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KATRINA LASKO

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GENE McCLAIN

GENE McCLAIN

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SARENA MANN

TONY PARANÁ-RODRIGUES

GARY W. PRIESTER

MICHAEL PROKOS

LAURA ROBBINS

GARY ROLLER

ANGEL ROSE

RIHA ROTHBERG AND WAYNE MIKOSZ

GARY SANCHEZ

SHARON SCHWARTZMANN

DIANNA SHOMAKER

KATHERINE SLUSHER

LORNA SMITH

CIRRELDA SNIDER-BRYAN

KEVIN TOLMAN

DAWN WILSON-ENOCH

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Sandoval Signpost Featured Artist Gallery

Sarena Mann stands by one of her papier-mâché mobiles

The glass ceiling is no barrier on wings of paper

—KEIKO OHNUMA, SIGNPOST

Creative young people would kill for such a delirious ending: from scraping by on $5,000 a year selling your artwork to earning revenues of double that amount each week—enough to make a gal jump for joy and float off into the ether. But it hasn’t been all dancing over rainbows for Sarena Mann.

Reflecting on her thirty-five-year career, she started selling her trademark papier-mâché mobiles soon after high school—the Placitas artist muses often on the tradeoffs. It’s hard to make a living as a fine-art sculptor, she says, unless you’re one of the extraordinary few. “I’ve been willing to do repetition—production is the way I make my living,” she says of the assembly-line creation of her Air Craft line of female figures.

At the height of the business, Sarena Mann Studios employed fifteen to twenty workers part-time for the laborious twenty-three-part process of fashioning wire, paper, and fabric into flying papier-mâché women; they produced some three hundred to five hundred mobiles a week for the wholesale market. That’s the kind of repetition that makes Mann roll her eyes at the mention of “production.”

There’s an upside too, of course. “I fought it for a long time, but it’s been a blessing,” she says of her internal debates between art and craft. “It’s affirming to have people buy your work. And there’s some simple, basic fulfillment in starting with nothing” and making things that bring people joy. Now that she is selling at more retail craft shows (including the Rio Grande Arts and Crafts Festival, October 3 through 5 and October 10 through 12), Mann is constantly approached with heart-rending stories about how her dancing figures have lifted moods in times of trouble.

“It’s spiritual—it touches their heart in some way,” says Susan, Mann’s partner in both business and life. “And that’s art to me: It’s what touches your soul.”

It’s hard to capture in print the delicate enchantment of Mann’s figures, because a mobile is by nature kinetic—motion is a key element of the design. Associated historically with the sculptor Alexander Calder, mobiles work on the principle of balance, where each piece turns in individual orbit on currents of air. Mann’s early mobiles had five to seven androgynous figures dancing; before long they evolved into lone females flying with a kite, an umbrella, or wings.

“It was about women becoming empowered, a time of openings, possibilities. For me, it was a positive image,” Mann speaks in the past tense about a career that is rapidly taking a new turn. “Kite, umbrella, and fairy—those are the girls that have been flying for thirty-two years,” she quips, describing their fan base just as succinctly: “Young women, old women, and cool men.”

In recent years, Mann has slowed down production in the studio of the Placitas home she shares with Susan to indulge the more artistic side of her work. It’s when she creates new designs that she feels greatest enjoyment, toying leisurely with variations on an image—such as her current obsession, figures in boats. Other recent models include figures climbing ladders, figures clinging to globes, and even figures that do not hang at all, but just sit and watch the world go by.

Business tasks she now leaves to her partner, a former school principal; with their 2004 move to New Mexico, Mann sees herself returning to the place where she felt most like an artist, while attending UNM in the 1970s. Their business has shrunk from the craft-crazy 1990s, when they were filling orders from a half-dozen wholesale trade shows a year—a bubble popped by the flood of cheap knock-offs made in China, and then by 9/11, which decimated small manufacturers.

Mann prefers to think it is the natural life cycle of a business to grow and then contract, though her website still lists dozens of galleries that carry her work, many of them for a decade or more. But after thirty-five years in business, she admits it would be hard to scale back to the pace of a fine artist, making one piece a month. A self-described workaholic, she graduated high school in the ’60s, when few artists entertained career goals. Yet her passion and energy set her quickly on her life’s path.

She traces the moment of awakening to a night traveling in Afghanistan, where she heard a man exclaim that American women have so much freedom, something she hadn’t realized about herself. At a hostel in a town where the Buddha had preached, she drank too much black tea and lay awake with the sudden clarity that she could turn her artwork into a business.

“It’s funny, because maybe (otherwise) it never would have coalesced,” she marvels. Over the next twenty years, she married, had a child, divorced, and met Susan, all in Seattle, as the business slowly grew. For years she had squeaked by working solo, but after having her daughter, she began to hire help.

“It’s been a surprise,” she says of the way the venture grew to support her new family. “Now it’s full circle: The business is smaller, and I’m doing more myself again.” A few years ago, the couple bought a spacious old house on a Placitas ridge that opens onto a breathtakingly close view of the Sandias—“the perfect party house,” Mann sighs, where they have no parties.

Instead, the couple lives a quiet life with their two Cairn terriers in a time of growing uncertainty and unease. Having tapped into the spirit of the age for so many women—more than two hundred thousand of her paper dancers have ridden out the currents on their kites, umbrellas, and wings—Mann searches for the right image to fulfill their mission of “lightening the load.”

For all of us, maybe, it’s less like rising to unseen heights, anymore, than bravely oaring a well-worn craft into unknown waters.

 



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