Outsider artist Taya Doro finds new beginning in Aztec

James Fenton The Daily Times
The Daily Times

AZTEC — Let your fantasy run free like a child.

That's how outsider artist and retired psychiatric nurse Taya Doro sees the creative process and, by the looks of it, life itself.

Born in 1934 in Heemstede, a small town in the Netherlands, Doro didn't think of herself as an artist until the age of 40.

She grew up the seventh of 11 siblings in a lower-class Catholic family. Her mother was left to care for the children mostly on her own. Her father, a vegetable farmer, worked long hours in the fields and was largely absent.

As a child in school during World War II, Doro was distraught at watching Jewish friends disappear from school.

"They were taken away in vans, disappearing from the earth, which I internalized and struggled to understand," she said. "Some families managed to hide Jews in their homes. It was too much to comprehend."

When she was 12, her mother pulled her out of school to take sewing lessons in the home of a seamstress neighbor.

"My mother was very stern, controlling, probably very depressed, being saddled with all us kids," Doro said. "She always urged us to be working, to keep our hands busy."

Doro always felt an instinct toward art but felt lost, uncertain where she fit in, unsure what she wanted. Despite her mother's intentions, she knew she would have to strike out on her own.

That chance came when she was 18 and joined a Catholic women's group called The Grail that had a headquarters near her home. She took a vow of chastity and poverty and remained with the organization for 12 years while going to nursing school, eventually leaving Holland to join the group's U.S. headquarters in Ohio.

"I worked for a time in Cincinnati as a medical assistant, completed my GED and then moved to California to get my nursing license at the urging of a woman in The Grail," Doro said. "It has always been my instinct to want to help and care for people."

By the early 1970s, Doro found herself in San Francisco, first working with teenagers at a medical center, then as an assistant in a photography lab and ultimately going to art school, soaking up everything from sculpture to painting and drawing.

"I still didn't feel like an artist, though many people called me one," she said. "I had always thought that you are born an artist, not something that you decide to do."

Unable to get accepted into a graduate program, Doro moved to Oakland, Calif., purchased a modest storefront home on Foothill Boulevard and met her husband, an African-American postal worker and widower, John Mitchell. They met when Doro misdialed a number for another John and carried on the conversation assuming she was talking to her friend.

They hit it off and were married. Mitchell soon developed Alzheimer's disease, and Doro cared for him for nine years until his death.

During that time, Doro, antsy to have something to do while tending to her sick husband, began to ornament frames around mirrors she hung in the hallways. And she soon found herself doing the same to the walls and ceilings.

"We would take walks together, but as the disease progressed, he became quieter and was resting more and more, so I spent most of the time at home with him," she said. "I needed something to do to keep busy — my mother's legacy to me — and I had often made jewelry, earrings, and this was just an extension of that."

An earthquake in 1989 left cracks in the walls of her home, which further catalyzed Doro's hands to do more than repair with Sheetrock or wallpaper.

Taking bottle caps, buttons, parts of earrings, beads, clothespins and anything she picked up at local flea markets, Doro soon began covering every inch of wall and ceiling space in her home with assemblages, mosaics of countless items she brought home, painted, shaped and glued in patterns Spanish artist Antonio Gaudi would applaud.

The intricacy of ornamentation that soon filled her home — including the room in which she sat to be present for Mitchell as he lay in bed — became a unified work, not unlike an Egyptian pyramid blanketed in hieroglyphics or a 1,500-square-foot jewelry box.

Patterns of pieces spiraled, twirled, fanned out and undulated, defying a beginning and end point.

"It is my masterpiece," she said.

Doro caught the attention of Phil Linhares, curator at the Oakland Museum, when she offered the home as a gift, ultimately earning a show at the Oakland Museum's sculpture space. The home, originally hoped by Doro to be a satellite annex of the museum, was later sold. Doro hopes its interior will be preserved.

In 2010, Doro, a widow who was tired of the big city, struck out for the open spaces of New Mexico, first buying property in Belen.

"I wanted a studio and called a construction company out of the phonebook, and this guy comes over, shows me this design and that, this kind of building and that, and we just kept talking," Doro said.

That guy, Kurt Lohmeyer, never left her, and the couple soon married.

Before long, the couple settled on a seven-acre property in east Aztec, perched on a mesa with views of the mountains to the north in Colorado.

Again, Doro needed a studio space, and Lohmeyer found one in the historic Aztec Theater on Main Street. Doro continued her assemblage work there and used the space as a studio for more than a year.

New occupants George Rowe and Susan Rys of Crash Music plan to keep Doro's wall-swallowing mosaic assemblages intact.

"To me, Taya's work is therapeutic, to be surrounded by it. It epitomizes folk art — the anarchy, the freedom of it — using found objects of every day," Rowe said. "When you look at one of her drawings, for example, you look at yourself looking at the work. You see your theme emerge."

Like Doro, Rowe and Rys came to Aztec to help foster an arts community that brings people together.

"With her vision and power, she's a major league artist," Rowe said. "Viewing her work is to witness the intersection where aesthetics and spirituality meet."

Doro would like to complete the work, which covers the entry foyer and portions of the walls of the 8,000-square-foot theater.

"I really would like to finish it, but I also have many plans and other work I'm always doing," she said. "The Dutch trait and my mother's influence, the habit of keeping busy, probably plays a role there.

Currently, Doro is storing hundreds of her works that she brought from California in a warehouse space at Lohmeyer's Flora Vista business. She is tentatively making plans to arrange her work for a show in the future and sell it all, if possible.

"I can be impulsive sometimes in my decisions, but I trust my gut and know that if I got rid of everything, that would just give me more inspiration — and space — to produce more work," she said.

Her two-story, garage-sized studio next door to her Aztec home is full of current work — pen and ink drawings, gourd sculptures, hanging nests and paintings — all layered and built up with a multitude of shaped, sanded and painted pieces.

"I keep busy and never get bored," she said. "When I tire of doing one piece, I can turn to another and continue on it. But the process can be slow, so slow that your ideas don't just appear like magic. It takes time."

Supplies also dominate her studio space, lit by sizeable windows that overlook the rolling hills and mountains. Jars and bins — full of plaster of Paris, cheesecloth, surgical gauze, gourds, glue, rope, fabric, twine, hooks, wires, sticks, lentils, thrift store flea market finds, paper mache, chicken wire, spark plugs and beads in organized rows — await her grasping hands.

She is as handy with a needle and thread as she is with the entire line of industrial power tools she uses to produce the larger works that tower or hang overhead, many of them a childlike conflagration of the botanical, celestial and mystical.

One 6-foot-tall egg, patterned with diamond scales in an African style, has holes through which a hand can reach in and feel its upholstered interior and see, with aid of a flashlight, a celestial cosmos of countless spindled pods and other dimensional objects inside.

"That one began as a painting," Doro said. "But I didn't like it, so I wrapped it into a round shape and this worked much better."

Doro's greatest satisfaction and therapy is her work, with which she often begins and ends each day.

"I title most of my work but can never remember what I named them," she said. "They are my playthings, really. I know I'm finished with a piece when it cries out, I'm through with you,' and then I'm on to the next one."

James Fenton can be reached at; 505-564-4621. Follow him on Twitter @fentondt.