Hillary Riggs and the Totems
Text by Gussie Fauntleroy
Reference to June/July 2000 Focus/Santa Fe article on pg. 44

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Hillary Riggs’ Totems at Quimera Gallery
By Gussie Fauntleroy (As featured in Pasatiempo
Hillary Riggs didn’t start off intending to tell the story of the human race and the history of the world. She knew the tall, carved and painted totems that make up The Mind at Large would speak of the sources of power available to all of us, just as in tribal cultures certain animals on totems symbolize sources of power for the tribe and individual.

Yet while powerfully felt, her vision was amorphous at first, evolving and revealing itself in steps as she worked on the six pieces over many months. Sometimes images became clear as she experienced a trance-like state; at other times they originated in personal memories or dreams.

Also making its way into the work were thoughts and information distilled from the extensive reading Riggs continually does in areas such as art history, anthropology, physics and metaphysics.
“The way I work, it comes in chunks. I don’t know the whole thing when I start a piece,” she said. “I had an overarching notion of what I was doing, but I didn‚t know until sometimes just before I painted them what was going on them.”

As she spoke, the artist stood beside the six totems in the studio adjoining her Los Alamos home. When wildfire threatened her neighborhood some time later, she moved quickly to have her artwork transported to Santa Fe. Just in time. The next day, Los Alamos was being evacuated and the shipping company could not have made the trip up the hill.

While Riggs‚ house was spared, everything in it was covered with a fine layer of ash. Two doors down from her, much of the block was destroyed. The fire had completely surrounded her neighborhood, and only the untiring efforts of volunteer firefighters, and a little luck, saved a section of it.

Safely in its new home, The Mind at Large is on exhibition through August at Quimera Gallery, located in the same building as Collaboration, a handcrafted furniture gallery at 544 South Guadalupe Street. The show opens with an artist’s reception from 5 to 8 p.m. today, June 9. Sharing the credit for creation of the totems are woodworker Steve Sovelove, and Carlos Rascon, who did the carving.

Riggs may not have known at first that her work would tell the story of all people, but now she understands that it does. Elegantly carved and finely painted, the totems begin with an homage to the primal, elemental relationship between humans and the earth.

They go on to celebrate the innumerable achievements and changes in culture, art, science, language, religion and imagination that have marked the history of the human race. And they speak of an expanding consciousness - which feeds on itself through all these cumulative changes - on both the individual and collective level, Riggs said.

In creating the first two pieces, Illumination and Illusion, the artist was influenced by the writings of a Swiss anthropologist who spent time with shamans and other tribal members in the Amazon. The shamans related that they receive information on medicinal and spiritual uses of certain plants directly from the plants themselves.

For Riggs, this concept resonated with a belief in a deep and unavoidable link between humans and what (and how much) we ingest. In this sense, she said, the first two totems symbolize two choices made by individuals and entire cultures. We can either consume just enough to sustain the cycle of life, taking into consideration the life of all other elements in the ecosystem, or we can take more than we need.

“If we try to avoid reality - pain, suffering and death - and use the paradise of earth to try to do that, we‚re going to fall into the trap of never having enough, and having to hurt people and things to try and get enough,” she said. “What we consume totally affects our states of consciousness, on a global and individual level.”

In the third and fourth totems, together titled The Mind at Large, 56 small images portray both the wise and beautiful, as well as the dangerous and dubious achievements of humans over the eons. Everything we‚ve collectively learned and experienced, the artist believes, feeds the continuing evolution and growth of human consciousness, individually and as a race.

On the sides of the fifth totem, Generation, Riggs has listed dozens of names by which people around the world refer to God. Along with the final totem, called Metamorphosis/Transformation, this piece suggests that there is hope, in spite of - and perhaps because of - all we‚ve gone through, Riggs said.

“As long as we were pockets of humanity, each tribe took care of its own, but with all boundaries loosened now, what do we teach? What is it that we give our children? If we can create a world vision we‚ll teach it, as a tribe of the world,” she said. “For me, this has to do with a more deliberate embracing of the whole earth, all cultures, all languages, all information.”

“It’s almost like a prayer - that we‚ll be assisted in this by the forces behind all those god names. That‚s the hope of this piece.”