Artist Marie McCallum gets a little work done during her day job Karen Gabaldon Fine Art Gallery on Main Ave. McCallum recently displayed her signature ‘window shopper’ paintings during a one-woman show at the gallery./Photo by Steve Eginoire

Tailor-made art

Marie McCallum’s art not just window dressing
by Stew Mosberg

The word window is often used as a metaphor: “The eyes are the windows to the soul,” comes to mind, as does “A window of opportunity.” Durango artist Marie McCallum discovered that simile early in her life.

Since arriving in Durango 12 years ago, the award-winning trompe l’oeil painter has exhibited in galleries and numerous shows locally as well as in New Mexico and California. Originally from the Golden State, McCallum received her formal art training in the Los Angeles area where she was schooled in Old World painting methods and murals. Her realistic style and her background in drafting and technical drawing segued into years of working as a sign painter and guilder.

Since taking up residence here, McCallum’s work has been professionally acknowledged on numerous occasions. She won “Best in Show” at the DAC’s Four Corners juried show in 2004 and also designed one of the “Pumas on Parade” in 2005. A recent one-woman show at Karyn Gabaldon’s gallery, where she has worked the past four years, was something of a triumph for the artist. After nine months of preparation, the exhibition culminated in several sales and a newfound recognition. The exhibit was the first in which so many of her signature “window shopper” paintings were shown together in one place, some of which depicted storefronts in Downtown Durango.

The series, which she has been exploring for years, was inspired by her grandmother. “She greatly influenced my interest in clothing,” said the painter. “My grandmother had a tailor’s training and made beautiful suits and coats and all of my school clothing. She also taught me how to sew, and by the time I was 13, I was making my own school clothing.”

It was during her family’s excursions into their tiny California town to find fabrics, that window shopping first influenced her and ultimately led to the images that pay homage to her childhood memories. It also formed McCallum’s belief in clothing as a cultural statement.

“I’ve always had a deep interest in clothes,” she explains, “How we define ourselves, consciously or not, by what we wear whether it’s a uniform, gym clothes, party dress or a business suit. Others can glean information about us by what we are wearing.”

Standing in front of one of her paintings is something akin to experiencing a fun house mirror; the viewer becomes the unseen person peering into the shop window, seeing a reflection of passer-bys or automobiles and buildings and then at the display of mannequins just beyond the glass.

The viewer immediately senses a familiarity with the subject matter; each of us having stood in a comparable spot at times, exploring, imagining and contemplating the merchandise inside.

All the exactness and attention to detail in her work has made her timid about “loosening up” as an artist, albeit she admits to wanting to experiment with other styles and methods.

“In terms of technique, I’ve been trying to paint a little less rigidly for awhile now, and it’s a real tough thing to do,” she admits. “Trompe l’oeil is a style of painting where objects are depicted with photographic detail. It’s all kind of exacting, ordered work, so to be loose and more painterly yet depict things in a realistic way is a challenge for me.”

Secretly, she admits, she’d really like to try her hand at abstract painting, “but it’s just beyond me to figure out how to even begin. I have to have everything figured out in advance and I don’t think that’s how abstract work is done.”

Pondering her evolution as an artist and how she might develop a new style, McCallum said, “When I’m painting something challenging, I tell myself it’s all just shapes, not objects. It helps to look at it that way and only then can I move through the painting without getting bogged down. What appeals to me about abstract painting is that it is shape and form, not depicting anything realistic. I suppose that is a skill I could use to get into abstraction. That, plus I just love pushing paint around.”

Among several artists that McCallum admires, a particular favorite is New Mexico painter Louisa McElwain, whose landscapes are thick with paint in a technique that borders on the abstract. Perhaps it is the direction McCallum will take in the future. Whatever catalyst she chooses, the results will more than likely be successful and the anticipation is palpable.

In the meantime, McCallum will have art exhibited in Gabaldon’s August show, in conjunction with the Pro Cycle Challenge. In addition, her work is available in a portfolio at the gallery along with some “live” artwork.

Since McCallum started at the gallery, Gabaldon has seen a definite evolution in her work, and she looks forward to the next phase. “One’s art has to evolve when working at a gallery, because you are constantly seeing other people’s art and you’re talking about art all day,” said Gabaldon. “I think Marie’s colors and subject matter expanded and she also tried some new techniques.”

For the time being the artist still has more window-themed paintings to explore; male images and mannequins. Then there is a new but related series on the horizon, one she suggests will seek to “identify others by their clothing/uniforms, and how we tend to see their job and not the person.”