Remembering Martie Zelt
Spring River Gallery
Martha “Martie” Zelt was born in Washington, Pennsylvania in 1930. Her first exposure to New Mexico was Alamogordo during World War II where her father, who was in the Air Force, was stationed for a time. Zelt credits her mother’s career in interior design as one of many early influences that would later impact her own artistic practice. Zelt studied at Connecticut College and then the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the 1940s-1950s before receiving a BA from Temple University in Philadelphia in 1968.
In a Roswell Daily Record article from the early 2000s Zelt is quoted as saying “Making paper is simple. You make pulp out of fibers, push the pulp through screening, press it out, and when it dries, it’s paper.” In 2013, our current Director, Caroline Brooks, wrote “by the mid-1970s Zelt sought to loosen up her work. As such, she visited the papermaking studio of Joe Wilfer in Wisconsin. She learned to make her own paper and, ignoring the prescripts of traditional printmaking, her art became more expressive and larger in scale. By this time she had begun to incorporate mixed media with her printmaking including textiles, feathers, and other natural elements.” Later, in her application to the Roswell Artist-in-Residence (RAiR) program, Zelt would explain that she makes paper “to control shape, color, texture and weight.” Former Roswell Museum Curator Wesley Rusnell characterizes the importance of this shift in Zelt’s practice by saying in 1998, “That innovation enabled her to move out of the restricted range of traditional print media and materials. Her work broke free of the picture plane and got more physical, taking on the object-like, three-dimensional qualities that describe them as ‘constructions.’”
Brooks went on to describe Zelt’s process in making her “constructions” by saying, “To create her work, Zelt often starts with a printed base—a collagraph printed from a cut and assembled cardboard plate, a photo etching, or monoprint. She then positions and adheres scraps of cloth, handmade papers, or other mixed media such as twigs or pods by use of a needle and thread, sewing machine, glue, or chine collé (a printmaking process that uses the press to fuse papers). These incorporated items may be locally collected—such as onion skin paper made from onions purchased at Albertson’s—or are drawn from previous travels as in a scrap of fabric from a neighbor in Vera Cruz. She also sometimes includes expressive lines with pastels or graphite. Finally, a thin, wooden dowel is often slid through a fabric sleeve as both a decorative element and for hanging. While she begins each work with a general concept in place, it is only through lengthy trial and error, building layer upon layer, that the work takes shape.”
Zelt moved to Roswell in 1982 when she was accepted into the RAiR program. In the catalog accompanying Zelt’s 1983 solo exhibition at the Roswell Museum resulting from her residency, fellow artist-in-residence Susana Jacobson wrote about the connection between Zelt’s constructions and the surrounding landscape: “The resulting configurations resemble at times an aerial view of land. Major geologic features have been inscribed with the irregularities of erosion and the neat ordering of agriculture, then textured with varieties of vegetation, bounded by thin, arrow-straight roads, broken by meandering waterways, and finally dotted with occasional colorful buildings and random flecks of bright tiny cars. Though none of the pieces are expressly about the land, Zelt’s deep affinity for the New Mexican landscape is clearly visible in her rich, earthy hues and careworn, softly scarred surfaces.” Indeed, this affinity for the land and its connection to her artworks was echoed succinctly in the artist’s own words in the statement of intent she submitted with her RAiR application: “The segmentation and geometry in my work has never been disassociated from notes taken from the natural world around me.”
After moving away to teach in various arts education programs, Zelt returned to Roswell in 1989 for another residency. This time, after the residency, she stayed local to teach part-time at both the Roswell Museum and the Roswell campus of Eastern New Mexico University. In correspondence between Zelt and Rusnell, the artist wrote “[I] Returned to Roswell on another residency and stayed. I bought an old house. A smaller studio space and a smaller press led to smaller sized works. My garden became my chief inspiration. I sketch a lot and then turn the sketches into larger abstracted works. This work shows the light coming through the trees and the feeling of the windy days.” In the late 1990s, Rusnell said “her recent constructions fascinate with their physical immediacy where things are brought together – fabrics, graphic images, handmade paper, wood, pigmented marks, and stitchery – into structures with suggestive titles that offer clues to their origins while inviting free associations.”
During the 1990s, Zelt created a number of mosaic murals here in Roswell. The earliest one she started was at her residence. In 1998, Gailanne Teresa Dill wrote in the Vision Magazine of the Roswell Daily Record, “A mosaic tile mural on her garage wall shows geometric shapes in a harmonious but unfettered dance. Most of the tile was donated to her by friends but some tile (like the yellow) she bought to echo the yellow jasmine bush in front of the mural. Piece by piece, Zelt worked the mural in the winter of 1995 daily adding to it until the cold got to her hands. She worked from no pre-existing sketch.” A photograph of a detail of this mural by Zelt’s long-time friend José Valles Rivera is included in the 2023 memorial exhibition at the Roswell Museum.
Another mural is at the Roswell Convention Center and is 32 feet long and was completed in 1996. Entitled City, Skies, Strata, the artist’s mosaic reflects the area’s biologic and geologic landscape as of result of Zelt’s consultation with local experts in these fields. To realize the mural’s installation, the artist engaged with a multi-generational group of Roswell residents who helped create the mosaic’s panels. In the 1998 article, Dill went on to explain that Zelt’s Convention Center mural included “glazed fixed tile, mirror, broken plates, shards of pottery, marbles, flints, ancient shards, bottles and ‘Pecos Valley Diamonds.’ Taking six months to complete, the project involved depicting Roswell’s geographical strata, city buildings and skies including birds, planes and even [a] UFO. Zelt worked with many facets of the community to represent Roswell visually, aesthetically and culturally.” Included in the Roswell Museum’s 2023 memorial exhibition are two studies Zelt used to compose City, Skies, Strata. Later, Zelt created another, smaller mural depicting habitats at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge with support from Aria Finch and the Pecos Valley Potters Guild. Completed in 2000, this ceramic tile mural was entitled Five Habitats.
Brooks wrote in 2013, “Zelt’s work denies simple categorization. Instead, she combines materials and processes from multiple disciplines.” Formally trained in painting, the artist’s work includes not only mosaic murals, but also an impressive array of printmaking techniques. A Tamarind Institute publication wrote of Zelt that her “unique artistic vision is characterized by an innovative approach to materials, composition, and format” and quoted the artist describing her artworks by saying “they are like kites, strongly constructed but with a look of fragility.” Again in 2013, Brooks wrote, “Zelt utilizes a visual language of formal relationships to express ideas, experiences, and emotions that are at times personal, at times universal.”
During her life, Zelt had three solo exhibitions here at the Roswell Museum in 1983, 1998, and 2013. Her work has been exhibited widely across the United States at venues including the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio, Hodges Taylor Gallery in North Carolina, Kathryn Markel Gallery in New York, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Tamarind Institute in New Mexico as well as venues in Brazil, Mexico, and Taiwan.
Zelt’s work is held in numerous collections, including the Albuquerque Museum in New Mexico, the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the Carnegie Institute’s Museum of Art in Pennsylvania, the Indiana Museum, the North Dakota Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Pennsylvania, Princeton University in New Jersey, the Rhode Island School of Design, the Roswell Museum in New Mexico, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, the University of New Mexico, and Yale University in Connecticut, among many others.
Zelt passed away at the age of 92 on May 11, 2023 in Roswell.
Special thanks is owed to Catherine DeMaria at Warehouse 110 in Magdalena, New Mexico and Nancy Fleming at the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art in Roswell, New Mexico as well as Kay Jenkins, Agustin Pozo Galvez, and José Valles Rivera for their invaluable support of this memorial exhibition and for lending additional works by the artist to supplement works by Zelt in the Roswell Museum’s collection. Special thanks is owed to Agustin Pozo Galvez for his translation of text related to this exhibition to Spanish.