When I walk into the light, airy color of Fare Bella Studio & Gallery, owner-artist Patrice Filler is thinking ahead to the next day, when she will lead a wabi-sabi watercolor painting class.
I’ve long been interested in wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic that views imperfection as a higher form of beauty. Patrice invites me to return the next day as her guest in the class, to make photographs for Humanitou and to explore my inner wabi-sabi. I accept.
Then we dive into the wabi-sabi of life and lessons learned. Patrice, 65, talks with Humanitou about her relatively late beginning in art and the motherly distress that led her deeper into it.
We also talk about what she learned as a child in the house of an alcoholic and her calling to open up shop on Ruxton. And there’s joy sprinkled throughout. Lots of joy.
Humanitou: Tell me about you and wabi-sabi.
Patrice: Years ago, I was teaching an Exploring Watercolor class at Bemis (School of Art) and I had a very sweet Japanese boy in my class. He was so kind, so soft, and a gentle spirit.
The very last class, he set down a little pot and he said, “This is for you.” I’m looking at it and it has a big crack in it. He said, “You’re looking puzzled.” I said, “No, I love it.”
That’s one of my love languages, gifts. I love giving them and I love getting them. So, if somebody says this reminded me of you, I’m happy.
He said, “In Japan, things have more value when they’re imperfect. When there’s cracks in a pot, you can see the light.” And, honestly, it almost made me tear up. He said, “Sometimes we fill them with gold and sometimes we just leave them. It’s wabi-sabi.”
I treasured the little gift and I looked up wabi-sabi. It’s the art of impermanence and imperfection, looking for the beauty in the tarnished and old. I just love that.
Humanitou: How did you connect that introduction to wabi-sabi to teaching it in your watercolor classes?
Patrice: I didn’t think about it for a while. I put the pot up. This had to have been seven years ago. But I’m always trying to come up with new classes, something new that will spark somebody’s interest or doing something different creatively, and I ran across a little book that was The Art of Wabi-Sabi. And I thought, that’s it.
Everybody likes shiny, new, sparkly. And I’m guilty of that. I love new things, as well, but there’s something special about a piece of art, a sculpture, a pot, anything that has history, has a story behind it.
And the more I look in the mirror, the more wabi-sabi I’m becoming. (laughs) So what do you do? You embrace it. There’s nothing you can do. You just plug along.
Humanitou: Let’s continue a Humanitou thread here for a moment, a question I have asked in a number of conversations. As an artist and gallery owner representing many artists, what do you think it means to be an artist?
Patrice: I grew up in Taos (New Mexico). My dad was an artist. He was a wood carver. So people always say, “Oh, as a kid did you draw? Did art just ooze from you? Did you constantly want to create?” No. No. No.
I carried around a little camera and I was infatuated with photography, but it was more like posing my siblings and taking cute pictures. I didn’t get into art until much later. I took my first art class at 45.
Here’s a good example: Buffalo Kaplinski, fantastic artist. He will go down in history as one of our premiere landscape painters.
Humanitou: I love that name.
Patrice: Yeah! And he legally changed his name to Buffalo. He’s a Chicago-trained artist, made his fame in Taos, has become a dear friend through me receiving a painting of his when I left a job many, many years ago of being a clothing buyer.
So Buffalo did a workshop here and when he walked in, he was a little late. I had a class full of people, and he walked in and and says, “I don’t know how you people live in this town. I had to stop every fifteen minutes to take pictures. The colors were vibrating off the mountain.”
I looked at my students and I said, “Guys, I can teach you how to paint, but I can’t teach that.”
That’s a true artist, someone who looks at things differently, I think. You see things through artistic eyes.
Humanitou: Vulnerability, to risk being thought a fool is inherent in seeing differently, in doing anything differently.
Patrice: I represent many people who see things and something just has to come out. If you have that artistic spirit, you see rich colors, shapes, and not necessarily a tree. I think some of it is natural, but you can learn it.
And we’re never confident. I don’t know any artist who is 100 percent confident in their work. Everybody struggles. That doubt is always there.
Humanitou: You used the phrase “love language.” This is only the second time I’ve encountered that, the first time also from a Humanitou conversation, with Layla Redding. What does love language mean to you?
Patrice: Well, that happens when you want to improve your marriage, being with the same person for 48 years. (laughs)
My daughter was getting married, my son is in a relationship. There’s a great book called “The Five Love Languages,” so I bought them each the book.
There’s words, touch, acts of service, gifts … I’m trying to think of the other one. It’s really thinking about what you love and being honest about it.
I think by understanding that my husband’s love language is words, I can fill that love tank, so to speak, all the stuff that he needs to be fulfilled. Whereas for me, I don’t need words.
For a long time, I used to think, I must be really selfish, because I love presents. I like getting gifts, but I love giving them. That doesn’t often go hand-in-hand.
For me, it’s gifts and acts of service. Just knowing my car is always filled with gas, that makes me feel loved. I don’t have to do that, it’s always done for me. He’ll go across town to get my favorite donut. That type of thing.
It’s important to learn your children’s love languages, too.
Humanitou: You didn’t take your first art class until you were 45. I imagine that inspires your students who otherwise are feeling it’s too late to accomplish creative dreams.
Patrice: Oh, absolutely. The majority of the people who take my class at Bemis are retired. You reach a certain age and the wabi-sabi kicks in and you say, “You know what, it doesn’t matter if I’m good at this. If it’s giving me joy, then it’s worth it.”
Taking the class at 45 was a dare from one of my dear friends who was my son’s teacher. Then she pooped out and didn’t take the class, but I had already paid for it.
Humanitou: I’m curious about your gallery. I think an assumption about owning an art gallery is you must have some lofty experience. What have you learned in this process of 11 years with Fare Bella?
Patrice: I’ve learned that I should have suggested to my daughter not just to go to art school, but to get a business degree first. (laughs)
Almost 40 years ago when I was in a different field and I was a regional manager and general merchandiser, a buyer for a chain of clothing stores, back then we did everything.
We did the schlepping around, we did the windows, we did the book work, we did the selling. It really taught me a lot about the entire business aspect of retail.
My first few years, I did really well. I didn’t know how to price things. I was just selling stuff. Then you start developing and you start realizing there’s more to art than what you do. You start growing as a gallery owner.
I have an eye for color. I’ve always had that. I also love other things besides paintings. I have a glass artist. I have a mosaic artist. I have retail product, as well, because, as my husband, Bob, would say, it satisfied my shopping addiction. (laughs)
I’ve learned, I guess, that through the years it is unpredictable. There is no rhyme or reason. I can look at my books and there’s no day that’s better than the rest. Art’s not selling daily. It just doesn’t happen.
You know what I’ve learned? (laughs) Diddly squat. There’s no rhyme or reason. Who knows what sells or doesn’t? You just don’t know. It’s so subjective.
Humanitou: But surely you’re not suggesting all these years into it that it’s just luck?
Patrice: Prayer. Faith. That is the truth.
When I was looking for something to do … I’d gotten divorced after 26 years. We’re back together now. See, sometimes you pray for the right person, but you don’t expect it to be your wasband. But anyway …
Whatever your faith is, it doesn’t matter to me, but I prayed. I am like a prayer warrior. The message I kept getting was, “I will be your living water, so stop worrying.”
My sister saw that this place was for rent. I didn’t want to be in Manitou. I did not like Manitou. It was hokey, it was yucky dirty … because I hadn’t been here forever. But I was, like, “OK, I’ll look.” It was inexpensive.
When I walked in the back room, I looked out and there was the creek, my living water. So, I thought, I’m going to try this.
So, no, it wasn’t luck. It was a lot of praying and listening to advice from a lot of people who know what they’re doing. And also it’s kind of a gut feeling.
Humanitou: What is an experience or lesson in your life that has made a lasting, shaping impact?
Patrice: My dad was an alcoholic. He was extremely abusive to my mom, but we were like the family. Mom, dad, kids all perfect, looked like the doctor’s family, whatever.
So I knew early on as a child, I was kind of, I guess, punched in the stomach knowing life can suck. There’s a lot of yucky stuff that happens. I think I saw that pretense of people thinking one way and it not being that way. You learn to get really good at storytelling, because you’re embarrassed and you’re ashamed of your family.
My dad wasn’t a daily drinker. He was like a Friday night, Saturday night binger. Years and years and years later, when I finally wanted to get healthy and figure out what was wrong with me, because somebody told me I was codependent, and I didn’t even know what that was, I realized that I wasn’t really angry at my dad. I was angry at my mom for putting up with it.
That’s really when I started looking at my dad through different eyes and appreciating his art, and what he did. It intrigued me. I thought, I want to do something fun. I want to have something that’s mine. I don’t have to be good at it, I just want something that’s just me.
And then my son turned 14 — holy cow — and he discovered everything bad. Drugs, alcohol, girls. I was up all night. I thought, I’ve got to paint, I’ve got to do something.
So now that he’s a responsible adult of almost 35, he comes in and says, “Gee, Mom, if it wasn’t for me you wouldn’t have any of this.” (laughs)
I guess what I’ve learned is you’ve got to roll with the punches and learn, and erase, start over, do the best you can.
And you know what? Be joyful in it.
Humanitou: You have mentioned joy a few times, and you seem to be a light and positive person. What inspires you?
Patrice: Everything. It’s kind of like that question, “What should I paint? Where do you find inspiration?” Really? I mean …
And by the way, it’s not what you paint, it’s how you paint it. So it’s not what inspires you, it’s how you live it, I think.
When I was in group therapy, I led the group for three years. We would ask people who were in group if they knew the difference between joy-filled pain and pain-filled joy.
Joy-filled pain would be childbirth. Guys might not be able to relate to that. It’s so painful, but the outcome is joyful. And pain-filled joy is life.
Life is full of pain, but it’s joyful.