Monthly Archives: February 2012

Growing up Creative — An Interview with NM Artist Sally Bartos

Once in the first grade, after receiving a single sheet of manila paper, I began to draw a house. And I drew a chimney with smoke spiraling around and around. I became lost in the moment – until the teacher interrupted my work.

“Chimneys don’t make that much smoke,” she said.

Eager to please, I copied the red and yellow tulips on Donna’s paper, and her prim little house with curtains tied at the middle with a two-dimensional bow.

It was a long, long time before I drew with abandon again, lost in my own world. Yet it is exactly being lost in one’s own world that is at the center of creativity. 

New Mexico artist Sally Bartos understands that world. Her paintings are like storybook canvases, each one a dwelling place for the imagination. Bursting with color and alive with movement, they portray the landscape, people, and magic of New Mexico. I first saw them  at Weem’s Gallery on Albuquerque’s Old Town Plaza. I wanted to pull up a chair and drink them in.  How did this artist come to her style, so honest and yet so playful? 

After emailing back and forth, I was fortunate enough to interview Bartos over the phone, at home, in rural Edgewood, New Mexico. Located along I-40, east of Albuquerque and the Sandia Mountains, it’s a place where cowboy boots and Concho belts are as common at the local Smith’s grocery store as Birkenstocks and broom skirts. 

Just down from the “big house” where her daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter live, her little house is a remodeled detached garage with vast windows. “My whole place is full of light,” she said.

And at the hub of her house is a table, something you’d find in an old Mexican farmhouse: “Kind of hacked and burnt, with a little drawer; and covered with paint brushes and tubes of paint, sketches and an apple. And very splattered with paint.  It’s the heart of my house,” she said.

A self-described fanatic, she paints at every opportunity: in the morning before going to work at an Albuquerque senior center, where she is a program assistant; and after dinner with her family. “I come back home and paint until I’m too sleepy to go on.”

How did Sally Bartos become an artist? Like most children, she started with a box of crayons – “A new one every Christmas,” she said. Her older brother Stan showed her how to use opaque water colors, known as guache, when she was about thirteen; and she used them to paint “fashion girls” from the newspaper ads.

Bartos grew up on the Navajo reservation in Window Rock, Arizona, where her father, a sculptor, carver and writer, was employed by the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs). In his travels across the reservation, he photographed the desert and Navajos, she said. Her mother painted in oils. “Everybody came home and did art,” she said.

Television was not part of her family’s life, and she doesn’t remember watching. “You would be reading about something, carving, sewing, (doing) leatherwork. There was always something going on. In my dad’s workshop, I thought, ‘Whatever I want, it’s here at my finger tips.’”

At her Window Rock public school, ninety percent of her classmates were Navajo. “I loved and adored it,” she said. Stan became a stone carver. “He should have been an American Indian,” she said. “He used to carve masks out of aspen wood and started carving kachinas in high school. He carved them so beautifully, his teachers entered them in the Hopi carving contest, but being an Anglo, he couldn’t claim the prize.” Stan’s teacher claimed the prize for him, Bartos said. Later he became an art teacher and taught the art of carving to his students. Bartos’ sister Suzanne was also an artist, known for her beautiful paintings of long-legged horses. 

At Northern Arizona University, Bartos didn’t study art; instead she studied biology. Like a lot of students who major in one thing and wind up working at another, she said she had no intention of doing anything with it.  Her interest in bio, it seems, was strictly pragmatic: “I wanted to see how things worked.” 

In college, Bartos painted dragons and fairy-like women that were a take-off on the fashion girls, only with castles and unicorns.  “I was a snob,” she said. “I thought I was already schooled in art.” 

When she left the reservation where she’d grown up, “It was a little difficult to integrate myself into the rest of the world,” she said. Life among the Navajos had heavily affected her values, including respect for elders, women, and nature. “I used to love the very dry wit and whimsy. Kind of quiet, I would sit back and observe the desert and Navajos.”

Her capacity for observation paid off, apparently. After marrying and moving to Wyoming, she became a wildlife artist, doing detailed pastel drawings of deer, antelope and other wild animals. But thirteen years later she returned to New Mexico. She missed the diversity tremendously, she said. “It’s like a multi-colored quilt.” 

And now, working in acrylics, her paintings of New Mexico look as though they could be made into quilts. “I like things to look textured, almost like a mosaic, like they were stitched,” she said.

Bartos often sketches on location and takes photographs for later reference. But her work is more than representations of actual people and places. “The people in my paintings are a conglomeration of characters,” she said, and the places a blend of reality and imagination.

The houses in her paintings have fat, turquoise-colored windows and doors; and some have tin roofs, like the older homes of northern New Mexico.“What I want you to do is want to peek into the window, or walk down the hill,” she said.

And along that hill the viewer may encounter a homely little church that she passed one day, a sunset in a rainstorm, or a roof that needed repair – all of which create a rich and languid dwelling place for the imagination.  

Bartos said she’s becoming more whimsical the older she gets. Once a woman commented, “You just live in your own little world, don’t you?” Bartos said she set it aside, but then said, “’Why not?’ Why not live in my own little world and why not bring it out? I can paint things crooked, they don’t have to look like they are living and breathing.”


The picture she’s planning now will combine both whimsy and reality. “I’m about to paint my granddaughter’s little black cat,” she said. The cat will be set against the wall of a pale pink stucco house with blue windows.  “And in the tree will be a bird’s nest.”

 Will that nest be real? It will be to Bartos, and anyone who sets eyes on it.

How can parents help bring out the budding artist in their children? Bartos exposed her own kids to galleries, art shows, and art stores. They always had plenty of supplies she said, and she supposes now that she pushed them in that direction. Of her three offspring, only her daughter took up painting, while her sons took up guitar.

To help children open up to drawing the things in their world, Bartos said, “Talk about your home and animals and whatever you do there everyday. What is so important to your life that you could not do without it?” 

Give kids art supplies, things they can use to create. Let them make mud pies. Not every child will blossom into an artist, but by encouraging them, and giving them the tools to do art, parents are opening a window of possibilities; and when they go off on a tangent, and draw things that you cannot understand, see it as the evolution of a creative mind. FFG

Sally Bartos’ art is available at and through the Weems Gallery,

Are You Stressing Out Your Preschooler? Ballet, Swimming, Karate – When Is it Too Much?

It was the mother’s dream for her little girl: the child must take ballet lessons. Add that to preschool. And swimming. And now Daughter, age four, is a very unhappy camper. She doesn’t want to go to preschool, and every morning cries as if her mother were trying to pitch her off the Queen Mary.

It sounds like Daughter’s stress level is more than she can comfortably handle right now. What puts some kids over the top while others seem just fine? We really can’t say, except to watch and listen for their behavioral cues.

What the daughter is doing, her reactions to her activity level, is completely honest. She isn’t being manipulative or immature. She is showing her mother how the stressors in her life (and these do not have to be negative stressors) are impacting her.

Stress creates hormones in the body. One is called cortisol. When the cortisol level is too high, a person’s arousal level is heightened and they can’t function normally. It impedes the ability to think, learn, have relationships, and regulate emotions. This is what science would be saying is going on with a child who is stressed beyond her ability to cope. At the extreme, children act out with aggression, or dissociation –especially girls; they punch out (she isn’t listening to you). They reach the point of fight-or-flight. (You can read about the effect of stress on children in the work of Dr. Bruce Perry.)

I’m the mom of four grown kids. They grew up physically active and developed various passions in life – including ballet. But at the age of 4, they were at home doing what a lot of parents today see as unimportant – and that is playing, getting dirty, making hide-outs and forts, having tea parties with their dolls and hanging out with mom.

According to Maria Montessori, Dr. Thomas Gordon, Joseph Chilton Pearce and other great thinkers on the subject, imaginative play is the foundation for creativity and abstract thought. When children are hurried into academics, organized activities, and schedules, it can short -circuit their daily need for the important work that is the domain of early childhood. Interruptions from the world of imaginative play can be extremely frustrating because it interferes with the child’s natural development. (Montessori, The Child in the Family)

I think that when parents listen to their children’s cues, it is not a sign of giving in to the child, or the child trying to manipulate the adults. When we follow our children’s cues, which in most cases will be loud and clear, we are establishing a bond of trust that will allow them to trust us completely. Our children will know that we are meeting their needs and be able to relax. Their natural talents, interests and abilities will then blossom and unfold in their own time.

Abiding by a child’s cues certainly does not mean that either parent or child is a failure. To the contrary, it means you, as a parent are honoring her particular developmental needs; and her, as a unique human being.

As an infant massage instructor, I teach moms to listen to and watch for their babies’ cues as an indication of their state of being. We ask permission before starting the massage. Even the most enthusiastic mom can’t do anything with a crying baby. Like symptoms of an illness – fever, runny nose, etc. – the child’s misbehavior and acting out is a sign of disequalibrium and lack of emotional well-being.

We have to believe in our children’s natural inclinations. They will tell us when they are ready for more, and if it is too much for them. What they want most is our acceptance for their feelings. Our empathy that tells them they are valued for who they are right now, not just for who we expect them to be.

Using eye contact, gentle touch, and focused attention (Dr. Ross Campbell, How to Really Love Your Child), I would let my little one know that I respect her wishes. As disappointed as I might be that her enthusiasm did not match my own for various activities, including preschool — at this very moment, anyway — I would let her decide the pace. What may not work one year may work beautifully the next.

All children develop the capacity to handle stress at different rates, and separation from parents can be very stressful for some. As children become preschoolers, their need for attachment can still be very strong.

It is embarrassing when a child has a meltdown at the preschool door. But isn’t it worse to have a child who feels she doesn’t have a voice?

Read Lauren Lindsey Porter’s article, “The Science of Attachment: The Biological Roots of Love,” at
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Katherine Heigle Right to Blast Lifetime’s Dance Moms

A big “thank you” to actress Katherine Heigl for speaking out against Lifetime’s Dance Moms reality show. It’s about time someone did! While angry, verbally abusive dance teachers like Abby Lee Miller do exist in this world, so do vomiting and diarrhea.

According to, Heigl blasted Dance Moms in her weekly iVillage blog post, saying this: “I watched with open-mouthed amazement as girls as young as seven were encouraged to dress provocatively and shimmy around a stage doing a dance performance that could just as easily been a burlesque routine.”

Heigl said after watching the show, she thought the way instructor Abby Lee Miller talks to the girls is “demeaning, belittling, and downright unkind.”

Personally, I cannot believe any network would air this kind of abuse. The fact that they do is in itself condoning a warped culture which can be extremely damaging to vulnerable and impressionable children. What this show says about our culture is very telling: We can watch others be abused, and not do anything about it. The girls’ mothers certainly don’t.

The world of dance is hard and competitive, and often unkind. I know because my daughter is a dancer. But that doesn’t excuse teachers from not trying to do it right. No child should be demeaned in the process of learning to do something correctly – whether it is reading, playing baseball, or doing a dance routine.

Maybe the next big reality show will let us watch husbands emotionally abusing their wives. Think about it. How different would it be?

But then, meeting young dancers’ needs with thoughtful, caring, and intelligent teaching doesn’t sell advertising, does it?  FFG