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title   By Stephen M. Parks

Artists might be roughly lumped into two categories, the miners and the explorers. The miners find a medium, a style and subject matter that fit their aesthetic sensibility and then spend a professional lifetime mining that creative lode. The explorers, on the other hand, are restless souls plying their protean talents in this genre and that, working one vein then turning to another that gleams there in the mysterious muck. Giacometti was a miner. Picasso was an explorer.

And Armond Lara is an explorer.

The Santa Fe artist is a sculptor, a painter, a collagist and a print-maker. Over the last 25 years he's built a distinguished career–both in this country and in Europe, where his work has been enthusiastically collected–on the strength of his art in all these media.

buffalo dancerLara's new series of sculptures and drawings "Icons and Idols," the subject of an exhibition opening October 21 at Parks Gallery, is inspired by the koshari clowns that often participate in the religious dances of Rio Grande pueblos, These clowns are mischief makers, but also the embodiment of spiritual authorities.

"They'll see someone, a tourist, say, at a ceremonial, and if that person has a look of sel-fimportance or superiority, " Lara says, "the koshari will mimic that person's gestures or appearance, as if to say, 'You may be great but you're no better than me."'

In that spirit of the sacred clown, Lara gives us such creations as Koshari as Albert Einstein, Koshari as Satchmo, Koshari as Gauguin, and others. "These are all characters I'm fascinated by, people who have done magical things," Lara says. "But they’re also human beings like you and me, and we have to remind ourselves of that every once in a while. The kosharis are good at that. These pieces celebrate the spirit of mankind and the ability to create magic."

The figures are presented as marionettes, with masks of the individual characters covering the dancer's face. Attached to the strings are ornaments consistent with the character—for example, a watch, slide rule and miniature violin for Einstein.

The idea for the series originated in a dream. "I woke up one morning and felt like I wanted to be 10 years old again," Lara says. "I remembered Slurpy Meyers, a kid in my neighborhood who had a Charlie McCarthy doll puppet. This was in Walsenburg, Colorado, where I grew up.

"Anyway, Slurpy wouldn't let me touch his doll. When I got to the Studio I was still thinking about him and I started Drawing—I did Pinocchio, and while I was doing that I thought of my grandfather, Victoriano Alarid. He was truly a man of the earth. He nurtured and provided for a family of sixteen children. I remembered watching him carving a deer head out of a tree stump for antlers that had been given to him. I asked him how he knew what a deer head looked like, as he had no pictures to use as a guide. He told me, 'I simply feel it.'

"Well, when I finished the drawing I I went out and bought some wood and started carving and it brought back the memories, like coming full circle. Pinocchio turned into a deer mask, then the body. It took me a year to finish, it was eight feet tall, learning as I went. This was five or six years ago."

einsteinIn the midst of working on the "Icons and Idols" series, Lara suddenly found himself carving small female nudes that, like the kosharis, combine primitive, ritualistic power with the aesthetic simplicity of contemporary sculpture. The work grew into a major installation, Fertility Fetishes, a stunning collection of articulated wood pieces. "I never know what direction a new idea is going to take," he says. "I'm still evolving. I don't understand artists who work a whole life trying to perfect one medium. There's no challenge in that."

Born in Denver in 1939, Lara was raised in Walsenburg, a coal mining town in southeastern Colorado. His mother and her family were Navajo and his father was Hispanic, born in Mexico.

"In those days Walsenburg was still feeling effects of the depression," Lara remembers. "My uncles had farms and ranches so we always had fresh food. I observed that the family pretty much made everything they needed. Rags for rugs, or my mother had a loom and wool for weaving. Grandfather would make tombstones, work colored glass and other materials into them, real folk art. Seeing that, it never occurred to me that I couldn't do things myself I was drawing at 5 or 6. 1 started making pots out of clay. I felt a compelling force to make things with my hands, something about hand-eye coordination that's so gratifying to the human spirit that it becomes an addiction. The more you do, the better you become. It's a way to expand your mind. You learn new things from manipulating materials, find out what the materials will do and won't do. You learn about tools in the process, they become an extension of your body."

Lara studied at the Colorado Institute of Art, Glendale College in California, and University of Washington in Seattle. And he studied with or worked for the likes of Richard Diebenkorn, Helen Frankenthaler and the Mexican muralist Pablo O’Higgins. Despite his training and artistic leanings, the road to a career as a professional artist was not a straight one. He spent about fifteen years in Seattle, working first in the aerospace industry and then in arts administration.

giacometti"One day, early in 1978, 1 saw a magazine, American Indian Art," Lara says. "In it there was an application for Santa Fe Indian Market. I'd been taking classes all along. I'd studied with Japanese masters in Seattle who taught me to make paper. I had all this work on paper and so I sent photos to SWAIA [organizers of Indian Market]. Pretty soon they called and accepted me. Nobody at that time in the Southwest was making paper and doing collage with it, and almost immediately people responded. The timing was perfect. Susan McGreevy, who ran the Wheelwright Museum, saw the work and offered me a show. Georgia O'Keeffe was one of my first patrons. She bought two pieces at that first Indian Market and later gave one to the Smithsonian. I was so naïve I didn't know what was going on. That jump-started my career. 'I can make a living at this,' I thought. I stayed in Santa Fe. That was 25 years ago."

The poor kid from Walsenburg was off and running, and Lara quickly proved to be as adept socially as he was at making art. "I learned early on not to be intimidated by people," he says. "People I've met, from Masai warriors to Moroccan princes to Hollywood celebrities, I can treat them the way I want to be treated and not be blinded by their name or culture or wealth. I'm comfortable one to one and they appreciate that.

"I was always comfortable outside the box," he concludes. "I don't consider myself an Indian artist, I don't consider myself a Mexican artist. I'm an artist. If I'm going to make a statement, it's going to be my statement, not anybody else's. And I think that's what art should be about."

Armond Late's exhibition "Icons and Idols" opens at Parks Gallery, 127 Bent Street, October 14 and runs through November 7. A reception is scheduled for October 21, 4-6pm. 751-0343. www.parksgallery.com.

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