract and representational at any given time.”
After completing her BFA, Webb pursued a Masters of Art Education at UNM while caring for her son, who arrived soon after she moved to Albuquerque. She purchased a home in 1996 and converted the garage into an art studio.
“There was a time when I was working other jobs to make money, but I’ve never stopped making art,” she says. “I teach middle school art now and teach a class at UNM, so I get up at 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning and paint before school, or make art after I go to school.”
It’s not lost on Webb that teaching art to middle school students is a perfect bookend to the story of a determined 7th grader who insisted on taking art classes. “The art teacher that I had when I was in middle school, they wanted her to move to high school, but she refused to move because she said middle school is the most important time for creating future artists,” Webb says. “I’m really happy to work with these kids. They’re so hormonal, and they’re funny. I feel like it’s full circle.”
Alice Webb, San Cristobel Morning, Oil on Canvas
Webb has encountered great success in her teaching career, and as a professional fine artist. She’s a two-time nominee for the Golden Apple Award for teaching, and has received numerous honors from the City of Albuquerque for her artwork. In 2003, Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez enlisted her as a Master Artist for a collaborative public art project, and the city has acquired several of her works through the Urban Enhancement Program and other initiatives.
Nowadays, Webb says she draws inspiration from Alice Neal and other women artists who found success late in their careers. “My goal is to… paint until I’m in my late 80’s like Agnes Martin and Georgia O’Keeffe,” she says.
As for Taos, Webb still visits once a year but says things have changed a lot. “Taos is so different now, it’s so big. I’m really happy here in the city. I go on hikes and take photographs, and then use them to paint landscapes in my studio,” she says. “Although, I don’t think I would work so effectively from the photographs had I not initially learned to paint in the landscape. There’s just something about the color of Northern New Mexico.”