Shari Ubechel was on a return flight from Mexico when she met Carlos Santana. Ubechel was traveling with another Taos artist, Leigh Gusterson, when they encountered the award-winning musician sitting just in front of them. “I asked him why he wasn’t in first class,” she says. “And he laughed and said something like he wanted to be with his people.”
After landing, Santana got the two Taos artists tickets to his Albuquerque concert. “He was so sweet and genuine,” Ubechel says. Santana was clearly impressed with her also and before too long he hired Ubechel to paint a drum. Years passed and at one of his concerts in Philadelphia, Santana recognized her and invited her up on stage to play the very drum she had painted. “That was my 10 minutes of fame!” Ubechel says.
Hardly. The owner of Earth and Spirit Gallery recently painted a guitar for Jimmy Fallon and a drum for Sandra Ingerman, and her bright and cheerful art is some of the most frequently collected in the state. She has sold more than 6,000 works. After 40-some years of painting and 20 years as a full-time artist, Ubechel has hit her stride.
Ubechel’s paintings capture the landscape of Northern New Mexico like few others, and they do so by eliciting the splendor and peacefulness of our wild lands.
Ubechel’s personality, like her paintings, is bright, welcoming and eminently peaceful. She greets visitors to her gallery with a gigantic smile. “With all the bad news out there I want to just bring happiness and joy,” she says. Her paintings reflect that intention. Ubechel isn’t so interested in all the darkness the world has to offer. At least not artistically. “I am trying to express the full richness of life, sharing the beauty of nature with bold, juicy color. The energy I get by painting plein-aire comes through the in the work itself, feeding our soul through nature.”
“I think that’s our job as artists. To bring joy and beauty into the world.”
Shari Ubechel, neé Kestenbaum, was born in New York City and raised in Pennsylvania. She majored in art at the Abington Friends School before winning several scholarships to attend the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia. She graduated from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art after studying in Rome. “I was like a sponge,” she says of that time. “I was soaking in all the power of those great masters. I got to see what was in the backrooms of some of the most famous museums in the world.” Her time in Rome also stimulated her to travel to another 25 countries on every continent save Antarctica. “I was further inspired by the natural beauty, art and culture of those places.”
And then Taos pulled. Soon after graduation Ubechel packed everything into her car and drove west, not knowing anything about Northern New Mexico. “It felt like home instantly,” she says. “I was just drawn to Taos and particularly the El Salto waterfall. I drove right to it without ever having been here.” For awhile, it worked. She lived in a shack out Tres Piedras way that was owned by artist Alyce Frank. She passed her days hiking and exploring the area. “But it was challenging to make a living as a young artist here,” she says. So she moved back east to get her career rolling and build a name for herself.
It seems that, when you’re ready, the world opens doors and often in the oddest of ways. After many successful years in New York, Ubechel was living near a river outside of New York City and Philadelphia when a hurricane swelled the waters that flowed past her house and she was flooded out. And then her barn burned down. For Ubechel, the message was clear. It was time. “I came back to Taos 11 years ago and things have just clicked.”
The change in geography altered Ubechel’s painting technique. From the realistic works of her East Coast days, her paintings took on a more expressive quality once she returned to the Southwest. Ubechel began to paint wildlife on drums, to make jewelry and to incorporate music, science and spirituality into her work. She studied with some of the Taos greats such as Ray Vinella. The land became her primary inspiration, evoking the dreamier and more soothing elements of Northern New Mexico.
Ubechel pulls out the deep purples and the crenulated rims of twilight mountains. Her autumnal aspens burst like fire. Her forests almost reach out to pull you into the warm topiary. Somehow she captures every change in the varying hues of blue, green, red and orange of our canyons, seemingly chunking the paint on in spots to the point where you quite literally feel the scraggly and crusted nature of the cliffs and crags. The style makes the landscape feel as big in the paintings as it is in real life. And there are faces — Ubechel explains that she sees faces in the moon, the rocks, the trees and perhaps even the pumpkins and squash found in the back of old Chevy pickups that show up here and there in her work. Many of Ubechel’s paintings call to mind an idealized historic Northern New Mexico, an idyllic to which we all subscribe.
One of the reasons her paintings are so entrancing is their three-dimensional quality. In her studio, Ubechel has a row of 3D glasses she offers her visitors. “It is something I came up with,” she says. “I haven’t seen anyone else use this technique and it took me 20 years to invent. I wanted people to feel that movement. To feel like they are walking into that forest. To step into the painting.”
You don’t need the glasses, mind you, the paintings are magical even if you never knew they were 3D.
One of Ubechel’s most loyal collectors, Hank Miller, finds her work “vibrant and uplifting; her colors are brilliant,” he says. “And every painting is significant.”
Ubechel sees herself and life in general as a developing work of art. As Mr. Miller says, Ubechel “keeps evolving and creating new amazing pieces.”
“I feel really blessed,” she says.
Earth and Spirit Gallery
132 Bent Street, Taos
TAOS MAGAZINE | OCTOBER 2016