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Painter Meredith Rose incorporates both traditional elements, such as landscapes, and the unusual — planets, UFOs and the stars — in her work

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FARMINGTON — As influential as her surroundings have always been on her art, painter Meredith Rose says the year she spent living in Oaxaco, Mexico, didn’t infuse her work with Latin or Southwestern themes.

All the same, it had a profound impact on her paintings.

The Durango, Colo., artist, whose “Jupiter” exhibition opens this weekend at San Juan College, returned from Oaxaco 14 months ago after living there for a year with her husband, Adam, and their children. A one-time Hotshots wildland firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service, Rose said the decision to relocate south of the border for a while was a family decision, not an artistic one.

“As a family, we decided we needed a break from first-world life,” she said.

Nevertheless, the change affected her deeply as an artist, Rose said.

“It’s such a laid-back culture,” she said of Oaxaco. “I just kind of let go and progressed as a person and as a painter. It was inspiring. It allowed me to immerse myself in a different culture.”

During her time in Mexico and especially later, when she got back to Colorado, Rose — whose work previously leaned in a far more traditional direction, first with landscapes, then with portraits — was surprised to see new elements popping up in her work. Not only did she find herself painting many of her figures with different colors of skin or other, even more unusual physical characteristics, she also was adding surreal, otherworldly backgrounds to her work.

Hence the title of her exhibition, “Jupiter.” Rose said the nebulous nature of the planet fits her recent work, not just because much of it features the cosmos, but also because it has a mysterious, atmospheric quality to it.

She was dealing with a slight case of the nerves last week after delivering the more than two dozen paintings included in the show to the gallery at the college, as this will be her first “official” solo exhibition.

Rose said she likes to employ that “official” qualifier because she’s staged solo exhibitions of her work before — even if only a handful of people saw them.

“I’ve put on these solo shows in alternative spaces before — coffee shops, Monument Valley and in the mountains — then made videos of them,” she said, laughing, from her Durango home last week.

Rose applied to stage a showing of her work at SJC in November and was informed in March that her application had been accepted. She said she’s very excited to have the opportunity to show her work in Farmington and said the exhibition will consist primarily of portraits, 10 of them as large as 5 feet by 3 feet. Most of the work is recent, though Rose said a few of the smaller portraits go back to 2012.

One of the exhibition’s defining works is “I Made the Break,” which Rose described as a self-portrait with Jupiter floating in the background. It was one of the paintings she did while living in Mexico, and it was an example of the new direction her work would take.

“It’s a definite progression,” Rose said. “It’s sort of like an awakening.”

Rose’s most recent work, “The Sistine Chapel, Revisited,” is also one of her least traditional. The painting features the Sistine Chapel slowly being consumed by a forest while three gnomes mill about in the foreground. One gnome is holding a magnifying glass, while the other two are levitating colored orbs.

“It’s like you’re looking up at the Sistine Chapel, but also looking up at dark pine trees and the stars,” Rose said.

She said the piece was inspired by her family’s camping trips outside Silverton, Colo., and the well-known children’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak.

“I’ve been reading that to my kids,” Rose said. “I love the illustrations with the rooms turning into forest. What’s great about that book is how many of the pages don’t even have text on them.”

Rose said her interpretation of what Sendak was going for with that book is to lead the reader to ask, “How does it speak to you? What is it suggesting to you?” She said that’s the kind of thought process she hopes to inspire with much of her recent work, including “The Sistine Chapel, Revisited.”

Given her background in the outdoors, it’s no surprise that wilderness scenes play a strong role in Rose’s work.

“I incorporate landscapes a lot,” she said of her portraiture. “When I was a firefighter and working on farms, I painted landscapes on the side, and now I use those scenes in backgrounds all the time. … I try to make all of my paintings kind of earthy, in a sense. In my painting 'Dream Flying,' I’m flying over the ocean under a full moon.”

As for her work in which she employs planets, UFOs or the stars, Rose said she’s simply trying to encourage viewers to open their minds. Occasionally, she even mixes those earthy and otherwordly influences in the same work.

In “Welcoming to the Golden Age,” a nude, smiling female figure is reclining on a couch atop a green-and-gold quilt and looking out a window at a UFO and a colorful nebula. The woman is partially covered with a blue blanket, though her feet are pictured poking out of the end. The room she occupies is lined with plaster, and a wood-burning stove contains a roaring fire in the foreground. Her long, dark hair blends into the same star field pictured outside the window as it grows from her scalp.

“It’s got a cozy feeling,” Rose said of the painting, noting the appearance of the women’s feet from under the blanket, the quilt and the fire. Despite the fact those elements are juxtaposed against a flying saucer and a nebula, neither, oddly, seems out of place.

Her willingness to go in those opposite directions at the same time is indicative of the increasingly adventurous nature of her work. Much of Rose’s earlier work consists of traditional portraiture, such as her “Young Ute Man” or “Hippie,” but one of her more recent paintings, “Cyclops,” features a seemingly pensive young man portrayed as “normal” in every way except one — the single eye in the middle of his forehead.

Rose doesn’t bat an eye at taking those kinds of chances, explaining that when she used to teach art classes at the Durango Arts Center, she much preferred teaching children instead of adults because of their willingness to explore.

“I really love teaching children, although I only do it here and there,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing how open kids are to creativity. Unfortunately, most kids don’t grow up to be creative. … They’re just so much more ready to learn and do it without barriers that they’ve already built. You don’t have to knock those down.”

As much as Rose enjoyed that experience and found it rewarding, she jokes that she took “early retirement” from teaching and struck out in a different direction with her work. She openly wonders about whether her approach to art fits in the Four Corners, where traditional Southwestern landscapes are far more common.

She doesn’t know what she’ll do next, but she’s sure it’s not something she’ll feel pressured into doing.

“I want to do what I want to do,” she said. “I like change.”

Rose’s work will remain on display at the gallery through June 24.

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

If you go

What: Opening reception for Meredith Rose’s “Jupiter” art exhibition

When: 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, June 3

Where: Henderson Fine Arts Center art gallery on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington

For more information: Call 505-566-3464

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