Written by Zak Hansen | Courtesy photos
While the coronavirus crisis has shuttered most local businesses, in time, they will reopen. When they do, the Mesquite Historic District, Las Cruces’ original townsite, will welcome two new additions to the arts scene — The Mandrake Fine Art & Botanica and Trails End Gallery.
A collaboration between fine artist Michael Poncé and herbalist Trisha McCaul, The Mandrake Fine Art & Botanica combines its founders’ dual passions into a one-stop shop in service of both body and soul. Michael, a painter and educator, studied at Foothill College near San Francisco and graduated with a Master of Fine Arts from the New York Academy of Art, before completing graduate research in anatomy at Oxford University and studying old master drawings at the nearby Ashmolean Museum. Along the way, he also earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts, studying fashion illustration at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Originally from the Midwest, Trisha came to New Mexico in 2005, beginning an intensive study of medical herbalism that lasted more than a decade. Coursework from the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine, instruction with local herbalist Deborah Brandt and other national herbalists, along with rigorous self-study, led her to launch in 2007 her own Mother McCaul’s line of organic body care products. The duo named their space after the mandrake, a mystical plant steeped in superstition and known as much for its medicinal properties as its anthropomorphic roots, as a reflection of their passions: Trisha’s work as an herbalist and Michael’s figurative paintings.
Its walls are adorned with Michael’s stirring, evocative oil paintings, which bring together the traditions of the old masters with his own bold, contemporary vision, and will also feature work from artists from the area and beyond; “There’s a lot of talented artists in Las Cruces, and we wanted to create a space to show their work, as well as art from larger cities like Los Angeles and New York City,” he said. On the botanica side, Trisha stocks her Mother McCaul’s line of products, herbal medicines, botanical incenses, candles, teas, herbal balms, perfumes, spiritual supplies, and indie tarot cards. All Mother McCaul’s products are made using organic and wildharvested ingredients; some she harvests herself, like creosote — a dynamic plant with medicinal properties dating back centuries and an aroma familiar to anyone from the Southwest — which goes into a few of her products. Some non-native ingredients are acquired through other plant harvesters and organic farms, depending on the plant; when she started the company some 13 years ago, Trisha said, “There weren’t many companies using organic ingredients, and I was eager to fill that need.”
Michael, a native of the Mesquite District, said with this project they “wanted to create a space that combines both of our aesthetics.” Aesthetics are in no short supply at The Mandrake, which in addition to showcasing his work and her botanicals, offers an eclectic collection of handmade objects, art and antiques — Michael and Trisha are avid collectors — as “an extension of our own house . . . It feels like a living and continuously evolving art project for the both of us.” When the coronavirus crisis abates and businesses reopen, Michael said The Mandrake will be ready to open its doors and get back to work, with big plans for the space on the horizon. “Our long-term goal is to also have the space serve as an educational hub, both for the arts and botanical medicine,” he said. “We are both passionate about our callings and would love to share that passion with the community, not only through what’s available in the shop, but through community involvement and educational initiatives.”
With the September 2019 opening of his Trails End Gallery in Las Cruces’ Mesquite Historic District, acrylic artist and gallery owner Gary Biel is embracing at once the old and the new, exploring a new chapter and revisiting an old one. Gary was born and raised in Las Cruces, the son of a plumber whose office and shop occupied the same old adobe that now holds the Trails End gallery space and studios. After graduating from New Mexico State University and moving to Denver, Gary’s travels took him overseas, rambling through Paris, Amsterdam, and Terremolinos, Spain, selling pen-and-ink drawings before returning to shore in Cartagena after a stint as a “pirate” on a recreated Spanish galleon. Returning to New Mexico and the stability of a “practical” career, Gary took the reins of the family business, Allied Enterprises Inc., transforming it into Greenthumb Sprinkler and Supply, which soon expanded to include a nursery and landscaping service; it remains a fixture today. Near the end of that three-decade run, Gary found himself returning to a dormant passion: painting — but a troubling medical diagnosis threatened to sideline this recovered pursuit.
Diagnosed with a brain tumor, Gary threw himself into painting; when it grew, he painted more; after a successful surgery to remove it, he was wholly dedicated to art, and the connections he made through it. “Getting sick really was the impetus to start painting,” he said. “Once I got really into it, I started meeting all these wonderful people.” Among those wonderful people were Glenn Cutter and his late wife, Sally, of the recently closed Cutter Gallery, where Gary first displayed his work, and which set his lofty standards of what a gallery should be. “I am trying to hold myself up to the standards that Glenn and Sally set, which is a hard act to follow,” Gary said. “It keeps me humble and I’m so glad they were there.” When Cutter Gallery closed in late 2019, the whispers to create his own space got louder and kicked off a more than two-year process transforming the space that held his father’s shop into Trails End Gallery. What was the elder Biel’s shop is now seven individual studios, a restroom, a kitchen, and common area. “It’s a beautiful old historic building.” Gary said, “but it’s nothing without the right people. I think we’ve gotten together some really neat people — and some of the best artists in the area.” In addition to Gary’s own work in acrylics, inspired by the people, culture, and landscapes of the desert Southwest, Trails End artists include watercolor and acrylic artists Robert Highsmith and Penny Simpson; painter and gourd artist Patricia Black; acrylic and digital artist, poet, and master santera Virginia Marie Romero; and acrylic and colorist Rhoda Winters. Along with these core artists, Trails End has work from outside artists including Jerry Hernandez and John Glass; the studio of longtime Cutter Gallery house jeweler Armando Garcia; and a selection of Native American and other jewelry. In time, other artists will fill its remaining studio spaces. At the time this story was written, Trails End Gallery was closed, pending a break in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic; for now, each artist’s work can be viewed online through the Trails End website. When it reopens, Gary said he plans to use his gallery as a hub in what he envisions as a radically different downtown — a Mesquite District marked by a thriving mix of residential and commercial space and a “renewed and evolved (First Friday Downtown Art) Ramble, with all the potential in the world.”