Artist Mariana Roumell-Gasteyer in her home studio.
“A Stack of Three,” stoneware
Signpost featured artist of the month: Mariana Roumell-Gasteyer
Famously funny in her own right
—Keiko Ohnuma, Signpost
Everyone knows Mariana—and if they don’t, they soon will. Married to the mayor of Corrales and mother of a television and Broadway star, Mariana Roumell-Gasteyer personifies the eccentric Village of Corrales so well that when Phil Gasteyer was running for mayor, his supporters printed a bumper sticker that read, “I’m voting for Mariana’s husband.”
She has been everywhere and knows everyone; she can trump your insider scoop with one doubly juicy, and a trenchant observation to boot. But no one knows Mariana, really, who has not stepped into the cool cave of her ceramic studio, where she hordes the precious hours not stolen by “wife of” and “mother of” performances.
Here, in the cheerfully disordered workshop that is nearly as large as her house itself, you might spy the ever-animated potter in a moment of silent concentration, breezily conjuring rabbits, horses, radishes, and carrots across the sides of her bowls and plates with a few deft strokes of the brush.
Other days, she is hard at work turning out teapots, a dozen at a time, that sprout fanciful pig heads and tails but still manage to pour tea—or life-size jackrabbits that frighten and thrill with their impossibly sexy musculature. She looks up and shakes her head, mocking her own consuming drive to work, work, work at clay. “I’m back at it,” she says with a dismissive wave of the hand.
It’s always been a question of consuming passions for Roumell-Gasteyer, the daughter of Romanian and Greek immigrants who grew up in the cultured enclave of New Buffalo, Michigan, where her mother ran the town newspaper and her father was justice of the peace. The four Roumell daughters studied ballet and painting with Russian émigré friends of the family; Mariana showed a special talent for art, and would simply “draw and draw and draw.”
Now she thinks it might have set her back, that early ability. “Often the things that come easily, you don’t think much of them—you think things that are worth doing should be hard,” she muses. It wasn’t until she had switched majors several times that she finally left Kalamazoo College in her third year for the venerable Art Institute of Chicago.
By then, Mariana Roumell had gotten married and was about to embark on the consuming journey of her husband’s legal career. She still wishes she had finished more than one year of art school before then—a regret that continues to motivate her to work harder and longer to train herself in different media. How else to explain the plucky way she transformed herself into a potter by sheer force of will?
For much of her career, Roumell-Gasteyer taught art to schoolchildren in Washington, DC, and satisfied her artistic longings through summer workshops at the Penland School of Crafts. This led her from watercolor painting to fiber arts to sewing one-of-a-kind cloth dolls that she sold at the National Museum of American Craft—arts that she would practice with a vengeance in the hours free from teaching and raising a family.
“I never loved teaching, and envied those who did,” she says frankly. By 1991, she was done. Her last summer at Penland, Roumell-Gasteyer studied clay, and when she packed up to move out west, she determined to start a new life as a potter.
Her plan was to scout out a place to retire, though Philip would not be ready for several more years. They had rejected Phoenix and Monterey Bay as being dreadfully manicured and tidy. It wouldn’t do for the woman whose exquisite hand-sewn dolls turn out to be, on closer inspection, sinister or bizarre dictators and blonde hussies.
Basing her search in Albuquerque, “I drove all over the state, and kept coming back to Corrales,” Roumell-Gasteyer recalls. She bought an adobe fixer-upper, rented a studio, then built her own to hold the kiln and potter’s wheel purchased from the sale of a floor loom she had hauled out from DC.
In the sun-bleached desert where she could not identify a single plant, the weaver and doll-maker vanished with the schoolteacher and political wife. “I made this huge quantum leap, and announced to Philip, ‘Clay—this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.’”
Roumell-Gasteyer ended up spending six years alone in Corrales, a time she still talks about with nostalgic longing. “I’d wanted to be an artist, but I was not emboldened,” she says of her younger self. Marrying young to a “workaholic,” she dove instantly into teaching, raising kids, fixing the dishwasher. At the age of fifty, she was suddenly free to make art.
“I loved it,” she says with the deadpan look that usually precedes a wicked laugh. In fact, “when the moving guy arrived with the furniture, he took one look at the house and said, ‘You like living by yourself, don’t you?’” It was no easy transition back to being a wife, and Roumell-Gasteyer notes with a comedic sigh that Phillip thankfully found himself something to do… as the mayor.
She, meanwhile, threw herself into the potter’s art, formulating glazes, building a gas-fired kiln, learning techniques from anagama to salt and soda firing, and doing much of the renovation on their adobe home. She more than doubled the size of her studio, and began selling in half a dozen galleries.
Not long after arriving in Corrales, Roumell-Gasteyer had met longtime artists Tommy Findley and Patricia Smith; together they founded the Corrales Bosque Gallery, now marking fifteen years as an artist cooperative. Moving out west, it appears, had realized the artistic commitment she had always regretted not making.
“When Ana was in L.A. trying to make it, she said the single most enabling thing I ever did for her was to pick up and move out west without knowing a soul,” Roumell-Gasteyer says of her daughter, the comedienne Ana Gasteyer.
The actress clearly owes also something of her ironic wit, arched eyebrows, and plucky style to the kind, diminutive lady who swears like a trucker and rolls up a sleeve to show off a birthday gift from the mayor: a yin-yang tattoo that she evilly unveils at stuffy political functions.
Wearied by the factionalism of Corrales politics, Roumell-Gasteyer knows how to have her fun. “You talk to anyone!” she mocks a councilman’s wife saying to her at one event, to which she snorts, “Me! I would talk to a cow! And plus, it’s a way of sniffing people out.”
At her feet, the Bassett-Dalmatian mix who is never far from her side sniffs in her direction, seemingly aware of being the comic model for a ceramic hound whose rippling musculature serves only to point toward the title, “It’s All About the Nose.”
Mariana would rather be in her studio with him anyway, coaxing pigs and horses from blocks of clay, or layering translucent colors across fanciful vegetables while listening to her books on tape, than pressing the flesh at a social venue.
But she’ll wave warmly when she sees you nonetheless, and probably come right over, flashing that wicked smile. And you’ll remember her.