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String Theory

Las Cruces artist Mari Broenen weaves together the mythic and the personal to make something universal.

By Jeff Berg

A paragraph in Las Cruces artist Mari Broenen's 2001 dissertation reads: "As the artist works in her studio, she enters an imaginal space in which the work she does with her hands blends seamlessly with her imaginings. This experience brings the satisfying knowledge that the artist is doing exactly what she is meant to do, that her work is an inextricable melding of body and soul, sense and psyche, emotion and intellect, meaning and form."

Artist Mari Broenen with her work "Intermezzo 12."
(Photo by Paul Schraub.)

As you might guess, Mari Broenen — who holds a doctorate in cultural mythology and depth psychology — is not your typical Sunday painter. Her art is her full-time work; her passion for it is uncompromised.

Nor is her challenging, abstract artwork the sort of thing you might describe as "nice" and hang over your sofa. "The whole thing in Las Cruces is that it's a retirement community, and with that it often carries the esthetic that we like to have pictures on the walls," Broenen says. "Much of what is done is 'straightforward,' making it easy to read visually. And that leads to the discussion of what is art? Is it a pretty pleasing thing picture on the wall that doesn't challenge you — that does not cause something inside of you to be moved in some way?"

Broenen asks these questions of art aficionados: Do you believe there is an elegance to art? Is it deeply moving emotionally or spiritually? Do you walk by a painting perhaps and feel so moved that it reminds you that you are alive?

"People in Las Cruces aren't necessarily looking for that," Broenen concedes — a situation she nonetheless hopes to change.

Broenen has been in Las Cruces since 2004, arriving here for the same reasons that many of us do — cost of living, warmer weather, a chance at a new beginning. She adds, "I also found Las Cruces to be a lot calmer and more conducive to my work."

She is the mother of two grown sons, both of whom chose to stay in the Santa Cruz, Calif., area when Broenen came to New Mexico. One son did move here with her for a short time, but wasn't able to earn enough to make a living. He has since returned to California with good success.

Broenen had a career in the corporate world while living in California, and earlier while in Minnesota. But in spite of success and world travel, with a career that allowed her to raise her two sons as a single mom, it was not what she wanted to spend her life doing.

"When I decided to take the plunge, it was a serendipitous gift," she recalls. The corporation she was working for, Advanced Micro Development, needed to reduce staff, and, in an interesting twist, invited people to be laid off. Broenen quickly volunteered. "With the money from my severance package and with the income from the sale of a home, I was able to do it."

Having taken "the plunge," Broenen feels there are three ways to define an artist's success: "Financial, success at being known, or personal satisfaction."

Financially, Broenen feels she has done okay, although the size and scope of her work sometimes makes it difficult to sell. "I've only sold two pieces since I have been in Las Cruces," she allows. "So, financially, it's been up and down."

The "success" part is not something that Broenen is too concerned about. "I don't care to be famous or well-known," she says quietly, adding with a smile, "I'm not looking for a 'following.'"

But the personal satisfaction has been her greatest reward. "Creatively, I have had fantastic success. I am able to focus on my work and mature as an artist. It has allowed me to evolve and continue to go through the journey."

That journey has also allowed Broenen to become more in touch with her inner-self and with the strength of feminine energy and power, she says.

Broenen's work is mixed-media abstract. Each piece is — at a minimum — a triptych, and each in a way has a deeply layered look.

"My art is a mythic telling," she says in the artist's statement on her Web site, "an inextricable intertwining of movement and meditation in which touch evokes image."

Although she starts with a canvas, most of Broenen's works become an intriguing blend of painting, sewing, embroidery, beading and sketching. The beading comes from her Cherokee heritage, she says. Strips of bamboo and salt cedar or other organic items also are usually incorporated into her work. Paper strips and gesso can be used at times, as are string, yarn or thin pieces of rope.

Maureen Korp, a Canadian art historian and writer-lecturer on religion, says of the resulting creations, "In the perilous times of our lives today, we are lucky to have artists whose work can remind us the earth is still turning on its axis, its wild creatures still crossing the planet. Mari Broenen's knotted, tied, wall-hung, carefully worked art suggests we might yet find our place in the universe, too."

A current Broenen piece is based on a "yantra," which is a precursor to the mandala, and usually used as a visual tool for meditation. The embroidery on this piece will take her about a month to complete.

"I was taught to sew as a girl," she says, "and who I was came through what I was taught to do. It (sewing) was a 'safe' activity, as was embroidery.

"The design will follow what feels right, and the series can go on forever."

Since most art is, of course, open to interpretation by the viewer, one may find that Broenen's pieces offer that option extensively. All of the pieces that hang in her studio have a different visual or emotional effect; the viewer can feel overwhelmed in a nonetheless comforting way.

The untrained eye may also see a sort of music theme in the piece called "Intermezzo III"; many of her pieces carry "Intermezzo" as part of their titles. In "Intermezzo III," several horizontal pieces form the sort of bars that contain the notes that would appear on sheet music.

"The horizontal draws the eye across to read the piece," Broenen offers.

Currently, the Bosshard Gallery in Santa Fe is the exclusive venue for Broenen's work. In the past, her work has also been shown at galleries in the San Francisco Bay area, St. Louis, Atlanta and Los Angeles, and at Chicago's SOFA (Sculpture Objects and Functional Art) Exposition in 2006. Her creations are also in many private collections across the country. In Las Cruces, her work has been shown at White Raven Gallery and New Mexico State University.

Mary Anne Redding, director and curator of the NMSU Art Gallery, describes Broenen's work in near-mythic terms: "Respectful of both her academic training as an artist and the tradition of the craft handed down through generations of women who weave the stories of their lives in their artwork, Broenen fuses her knowledge of the sacred mythologies of the world into work that transcends the personal into the universal."

Despite such sweeping praise from a local expert, Broenen confesses, "It's been a challenge to be in Las Cruces. It's not really a good place to show my work, so I often send it to other cities."

But the whole gallery "scene" is something that Broenen is rethinking, anyway. "Galleries may not be the way to go. I am thinking of doing some online marketing and exploring other options."

Another issue is that galleries can often take 50 percent of a sale, while the artist is usually responsible for shipping and related expenses when displaying in a gallery. She relates the tale of another artist who arranged to have a show locally, but was required to put up and take down her work, and was even told to spackle the holes that were made in the walls after the show.

Besides her artwork, Broenen says her other interests include spending time with her sons, reading, music, cooking, movies and — since moving to Las Cruces — walking in the desert. It is there that she can happen across some of the "found" or natural items that end up as part of her work.

Incorporating things she finds, objects her unconscious may draw her to, is only natural, Broenen believes. "I believe that my work as an artist — and I am sure this is true of others — is a collaboration of the conscious and unconscious," she says.

"I also believe that all through my life, my work or vocation is a channel — a service," she adds, "and the energy that comes through that is what I am supposed to express in my work."

For more about artist Mari Broenen,
see her Web site at www.maribroenen.com.

Senior writer Jeff Berg lives in Las Cruces.


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