January 7, 2015
New Mexico painter and Highlands University alumnus Frank McCulloch, left, is pictured with Patricia, his wife of 59 years, at an art exhibit of his work.
Las Vegas, N.M. – A brilliant moon floats in a deep blue New Mexico night sky above purple mountains framed by golden autumn foliage. Abstract blocks of vivid orange, violet, green and yellow curve across the canvas, hinting at a mountain silhouetted at sunset. These are two of the 30 paintings featured in the “Frank McCulloch 50 Year Retrospective – The Abstract Years” art exhibit that opens at Highlands University Jan. 12, with an artist’s reception Jan. 25 from 1 –3 p.m.
The free exhibit continues though Feb. 5 in the university’s Burris Hall Gallery, 903 University Ave. The gallery is open Monday – Friday 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
McCulloch, 84, is one of the most prolific and successful artists in New Mexico. His paintings hang in permanent collections in dozens of museums and corporate offices across the country, as well as international collections from Italy to Mexico. His art exhibits have enjoyed the same kind of geographic scope.
“New Mexico is in my blood and I’m painting my home territory or querencia – the Spanish word that means a sense of belonging in one’s homeland,” McCulloch said. “There’s such variety in the New Mexico landscape from the grasslands to the mountains. It’s all beautiful and I don’t care to paint anywhere else. I’m parochial in that respect.”
McCulloch describes his heritage as a blend of nationalities, including Scottish, Irish, Spanish, French, German and Swiss. Names like Vigil, Romero, Delgado, Desmarais, Blanchard and Herman dot his family tree.
He has been tapped for numerous honors during his long career, including the Governor’s Award in the Arts and the Albuquerque Arts Alliance Bravo Award for Artist of the Year. McCulloch’s work was featured in U.S. Embassy art exhibits abroad and he is the subject of several PBS documentaries.
While McCulloch is best known for his landscapes, abstracts were a major focus of his work in the 1970s and ‘80s.
“Abstraction is always involved in my paintings to some degree under the surface,” said McCulloch, who paints in oil and acrylic.
The Albuquerque Museum shows a number of McCulloch’s paintings in its permanent art gallery.
“Hundreds of people paint the New Mexico landscape, but Frank’s vision always stands out with a unique style that celebrates the natural world,” said Andrew Connors, Albuquerque Museum art curator. “His work is often in a soft focus that pulls lush colors out of the landscape. In contrast, Frank’s abstract paintings are strikingly spare and stripped down to the essential elements of color and shape.”
Connors said McCulloch has remarkable vitality and he is incredibly kind and supportive of other artists.
“Frank is revered not only as a constantly innovative artist, but also as a teacher, mentor and friend for the visual and performing arts community in New Mexico,” Connors said.
Age and a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder haven’t slowed McCulloch’s prodigious art output. He still produces about 30 paintings a year in his downtown Albuquerque studio.
“My work ethic is to show up almost every day at my studio. I think it’s very important to maintain continuity and it’s also a matter of being in the right place when the ideas come. I always felt an urgency to produce art and I paint because I must,” McCulloch said.
McCulloch is also a recording artist of traditional Spanish folk songs of New Mexico and Mexico. His music ensemble, Frank McCulloch y los Amigos, performs at venues like the annual Nuestra Música concert at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe and the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque.
Each Sunday McCulloch’s music ensemble performs a gig at Java Joe’s in Albuquerque. He plays guitar and sings vocals.
“I’ve always loved the old music of New Mexico and want to help preserve this cultural legacy, ” McCulloch said.
While he was born in Gallup, N.M., and raised in Albuquerque, McCulloch’s roots run deep in Las Vegas.
“My father was working as an auditor and bookkeeper for the historic Castañeda Harvey House hotel in Las Vegas in the late 1920s when he met my mother. Her family included Las Vegas merchants dating back to Santa Fe Trail days. My parents married and moved to Gallup where my father was assistant manager for another Harvey House,” McCulloch said.
He stays in touch with his Las Vegas cousin David Escudero, a fellow painter, and plans to share historical family photos of the Castañeda with its new owner, Allan Affeldt.
While McCulloch painted since childhood, he said he came of age in the “practical 50s” and opted to study science in college. He earned a B.A. in biology from the University of New Mexico in 1953 and an M.A. in biology from New Mexico Highlands University in 1955. Later, Highlands honored McCulloch as a distinguished alumnus.
“At Highlands I was a biology teaching assistant for Dr. Lora Shields and also acted in theatrical productions. I started to find my way back to art and befriended Elmer Schooley, who led the Art Department,” McCulloch said.
He went on to earn an MFA from the Instituto Allende, a visual arts university in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
McCulloch taught art in Albuquerque for 30 years, primarily at Highland High. He also taught stints as visiting art faculty at UNM and Southern Methodist University.
“Teaching art and producing my own art fed each other. It worked very well for me,” McCulloch said.