A visual artist finds her literary voice in New Mexico

Bev Magennis once covered houses in colorful tiles. Now she writes novels about murder in the rural West.

  • Bev Magennis started decorating The Tile House in 1984 and finished 11 years later, using more than 130,000 pieces.

    Courtesy Albuquerque Journal
 

Just a block off a busy intersection in Albuquerque’s North Valley, a tile-covered two-story house stands like a poem.  Mosaic flowers spring from its base and pueblo-style rainclouds grace the front gable.

For 11 years, Bev Magennis added one ceramic tile after another to her home, not intending from the start to cover the entire building. “I just get on a track,” she says today from her new home, which is tile-less and about a mile away. “I love a long-term project.”

In more than three decades as a visual artist, Magennis created life-sized figures — even a “dome lady” large enough to sleep a family for the night. (At one point, she considered building a series of dome women and creating a sort of motel. Her then-husband was less enthusiastic about the idea.)

In 1993, she left Albuquerque for rural southwestern New Mexico. Catron County is home to Mexican gray wolves, the nation’s first designated wilderness area, generations of Anglo ranching families and a fair amount of social tension — sometimes boiling, sometimes just awkward. And for 17 years, it was home to Magennis, too.

“The land was so great, so quiet,” she says. But a few years ago, she returned to the city, which she appreciates for its emotional freedom. “I still long for (the country). But I know the reality.”

Many people are tempted to create new lives for themselves in the West’s isolated towns and rural landscapes. But making artwork, building a home, or even running a farm are not the same as belonging to a community. Those enchanting little towns aren’t always sustainable places to raise a family or thrive emotionally — especially if you’re an outsider, and a mistrust of outsiders and new ideas persists. Nearly a decade passed, for example, before a local storeowner’s wife — passing change across the counter — almost made eye contact with Magennis, a petite, warm woman who was raised Jewish, grew up in Toronto, and describes herself as a “hard-core feminist.”

Magennis came to New Mexico in the mid-1970s as part of Roswell’s Artist-in-Residence Program — it was the best year of her life, she says — and then taught art in Chama. She didn’t start writing until she was in her 60s. After recovering from ovarian cancer, she decided to try her hand at fiction.

Now, she’s no longer constructing giant works of art or tiling houses. Rather, she’s working on a series of books based loosely on life in Catron County. Although they’re not classic mysteries, they do involve murders and missing people and the sorts of things that happen in the rural West when the law is loose and isolation wears away the good sense that people might otherwise possess. Alibi Creek, the first in the series, is set for publication in March 2016.

“When you’re living in a place like that,” where eccentricity is tolerated, she says, but not liberalism, “you do get to a place beyond politics with your neighbors, because you need them. You need someone to talk to.”

And that’s what the main character in Alibi Creek lacks. Lee Ann, who is neither eccentric nor liberal, has no one to talk with as she grapples with an errant brother (the “asshole” character Magennis loves), a dying mother and a disappearing God. Plus controversy over the misuse of federal money at the county commission where she works, controversy of the sort that HCN readers will recognize. 

“People are so proud of — and they should be proud of — this great tradition of ranching and surviving and endurance,” she says of her former neighbors.  “I mean, those people endure.” But, she adds, rural Westerners can become so locked into their traditions, they can’t see that the world has changed.

“It’s admirable, but sad at the same time.” Magennis mentions, for example, the defiant swagger some people display when insisting they’ll never use computers. “That insistence might make them feel strong. But it’s not actually a strength,” she says. “The more narrow you are, that locks you in.”

Laura Paskus is an independent reporter and radio producer based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She’s a former assistant editor of High Country News.