When Lavanya Reed was growing up in Santa Fe, her father came home one day with a turquoise tattoo of a dragon on his arm. “It was really fresh, so it just glowed,” says Reed. “The tattoo said ‘Vietnam’ with the years that he was drafted, and it was amazing.” Reed’s childhood dreams were filled with dark, mystical visions of flying and falling, swimming and drowning, snakes and sea creatures. Here was one of the strange beings from her nightly voyages, wrapped around her dad’s bicep. “I remember the look on his face when he realized how much I loved it,” Reed says. “He went, ‘Oh no, what have I done?’”
Reed got her first tattoo in a friend's living room when she was 14, and has added many more since then. On a busy afternoon at Santa Fe Spirits, she sets down her margarita and rolls up her sleeves. There's a nymph on each of her wrists, perched on intertwined branches that crawl up her forearms. She clasps her arms together, and the branches on each side connect to form the outline of a scarab beetle. "I've designed all of my tattoos," she says. "It's another canvas."
This Friday, Reed mounts a solo exhibition at Eye on the Mountain Art Gallery featuring paintings that span more than 10 years. Much like the inky lines that adorn her skin, Reed's brushstrokes are a conduit for deeply personal narratives that emerge as fantastical stories. Once externalized, Reed's images become lanterns that she hopes will guide others through their own dark nights.
Reed started painting with watercolors when she was 5 years old, inspired by illustrations in children's books such as Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Her father was an airbrush artist, so she'd stake out a corner of his drafting table and ask for drawing lessons. She recalls rifling through his bookshelf of vinyl records, and marveling at album art from Santana, Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix.
When she was 15, Reed jumped from ink and watercolor to acrylic paints. "My first acrylic painting was this crazy, abstract thing," she says. "Working with acrylics was so open and free. Unlike with watercolors or ink, you could wipe things away, layer and build textures in different ways." She took her first and only day of art class in high school, and balked at her teacher's rigid instructions of how to represent the world. "I was really afraid of being influenced by someone else's style," she says.
These days, Reed lives in a 400-square-foot home with her 14-year-old son. Her kitchen table is also her painting studio, and her living room serves as a gallery for over 40 of her artworks. Aside from brief stints in Boulder and Austin, Reed has never lived outside of Santa Fe. "When it comes to painting, the more of a grown-up I have to be, the harder it is to get into that subliminal state of creating," she says. "There's this whole fantasy world that I lived in when I was younger, and I've probably never left it, honestly. I feel safe in Santa Fe."
Reed's mature style features rich, earthy colors and surreal scenes that blend wandering figures with natural imagery. Trees, flowers and ocean waves float across faces and meld with limbs, becoming symbols of the emotional tides that ripple through Reed's life. This might be a fantasy world, but it isn't without its real-world shadows.
"In the last couple years, I've had times where I've felt pretty alone," she says. "This is a small town, but you can still meet someone who's doing the exact same thing you're doing, and they've been here for 10 years. You'll say, 'How come I've never seen you before?" To combat isolation, Reed started inviting her creative friends over once a week to make art. The gathering has evolved into a twice-weekly ritual frequented by local jewelers, painters and photographers. Reed's son is an enthusiastic participant, creating densely detailed ink drawings at the soirees.
For Friday's opening, Reed attempts to recreate the gestalt of her living room inside Eye on the Mountain. She plans to pack the walls with artworks, perhaps employing all of the creations that have hidden away in her home for so long. Reed has exhibited in galleries, cafés and retail stores over the years, and has occasionally installed her work on the walls of Capital Coffee Company, where she works as manager. Eye on the Mountain's diverse collection felt like a perfect fit for her work, a rare feeling for the artist in Santa Fe's highly commercial scene.
Though she draws from personal subject matter, Reed often resists titling her work because she loves to hear alternate interpretations of her imagery. "I made it with certain emotions in mind, but it could be so many other things," she says. "Something that I think is dark, another person might think is beautiful. I want people to take it and use it how they need to."
Lavanya Reed Solo Show Opening Reception
5 pm Friday June 2. Free.
Eye on the Mountain Art Gallery,
614 Agua Fría St.,