Barb Hinnenkamp - “Saints of the Day” Series

I am 69 years old. Finally, after a lifetime of marriage, raising children, surviving a divorce and crafting my life as a single person... I am emerging into the manifestation of my enduring create a vision of my perception of this world in my art making. As a young adult, middle class American...I married into the Mexican culture and for the next 25 years, I was immersed in the Mexican culture which I loved. I birthed three children into both worlds of the Mexican-American culture, a fence which we balanced on; giving us the full view of both worlds. From this experience, I became soulfully Mexican, suffering, struggling and loving the rich, deep beauty of that culture. Now, as an older person, I retrieve the memories of my experiences as a young mother, traveling to the small village marketplaces with a baby securely wrapped in my rebozo and my toddler holding my hand. Many times, I would sense someone behind me, turning to find an Indito softly touching my towheaded babies hair...we were such a rare thing there. As the years have passed, I now am a single person once again and now that I have time to rest and restore myself...I have set about bringing all the memories of that past to life in my work. These people that I paint and bless in this series of 'Saints of the Day' are just the same now as they were 38 years ago. They endure, they wait...and their elegance has not changed. I want to leave a message to the world of who these people are and in doing so I feel that all of us who have been more fortunate in this country can identify ourselves in them.

Barb Hinnenkamp - Sep 16, 2009

Saints of the Day
By Gussie Fauntleroy

For hundreds of years the indigenous peoples of Mexico and elsewhere have been submerged in European and North American images of beauty and the sacred: fair-skinned Madonnas surrounded by angels with gold-leaf halos and harps; a vision of purity in faces unlined by worry or work. "This is what you should look like," these messages say; "This is what the holy looks like."

Barbara Hinnenkamp has a different idea. The painter and mixed-media artist, whose new series, Saints of the Day, was created in the studio of her home at Cochiti Lake, New Mexico, believes that rather than imposed religious imagery, indigenous people should have been handed a mirror. In it they would perceive the true sacredness that has infused their lives and their ancestors' lives all along: the rich beauty of an unbroken bond with the earth and her creatures. The glowing emanation of human authenticity and joy. The generosity of spirit found in sharing work and laughter and grief with extended family and friends. The wisdom gained-and reflected in strong faces-from wading through the middle of everyday life, not hovering above it, angelically untouched.

Barbara holds deep connections with the kinds of dark- skinned people whose images populate Saints of the Day. Her former husband was Mexican and she spent much of her early adulthood immersed in Mexican culture, traveling to villages in the country's interior, absorbing the people's spirit and age-old ways of life. Having born three children of mixed race, she is indissolubly joined to the other half of her children's heritage. "These are my people," she says of those represented by her paintings. "I can't walk away from them."

What she can do is hold up a mirror reflecting the qualities she sees in Mexican and indigenous people that are worth valuing and acknowledging-qualities linking humankind with the divine and which are, in fact, in all of us. Especially in light of the current immigration debate, in which individuals too often are painted over with the wide brush of narrow-minded intolerance, Barbara's art is aimed at lifting layers and centuries of condescension and exploitation. She employs the symbolism of profusion of flowers, butterflies and birds to reveal the earth-connected, human richness that lies beneath.

In Madonna Indigina, for example, a woman's face stares into the distance, her resigned expression reflecting endurance and the sad wisdom of life. Her beauty is quiet and deep, far removed from any light-skinned, superficial standard of prettiness. Yet she wears the blue veil and crown of flowers that traditionally adorn the European vision of Madonna. This woman is that Madonna's equal, as the wise owl and other creatures attest. Two winged angels attending her are further expressions of her inherent sacred qualities, the artist explains. Angels depicted in these works are not there to glorify the European ideal, but to serve as translations-in a long standing iconographic language-of the unnamed holiness at the essence of humankind.

That essence also manifests as an exuberant joy, as expressed in Alegria. Here, two sturdy market Women hold bowls of bright green limes in outstretched hands. Their laughing eyes are focused on the butterflies and birds that no doubt appreciate the offerings of lovely fruit. "How could you not be joyful when you have wonderful fruits and vegetables to sell at the market," Barbara asks. Similarly, Iguana Stew depicts an old Woman with a live iguana tied on top of her head. She's on her Way to market with the creature, which is destined to become part of a nourishing meal. Flecks of silver leaf shimmer on the iguana's back and float in the air as if strewn by the angel hovering there. "She's nobody's fool," Barbara says of the character with the glint in her eye and a knowing half-smile.

The painting brings up memories for the artist of wandering through the lively colors and sounds and smells of outdoor markets in Mexico. "I tuned into the people's connectedness with each other and community," she relates, "and when I got back here (to the United States), I found myself pushing a metal cart through sterilized grocery store aisles with packaged meat and the muzak playing, and I felt so deprived."

Inspiration for the figures in Saints of the Day comes from old sepia photos of Mexican villagers in a small cookbook Barbara has had for years. She is drawn to a face or an image and begins with that. But almost immediately, she says, the characters take on their own life, imbued with qualities that incorporate much of what she has personally experienced among everyday people in Mexico over the years. The artist's painting style verges deliberately on the naif, reflecting the common folk roots of the people she portrays and steering away from any idealized vision of perfection or beauty.

The collage element, however-the flowers, butterflies and birds-contains the ephemeral flawlessness of nature's grace. "Flowers are one of the most perfect manifestations of beauty we have on this earth," Barbara reflects, "but they're so fragile and so quickly wither. We have to stay awake to see that beauty, and to see it in us." Collage is also part of Barbara's tribute to the people she is painting, since the images are cutout from used calendars, garden catalogues and magazines-items that would otherwise be thrown away. "What all the indigenous people in the world have to work with is stuff that would be thrown away," she observes. And as a passionate gardener, finding and surrounding herself with pictures of flowers and cutting them out to arrange in her paintings is nothing less than pure fun, she smiles.

Flowers take on an almost otherworldly monochromatic hue in Delfino, whose title character rides a donkey carrying a precious load of oversized blossoms, including an enormous white rose. He is in the midst of a Divine moment, the artist explains. His faraway gaze and smile seem to hold a secret, perhaps conveyed by the angel whispering in his ear. The angel's message, no doubt, echoes that in all of these works: Don't worry about what others might say. You are good enough as you are.

It's a concept the open-mouthed birds might be trying to communicate to the little girl in El Mensaje (The Message) as well. The large painting features a young girl in a long braid sitting amidst flowers and birds against a backdrop that feels forbiddingly stark. Her expression is one of pondering and puzzlement as she tries to discern the message of the birds. Above her, an enormous orange dahlia hangs in the center of the sky like the sun or a lotus flower, promising spiritual enlightenment or at least the sun's warmth and light. She will need all of that, and more, with the life that lies ahead of her, Barbara points out.

Another glimpse of childhood is offered in the image of Zenon, a young boy with his thumbs in his pants, standing in the woods. His eyes are a little sad; his shoulder is thrust forward as if protecting himself from the world. But, as in all of these paintings, streams of golden energy surround him like the halos or subtle precious light in religious imagery of old. He is the king of his world-as children are-attended by the innocent creatures of the woods. They are alike, the creatures and the boy, neither one (yet) sullied by life. "There's a poignant feeling adults have, looking at little ones and knowing what they'll go through and knowing we can't prevent it," Barbara says.

In other works, El Pescador (The Fisherman) carries his just-caught fish on his back trailing copper-leaf scales, one fish to eat and one to sell; Hermanos captures the simple caring and love of siblings; and Maria expresses a young woman's thoughtful beauty in the form of flowers and an angel's prayer.

In fact, Barbara says, each bird, butterfly, and flower cut out and placed on these paintings is a heart-felt prayer. Prayer for all those for whom life's difficulties threaten to overwhelm their natural beauty, generosity, and joy--and prayer for those qualities in each of us. Because, she adds, in the ways that matter, we are all one.

Gussie Fauntleroy, who lives in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, writes on art, architecture, and design for national and regional magazines, among them Southwest Art, Phoenix Home & Garden, Su Casa, Native Peoples Magazine, and Santa Fe Trend. She is the author of three books on visual artists.

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