If art can heal the self, can it heal the planet? This question comes to light when considering the life and work of artist, poet and photographer Julie Suzanne Brokken, whose latest collection of artwork opens at Tortuga Gallery (901 Edith SE) on Saturday, April 4. The same soulful adjectives keep coming to mind when confronted with Brokken’s inventive pieces: “soothing,” “uplifting,” “nourishing,” “healing,” “calming” and “tranquil.” But don’t mistake her softness for an absence of grit.
When she began facing life-threatening health challenges several years ago, Brokken understood she had to use art as medicine. “Illness is part of a journey towards wholeness,” she explains. “I knew I hadn’t completed what I came into this life to do—to make a difference via my art. I have a great sense of responsibility in that regard.” What’s more, “art gave me an avenue in which to express and release the intense fears, ‘dis-ease’ and past traumas that were at the root of the illnesses.”
Brokken transplanted herself to Albuquerque from Phoenix, Ariz., five years ago. Yet her origins go back to a farm in Iowa, where she entertained herself as a child in the pursuit of eye-catching natural objects scattered about—a strangely shaped twig maybe, or a rough mass of tree bark that took on the contours of an animal or a human face.
In high school she started to work with encaustic painting methods and delighted in the direct connection with nature this medium fosters. Encaustics—or “hot wax painting” (from the Greek word enkaustikos, meaning “to burn in”)—consists of adding colored pigments to heated beeswax and then applying the mixture to a surface.
Encaustic painting is a very delicate technique that demands one’s full attention. “When you apply the heat to the wax, you must follow its need and what it will do or will not do,” Brokken says. It’s easy to mess it up by making it too hot or not hot enough. And if you are not very careful or fully present, you can get burned. However, when it succeeds, this mindful practice courts a sense of both wonder and discovery in the artist.
And the results are spectacular. Take her work “Datura Honey Bee: Tender Reach,” a photo encaustic on vintage tin that stands as a sensual meditation on shadow and light. In this shimmering milky-white image, a large bee hovers inside the soft petals of an open flower. Or consider the encaustic photograph of a blue bird making a tangled bed of rust and wire at the center of “Blind Raven Nests in the Sky.”
With her “Blind Fawn Mask,” made up of a few pieces of found wood, wire and joiner pins, Brokken again brings the outside indoors. This mask represents the sort of playing with found objects she did as a child in Iowa. Though primitive, Brokken’s masks have an outspoken personality. The pointy ears on this fawn give it a sweet, vulnerable expression.
When it comes to her miniature wheeled cart—“El Dia De Los Tiny Muertos Medicine Wagon”—Brokken describes the ensemble as “a puzzle that the cosmos gave me the parts and the nudges for.” The fanciful ingredients sit together in uncanny ways: broken bottles, the remains of eggshells from a starling, corn, local sand, honey and honeybees, a dragonfly and even a sample of Rio Grande river water. All of these enchanting little elements combine in Brokken’s world as things she says “are born and die every day.” Finally, a metronome case, a prayer wheel, peacock feathers and a straw boat full of blue glass balls—or what she considers “little souls”—compose Brokken’s “Timelessness Machine,” balancing out the ephemeral.
Brokken’s body of work harmonizes three forms of expression—art, poetry and photography—just as she integrates distinct elements into the artwork itself. “I dance between the three of them,” she says, using whatever form best gets her point across. Perhaps she should thank her upbringing. “Being a farmer’s daughter was good preparation for being an artist,” she says with a laugh. Just as a farmer must know how to maneuver a lot of diverse machinery and orchestrate many particular tasks on the farm, Brokken juggles her paints, her beeswax, her quill and her camera.
Front and center in her artwork are her concerns for environmental and ecological issues, such as the current fight to save the Bosque. (Fittingly, all donations from an Earth Day poetry celebration hosted by Brokken at Tortuga on April 22 will benefit the Save the Bosque foundation.) “We live in a critical time in this crazy, beautiful world,” she explains. In order to nurse this sick planet, we can’t just focus on the darkness that must be purged: We need to relish the beauty that infuses everything around us. In short, we need exuberance and “a way to live in awe,” rather than the more sobering medicine of alarming statistics we’re hammered with every day in the news. (And what better teacher for this sort of reverence of the exquisiteness in life than art?)
When tempted to despair about the fate of the planet, Brokken has a mantra that keeps her grounded. She bases it on a line from a book on lucid dreaming: “This life is but a dream, or a magic show ...” To the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” Brokken often sings to herself: “I paddle my canoe gently down the stream knowing life is but a dream ... or a magic show.”