A little brown dog lays in an astral bed, his twitching body on a mat covered in the word “bone,” one eye tipped toward heaven.
A studded collar rings his neck, the studs echoing a cascade of colorful dots as if the dog sleeps in space, his body ringed with licks of fire. Artist Marcia Henning’s “Harpo Dreaming,” an acrylic on canvas painting, celebrates the life and hopeful afterlife of a dearly departed pet in her June exhibition at Traveler’s Cafe.
“Harp Dreaming was painted for a dog that I had for over 12 years,” reminisces Henning. “He was my best friend, and he inspired me to do the dog paintings. He was a fabulous dog, named after Harpo Marx, who was one of my heroes. All of my art goes back to my own experiences, the people, animals, and places I have felt a connection to.”
Henning started drawing at the age of 2, finding herself picking up pencil and paper when she felt the need to escape. Her first artistic influence was Van Gogh, whose portraits she first admired in second grade.
“I started drawing weird little creatures when I was two,” explains Henning. “It was an escape for me. I came from a strange household where escape was necessary. Van Gogh was the first artist I was exposed to as a child, and the one I remember the best. I remember a lady we called the Picture Lady who would come to our class in school. She would bring a photograph of an artist and a picture that the artist created. She told us a story about Van Gogh, and I was captivated. He was so brilliant and so tormented. Being the odd duck that I am, I could really relate to that.”
Henning’s parents separated, and she was shuttled back and forth, spending most of her time with her beloved grandfather, to whom she has dedicated her current show.
“My grandfather was so special to me. I was left with him a lot. He was a photographic engraver who started his own business in the 1930s. I owe my life to him. He was so kind to me. He gave me the dots,” she laughs, referring to the plains of dots covering most of her paintings. “When I was three, my grandfather had this brass tool with a magnifying glass. It was worn where his thumb held it. ‘Marcia, did you know that all pictures were made up of little dots?’ he asked me. I looked through the glass and found out that everything in those photographs were made up of little dots. It took me 40 years to realize that’s what I was doing with my paintings — adding my grandfather’s dots to everything.”
Henning’s work takes on a mystical, folk-art appearance. Influences such as Da de los Muertos and Australian aboriginal art can be seen in her choice of vibrant color, in the cartoon-like faces, bodies, and odd household items featured in her paintings. In “Human Error,” an acrylic on canvas, three androgynous faces press from the belly of a leaping purple horse, screaming at a pouncing fox. The piece invites the viewer to consider our secret echoes, the way we only face fear in the hidden spaces. In “La Salvadora” — painted after Henning served as an election observer at the end of the war in El Salvador — a frantic skeleton streams frustration into space, orange streams of tiny dots shooting from the tip of his skull.
“My team was assigned to a polling place at a high school in San Salvador. An elderly woman approached us and told us that every time she tried to vote, she was pushed away,” describes Henning of the chaos surrounding the event.
Currently, Henning is a student at Highlands University, working toward a master’s degree in natural resource management. After a patchwork career as a puppeteer where she made her own paper mache puppets and put on road shows with a little company of starving artists, then as an environmental education specialist and tour guide at various Santa Fe museums, Henning has decided to embrace her art with new passion. She considers nature and sanctuary two of her biggest muses.
“I decided at the age of 49 that I was trying to fit a square peg into a round hole,” Henning says. “I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I’ve done a lot of things professionally, and circumstances have brought me back to painting, and to have the courage to do that is a big deal.”
Henning hopes to paint more paintings in memory of deceased dogs, and is taking commissions from those interested in having their pets memorialized on canvas. She also plans to put together a burro art museum exhibition after her graduation.
“I’m hoping with some of these pictures that viewers can find the meaning behind them, that people become more kind to their pets,” she says. “I want to express that love and compassion to those animals.”
Henning pauses, the skull of “La Salvadora” silently screaming behind her. “I’m giving myself permission to express myself as an artist. I don’t have to be a scientist or a business professional to be valid on this earth.”
The Art of Marcia Henning, on display now through the end of June at Traveler’s Cafe during regular business hours. Artist’s Reception on Friday, June 13, from 6-8 p.m.