Sandoval Signpost



An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
  Featured Artist

Joan Fenicle

Artist Joan Fenicle in her Placitas studio Photo credit: Oli Robbins

c. Joan Fenicle

Devotions, fine art photography, by Joan Fenicle

c. Joan Fenicle

Manzanas de Placitas, fine art photography, by Joan Fenicle.

Signpost featured artist
Preserving the story:  The art of Joan Fenicle

—Oli Robbins

Some adventurous spirits travel to the ends of the earth in search of exciting people and places. Others, like Placitas photographer and painter Joan Fenicle, revel in the surprising encounters that can happen closer to home. While she holds the landscape and unparalleled beauty of her native Colorado close to her heart, she credits New Mexico for introducing her to the stuff that art is made of.

Fenicle grew up in Idaho Springs, an old mining town in Colorado, and enjoyed making things from an early age. Fenicle recalls, “Growing up, what you played with were colored pencils and crayons. My dad, he didn’t believe in toys, so you made your own. You colored, you built things.” Her father, who came of age during the Great Depression and was born on an Indian reservation in Wyoming, fostered Fenicle’s creative nature. He too had an aesthetic sensibility; he traveled extensively, internationally working on power plants and pictorially recording his many journeys—sketching what people were wearing, or sending back pages of postage stamps that had a particular appeal. Still, Fenicle’s dad wanted to ensure that his daughter enjoyed a stable career and income, so he encouraged Fenicle to go to college for business rather than art.

While she always made time to nurture her love of painting, it wasn’t until Fenicle moved to Placitas in 1999 that she became heavily involved in the art scene. In 2011, when she turned seventy, Fenicle finally said to herself, “If I’m not going to take myself seriously at seventy, when am I?” She pulled away from the many organizations and causes to which she had been devoting so much time and decided it was time to become a full-time artist.  

Fenicle first came to New Mexico as a wide-eyed middle school student. “It was so different,” she remembers. “The little town I’m from is very white—most of the people are either English or Swedish. There’s not much variety. I went to a museum in Taos and saw my first Penitente death card, and for a Methodist girl from Colorado, it was like ‘what is this?!’ New Mexico always had an appeal to me, a draw, and I was happy I could come back.”

She still finds herself surprised by the sites and experiences our state offers. “I love going down old dirt roads and seeing what you find. Or, I look out my kitchen window, up the canyon at the Sandias, and I’m happy.”

Fenicle introduced fine art photography into her oeuvre quite late. She used to treat photography as a necessary step in the painting  process, snapping pictures to gather material. Then, one year for the Placitas Studio Tour, she figured she’d frame and display a few of her photographs, for which she received positive feedback. Now, she photographs and paints, but is becoming more experimental with both. Says Fenicle, “I want to become more abstracted, but not abstract.

“I’m still interested in things,” she explains as she shows me a photograph of a dilapidated but serenely beautiful old hotel/bar/dance hall in a little ghost town in Guadalupe, NM. The stories she attempts to tell in her photographs are “so tangible,” and so important to Fenicle, that she oftentimes exhibits postcard-sized text alongside her images in order to share the loaded and unique backstories of the many places she has found. “The stories: I think that’s what I’m trying to preserve the most. My eye is still drawn to these objects—and I like them—I just want to go a different direction in my painting.” Perhaps the realism Fenicle so appreciates can be satisfied by her photography, which can allow her paintings to break away from the places and objects of the real world.

Recently, Fenicle has been working on her “Spirit Guide” series, which is comprised of photographs that juxtapose ancient and modern and highlight New Mexico’s vibrant ancestry. Ghostly images of timeless Native American figures are superimposed on photographs of New Mexico landmarks, such as Tent Rocks. Fenicle hopes that these images prompt the viewer to hear the sounds made and stories told by the people who once inhabited these lands.

“I spend a lot of time outdoors here, and I can imagine the history,” Fenicle continues. “When you go to Tent Rocks, think about it as being a sacred place and imagine the echo of drums. Insert yourself there.”

Journeying across New Mexico in search of subject matter is an integral part of Fenicle’s creative process. The memories she makes, and the stories she uncovers, become indelibly connected to the artwork itself. For example, to visit and then photograph an old church in Las Trampas (in between Santa Fe and Taos), which Fenicle believes to be “one of the best preserved examples of Spanish Colonial Mission architecture,” she first had to find the key to the church, which villagers take turns keeping safe. Says Fenicle, “If you go and the church isn’t open, you must go to the nearby store and ask who has the key. You then go knock on that person’s door, and they will go open the church for you.” Many of Fenicle’s photographs are the result of the artist’s strong will and desire to locate remote and seldom-visited places, as was the case for a photograph that features a small morada in Taos. This site sent the artist on another goose chase, requiring that she drive in circles trying to find it and eventually leave her car and walk around a gate that read “authorized personnel only.” Says Fenicle, “I was just determined and got the last light of the day—which is the best—with Taos mountain in the background.”

A self-taught photographer, Fenicle has taken various painting workshops throughout her career as an artist. Her photographs often bear resemblance to paintings, in part because many have been printed on watercolor paper, which as the artist explains, endows the image with a softness. Lately, Fenicle has been experimenting with encaustic, which also lends her photographs a reductive, painterly feel, and is achieved by fusing multiple layers of wax with the photographic image.

Fenicle’s first book, Placitas del Sol, brings together her imagery and the poems of her cousin, Karen Biddle. It can be previewed and ordered on the artist’s website, This month, Fenicle’s work will be showcased at the Las Placitas Presbyterian Church as part of the Placitas Artist Series. The reception will take place on April 21, from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. Fenicle’s work is also on display at Arte de Placitas and can be seen on the Placitas Studio Tour this May.

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