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  Featured Artist

Joan Hellquist

Joan Hellquist in her Placitas art studio Photo credit: Oli Robbins

c. Joan Hellquist

Fisher Towers, painting, by Joan Hellquist

To the beat of her own drum: the life and art of Joan Hellquist

—Oli Robbins

Many painters excel at depicting what surrounds them—familiar figures and landscapes become stock subjects. But it’s wise to remember the adage, “paint what you know and not what you see.” The subject’s significance to the artist is often more important than the artist’s ability to render nature mimetically. Placitas painter Joan Hellquist has been creating art for as long as she can remember and, in addition to her excellence at realism, it is the intimate relationship she holds with her subject matter that makes her work enchanting.

When Hellquist was as young as four, she began drawing. “My first true recollection was driving in my grandfather’s car. He had the most distinctive wrinkles on the back of his neck, and I can remember drawing the back of his head.” From Summit, NJ, Hellquist studied art through grade school and high school. Says Hellquist, “I would stay home and paint when others went out on weekends.” In college, majoring in art at the University of New Hampshire, she was introduced to pastels—rarely taught at the University—by her college professor, a father figure to Hellquist who landed her her first commission.

Several years after college, Hellquest went back to school for respiratory therapy. She then found herself in Durham, NC, working as a respiratory therapist at Duke—from where she later received a physician’s assistant degree. After working in NC for six years, she moved to NM. Hellquist had been visiting and admiring NM for many years—she has a cousin who lived in Nambe. Says Hellquist, “Every time I was here, I loved it more and more.” At Hellquist’s request, a realtor showed her land in Placitas, which she was drawn to after inspecting a map of Albuquerque’s surrounding areas. Like most artists who transplant themselves in NM, Hellquist was invigorated by the landscape. She recalls feeling so excited by, and at peace in, Placitas. She wondered if she would ever tire of it. She has since realized: “This is where I’m going to be for the rest of my life.”

Her job at Lovelace demanded that she work 12-hour shifts, but only three days per week. With all the extra time on her hands, she explored her new state. “I started doing backpacking and river trips, and went to places in nature you couldn’t get to easily.” Envisioning many of these remote areas, Hellquist muses, “The majesty of it—it’s like going into a cathedral, and yet, it’s nature.” Such trips inspired Hellquist to return to painting, but she didn’t want to produce nondescript landscape scenes. First and foremost, her paintings are of subjects that “mean something to me.” They are often based on photographs she’s taken during her travels, and allow her to re-experience her initial reaction to a location. Says Hellquist: “I can just feel the place—whether it was dusty and dry or moist...I could smell it, like I was there.”

Hellquist is now well known for her animal portraits on drums. She fell into this niche after retiring from health care in 2000. Says Hellquist: “There were too many pastel landscape artists in the area. I wanted to do something that set me apart.” Using a drum as a painting surface felt right to Hellquist, who has been a drummer since childhood. Further augmenting her interest in painting on drums is her connection to Native American traditions. “My mother had always said that there was an Indian woman in our history, which I thought was really cool.” In 1999, Hellquist was adopted by a Cherokee family in Albuquerque, and her identification with Native American culture began to intensify. She has even completed a vision quest, for which she fasted for 85 hours. Says Hellquist, “By the fourth day, with nothing to eat, you get really weirded out. I could meditate at the drop of a hat, and I wanted to figure out who my animals were.” On the last day of her quest, while lying under a tree, escaping the May heat, her spirit animals made themselves known. She experienced a vision of a female bald eagle, who told her that the wolf is her teacher, the raven her entertainer, and the bear her protector and guide.

Those four animals feature prominently in Hellquist’s oeuvre, and when she paints them on Indian-made drums, it is because the drum itself somehow conveys qualities of the animal. The drums and the animals are indelibly connected. Says Hellquist, “I choose a drum specifically for a certain animal, depending on the design of the drum... when I paint a certain animal, I get into what that animal represents and feel it is my job to ‘bring it out of the drum.’” She intends for viewers to sense the animal’s spirit upon seeing and playing the drum.

Hellquist’s own photographs inform her paintings, but can also be regarded as works of art in their own right. In April, they will be displayed alongside her paintings at the Placitas Community Library. Hellquist also shows her work at the Placitas Holiday Sale and at the Gathering of Nations. You can view and purchase Hellquist’s drums, and contact the artist by visiting

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