Sandoval Signpost


An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
  Real People

Gene and Linda McClain display two of Gene's wall hangings where wordplay links Dinah Shore to a dinosaur and in a piece titled Evolution shows a man named Rex and a tyrannosaurus rex.

Please Don’t Squeeze The Shaman, hot topic sculpture, by Gene McClain
Photos credit: —Bill Diven

Playful art endures as gallery owners change life course

—Bill Diven

A Placitas artist who ruffled feathers while mingling art, culture, and his own brand of satire is moving on while the gallery he and his wife owned survives after nearly closing.

Gene and Linda McClain, 19-year residents of Placitas, said only the lure of their kids and five young grandkids in Colorado and California could pull them from the community they love.

“Oh, gosh, we’re going to miss it,” Linda said.

For Gene, the diversity of New Mexico has been an inspiration. “It’s such a weird place,” he told the Signpost. “There are so many things to draw from as an artist… I have fun commenting on it. I have no gripes about New Mexico.”

Gene, who recently turned seventy, said he’ll cut back on larger projects like carving full-size motorcycles, car art and thrones—high-back chairs decorated with portraits of cultural icons like Frida Kahlo and Jerry Garcia. He’s still doing commissions, and, once settled in Colorado, will get back to his colorful work.

“I’m hoping to find some gallery with a sense of humor,” he added.

Linda, a former university professor and occupational therapist, is retiring for the second time after taking the lead in running the Arte de Placitas gallery in the Homestead Village shopping center. The couple took it over in early 2012 after co-owning it with others for five years before that.

The gallery served as both a co-op for eight artists who worked there and a consignment shop for others. At its peak, the gallery represented eighty artists, mostly from Placitas and elsewhere in Sandoval County.

“In a good month, I’m going to write fifty to sixty checks to artists,” Linda said. “That’s my favorite day.”

Just down from the gallery, Gene’s work adorns the walls of the Placitas Café, and his thrones encircle a large table.

“Only Gene knows what he’s thinking,” said café owner John Franklin. “If you don’t get it, you haven’t looked that long… People stare at it a lot when they get here or when they leave. That’s why one is prominent by the front door.”

Some of the humor is simple wordplay, like juxtaposing and image of songbird Dinah Shore with a dinosaur. Other pieces are more complex leaving critics’ imaginations to run wild.

Take the tall shamanic figure with outstretched arms and animal horns on its head that appeared just outside the Homestead Village parking lot in 2011 when Arte de Placitas was still Rockin’ R Studio and Gallery. Gene, playing off a catch phrase from twenty years of TV commercial for Charmin bathroom tissue, added a sign saying, “Please don’t squeeze the shaman.”

That wasn’t enough, however, to avoid complaints of something demonic going on. The statue, on a new owner’s property for a few years, even drew an Albuquerque TV news crew to Placitas in December to investigate the sudden appearance of what some thought was Krampus.

Krampus would be a nasty figure from European folklore, sort of Santa Claus’s evil twin who torments children who misbehave. A movie called “Krampus” where lovable holiday figures turn bad had been released a few weeks earlier.

Still, Gene said he’s not out to make statements and lets people make of his work what they will.

“If you’re offended, it’s political,” Gene said. “If it makes you think, it’s social comment… I get a personal chuckle while doing them.”

Beyond the appeal of grandkids, the McClains timed their lifestyle decision to the lease on the gallery being up.

“We put the word out hoping some of our artists might be able to take it over, but no one came forward,” Linda said.

But then a couple from Pennsylvania—Wanda Kuprienko and Robert Cavanagh—dropped by after signing the paperwork to buy a home in Placitas.

“We actually bought one of his post chairs with the big horns,” Wanda said. But when they asked if the gallery might show some of Wanda’s jewelry, they found out it seemed destined to shut down in a few weeks.

After more discussion, the McClains put them in touch with the shopping center’s owners.

Wanda and Robert headed back to Pennsylvania to pack up belongings and their dog, but before driving to New Mexico arranged by phone to lease the gallery. They took it over on January 15, renamed it Hoot Art Gallery in a nod to owls resident in the area, and told the Signpost they’re working toward a formal opening at a time to be announced.

“If they hadn’t come forward, we weren’t going to sign a new lease,” Linda said. “I drove by it last Saturday, the first Saturday since we sold it. I miss it already.

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