"Ditch Witch"

By: Douglas Fairfield
The New Mexican
May-June 2009

Two artists whose work and working methods are wildly different are currently featured at Linda Durham Contemporary Art; Wanenmacher and Lucy Maki. Needless to say, the idea wasn’t to create a two-person exhibit but simply to present two separate mind-sets and distinct visions.
Wanenmacher’s work is the more eclectic – if not all over the map. But then, that’s the source of her art: the land. To be specific, the arroyos, ditches, acequias, and vacant lots that she frequents looking for materials and inspiration. Ditch Witch, the lighthearted title of her exhibition, displays new work generated from stuff that has been discarded in such places. Some call her medium found objects; others call it trash. Regardless, Wanenmacher has a sharp eye for spotting this and that as precious fodder for her work.
“I am a thriftier, as I say in the [wall] narrative; I can’t help it, I’m a hunter-gatherer. It’s in my blood,” Wanenmacher said. “This batch of stuff started because of the area where I walk my dog. I walk along an acequia that cuts through an old trash pile from a school and hospital.” Wanenmacher’s inclination to survey the land may have come from her beachcombing days growing up on the shores of Lake Erie.
Interspersed with Wanenmacher’s work (there are 10 pieces, all from this year, including an entire wall of assorted “spells”) is a handwritten dialogue on glass that tells of the artist’s journey –the story of how she locates her various art components, her encounters with others, and occasional comments about her dog, Kevin, and life’s peculiarities. Asked if she keeps a diary or a running log during her outdoor excursions, Wanenmacher replied, “Not a log of what I pick up, but I do carry a notebook to write down ideas for the narrative story and ideas for my spells. Sometimes I sit on the side of the ditch and write notes.”
A common component in Wanenmacher’s work, both in her sculptural constructs and paintings, is the use of little eyes (presumably purchased at Hobby Lobby or some such place). Sometimes the eyes make sense, as in her figurative work for Kevin and Snow Erika and Raven, but in other cases the eyes appear as mysterious, omnipotent manifestations in the skies of her paintings, as in Ravens & Hawk and Flying Geese. The disembodied eyes are kind of creepy, but they do play a significant role. “The eyes for me are a symbol of presence, of perception, of paying attention,” she said.
Perhaps the most interesting piece is Ant Hill Erika. It consists of a small figure standing before a large anthill. The figure is covered in sand, as if it is an extension of the anthill. The textural quality of granular sand crystals covering the body is unsettling, especially given our aversion to insects crawling on the skin. But Wanenmacher’s piece was inspired by other things. “In the wall narrative, I talk about the Navajo mythologies of the Ant Peoples who, after repeated punishment by the gods, get kicked up levels of the earth until they get to this level, where peoples are sorted out by size and shape and language and given attributes and detriments. Ants were made very small, but they were given great strength, able to carry many times their weight. I consider ants a powerful ally – for example, when one is bearing the burden of being a fallible human.”
Wanenmacher’s wall of “spells” contains an assortment of oddments assembled in various ways – primarily disposed booze bottles filled with charms made of other discarded items. Are they instilled with power? “The objects that I pick up carry a resonance of where they came from, who had them, and how they were used,” she said. “The Sufi word baraka describes it well. It refers to meaning transferred by proximity or love or the flow of grace.”
So is Wanenmacher a practicing witch? “Not by chance [but] by realization,
she said. “I realized quite a while back that the sculptures I made were basically spells. When one makes a spell, intent comes first, directing the energies…If the intent was very clear about what I wanted people to think about in my [work], that is by definition magic: the art of changing consciousness at will. Hence the spells. I tend to think of myself as a culture witch, as my sculpture is my magical practice."