ArtBeat: Southwestern United States the inspiration for artists in new exhibit at Sawmill River Arts in Montague

  • Deerfield photographer Judy Cummings waited two hours for the sun to light this ancient cliff dwelling in Mule Canyon near Blanding, Utah just right. Cummings’ photos are included in a group exhibit, “Ancient Sites and Symbols,” at Sawmill River Arts through Monday, Sept. 11. Courtesy Judy Cummings

  • “Red Rock Woman” by Lydia Gray, was inspired by time the ceramicist spent walking in the Sonoran Desert outside Tuscon, Ariz. Courtesy Lydia Gray

  • A pendant by jeweler John Moore and two gourd vessels by Joan Levy, both Sawmill River Arts cooperative members, were inspired by experiences in the American Southwest. For The Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • Louise Minks’ painting, “Ancient Sites and Symbols,” depicts petroglyphs from Newspaper Rock outside Canyonlands National Park and from Sand Island, both in Utah. It also features images of Square Tower House from the Mesa Verde site in Colorado and multiple kivas from Chaco Canyon, NM. Courtesy Louise Minks

  • Trish Crapo

For The Recorder
Published: 8/23/2017 8:41:31 AM

There couldn’t be a landscape more different than New England. The red and umber rock formations of the dry Southwest region of the United States, and the ancient petroglyphs and abandoned cliff dwellings that can be found there, can seem like another world. The Southwest can seem a harsh and forbidding place in contrast to our lush, green, tamed landscape.

For two New England artists, Leverett painter Louise Minks and Deerfield photographer Judy Cummings, the Southwest has exerted an inexorable attraction, and both women have returned time after time. Recently, the two put together a collaborative exhibit of works inspired by the landscape and motifs of the American Southwest, “Ancient Sites and Symbols,” at Sawmill River Arts at the Montague Bookmill.

The exhibit also features work by fellow Sawmill River Arts cooperative members ceramicist Lydia Gray, jeweler John Moore and gourd artist Joan Levy. The artists’ work was inspired by experiences they had and sites they visited in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. The exhibit has been extended an extra week and will be on display through Monday, September 11.

Cummings says she has been to the Southwest fifteen times in a twenty-year time span.

“It pulls me back,” she says. “I feel grounded when I’m there. I feel energy that just comes right from the earth.”

Cummings says she has felt a similar energy in Peru and, to a lesser extent, in certain places in New England in the White Mountains.

“Maybe you could call them vortexes,” Cummings says. She says she senses “a spirituality” in these spots that she sometimes describes as “hearing ancient voices.”

“It’s not that I hear words,” Cummings clarifies. “I hear feelings.”

Cummings came to photography after retiring in 2002 from a career as a special needs educator at Franklin County Technical School and, before that, Turners Falls High School. Though she had never really done much photography, Cummings says she knew for a long time that she would turn to it after retirement.

Cummings’ photograph, “House on Fire,” is a dramatic capture of a Native American dwelling high atop a cliff in Mule Canyon near Blanding, Utah. Cummings said she had to wait two hours for the light to hit the canyon just so.

Another reason Cummings is drawn to photograph the sites she chooses, all of which are on Bureau of Land Management lands or in national parks, is that these locations “are so fragile.”

“Our current administration doesn’t necessarily feel that it’s important to protect these sites,” Cummings says. “I just ache because of that.”

Leverett artist Louise Minks says that the idea for the group show came about when she saw Cummings’ member wall at Sawmill River Arts filled with photographs of the Southwest.

“I didn’t know she’d spent time out there,” Minks says. “I saw this whole wall and I looked at the locations and I said, ‘I know these places. I’ve been to these places. I love these places!’”

Minks worked from some of Cummings’ photos of petroglyphs to create her large acrylic painting, “Ancient Sites and Symbols,” which is included in the show along with paintings Minks made on site at Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, and other works.

Minks has been in love with the Southwest, particularly New Mexico, since 1996 when she was a fellow at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos. A second fellowship in 1997 and a visit to Ghost Ranch, Georgia O’Keefe’s home and studio in Abiquiu, cemented her love for the place.

“My whole goal was how to get back,” Minks says. “So I made a big effort to figure out how to teach out there.”

Minks, who teaches painting workshops here in the Pioneer Valley, taught for eight years at Taos Institute for the Arts and now teaches once a year at Ghost Ranch. Her fascination with the landscape includes the Rio Grande River, she says, and points out that the river has many parallels to the Connecticut River, which she also frequently paints. Communities developed along both large rivers, which became lifelines for human economies, Minks says.

An historian as well as a painter, Minks says she has an “absolute commitment to the history and the heritage” of the Southwest. One of her early projects was a series of large paintings depicting the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, which Minks describes as, “The only successful Native American revolution that threw out the Europeans.”

The successful twelve-year eviction of the Spanish from Pueblo lands is “a piece of American history we don’t hear about, we don’t know about, and I found it absolutely fascinating.”

In addition to being intrigued by the ancient structures at sites such as Mesa Verde in Colorado or Hovenweep, a site that spans lands in Colorado and Utah, Minks is also enamored of the “current mix of cultures” in the Southwest. You can go into a grocery store in Taos, she says, and you’ll hear a person start out speaking English, switch to Spanish and then end in a tribal language.

Like Cummings, the Southwest has gotten into Minks’ blood.

“I have one foot planted in New England and one foot planted in New Mexico,” Minks says happily.

Where to find it

Sawmill River Arts at the Montague Book Mill, 440 Greenfield Road, Montague. Hours: Monday and Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Thursday through Sunday, noon to 6 p.m. Closed Tuesday. Contact: or 413-367-2885.

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