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Rose B. Simp­son and her El Camino

Maria is a mus­cle car that makes love to its land­scape. She’s a 1985 El Camino whose lowfly­ing pan­els have been over­laid with the sup­ple black-on-black clay forms of Santa Clara pot­tery. Glid­ing along High­way 285 be­tween Española and Santa Fe, the Je­mez and San­gre de Cristo peaks find them­selves re­flected in the car’s min­i­mal­ist moun­tain crest de­signs. A con­ver­gence of forms, the ve­hi­cle brings a whole new mean­ing to the word “ves­sel,” with its styl­ized use of Pue­blo ce­ramic aes­thet­ics wrapped around the sinewy chas­sis of a clas­sic Amer­i­can hot rod. “I’m sure some­one loved her once or twice be­fore, but I trans­formed that car. How many times I sanded it, ca­ress­ing ev­ery inch of that car,” said Rose B. Simp­son in an in­ter­view with

Pasatiempo. “It has en­ergy. It has juju.” Simp­son re­built much of the car dur­ing a 2013 res­i­dency at the Den­ver Art Mu­seum. Her stay there con­cluded with a dra­matic pre­sen­ta­tion in front of the mu­seum as she cruised the newly re­fin­ished El Camino, flanked by seven mod­els wear­ing postapoc­a­lyp­tic leather-and-metal out­fits fash­ioned by Simp­son. A YouTube video of the event shows the steely black car thump­ing a hu­man heart­beat through its bass-heavy sound system. “The car has a heart­beat; Maria has a heart,” Simp­son said. “If we can find our heart, we can re­store our em­pathic re­la­tion­ship with the world.”

Maria will be on dis­play down­town on Sun­day, May 22, as part of the of­fi­cial Lowrider Day on the Plaza. The event ties in with two ex­hi­bi­tions at state mu­se­ums, Con Car­iño: Artists In­spired by Lowrid­ers, open­ing on Fri­day, May 20, at the New Mex­ico Mu­seum of Art, and Lowrid­ers, Hop­pers, and Hot Rods, which opened May 1 at the New Mex­ico His­tory Mu­seum.

Maria the El Camino takes her name from Maria Martinez, an early 20th-cen­tury pioneer in cre­at­ing the look and feel of Santa Clara black-on-black pot­tery. Since Simp­son sees the car as an ex­ten­sion of her own per­sonal work in pot­tery and ce­ramic sculpt­ing, she thought the name was a fit­ting homage to a Pue­blo art world icon. On top of that, cre­at­ing the car al­lowed Simp­son to fuse two pas­sions she has nur­tured since child­hood — mak­ing ce­ramic cre­ations and per­form­ing au­to­mo­tive over­hauls.

Simp­son is widely known for her mixed-me­dia clay­based sculp­tures that blend el­e­ments of the hu­man, animal, and plant worlds. But she also has been re­build­ing cars since be­fore she was a teenager — a tal­ent she cred­its to her in­dus­tri­ous par­ents Rox­anne Swentzell, the famed Santa Clara ce­ramic sculp­tor, and Patrick Simp­son, an artist who works in wood and metal.


“My dad’s artis­tic. My mom de­cided to turn off elec­tric­ity when I was a kid to see if we could live off the grid,” Simp­son said. “We were very em­pow­ered to fig­ure things out on our own. My mom is a very do-it-your­self woman. She was al­ways the one with a chain­saw, fix­ing cars, build­ing the house,” Simp­son added. “I didn’t grow up with any spe­cific gen­der roles for work.”

Tin­ker­ing with un­usual, pow­er­ful ve­hi­cles is in the fam­ily DNA. “My par­ents joked they took apart a VW hatch­back and had the en­gine on the kitchen ta­ble as they were work­ing with it,” Simp­son said. “My dad re­built this dump truck when I was a kid. It ended up be­ing our pri­mary mode of trans­porta­tion to get around. In Española, when I was grow­ing up, I saw lowrid­ers ev­ery­where.” So steeped in DIY car cul­ture, at the age of twelve, Simp­son bought her first car, a 1989 Jeep Chero­kee, from money she saved do­ing con­struc­tion work, as­sist­ing in the con­struc­tion of the Po­joaque Mail Cen­ter.

A bit young for the trades? Simp­son de­mured. “I hap­pened to be knowl­edge­able in plas­ter and adobe crafts­man­ship. So they hired and paid me.” She fixed up the Chero­kee be­fore even en­ter­ing mid­dle school, a feat that in­volved pulling her own four­wheel drive trans­mis­sion, which weighed well over 200 pounds. But her love of cars went far be­yond the ac­tual ve­hi­cle. “Cars be­came my free­dom. The Jeep epit­o­mized free­dom. It be­came my tur­tle shell in many ways. I even lived in my car for a while.”

Fast-for­ward two decades, and it’s un­sur­pris­ing that af­ter com­plet­ing her MFA at the pres­ti­gious Rhode Is­land School of De­sign, Simp­son headed back to Española, this time to en­roll in the au­to­mo­tive col­li­sion and re­pair pro­gram at North­ern New Mex­ico Com­mu­nity Col­lege. Un­for­tu­nately, how­ever, the ve­hi­cle pro­gram was dis­con­tin­ued at the em­bat­tled in­sti­tu­tion be­fore Simp­son could com­plete a de­gree. “I’m still an­gry about that,” Simp­son said. “It cut off a whole group of stu­dents from tools and from cars they had been work­ing on for months.”

With its im­pec­ca­ble and un­prece­dented paint job, one might as­sume Simp­son went through a lot of trial-and-er­ror to ar­rive at the El Camino’s paint job. Not a chance. “My teacher at [North­ern New Mex­ico Com­mu­nity Col­lege] told me it not might not work, that the dif­fer­ent shades of black paint might blend to­gether and I would lose the de­sign. But I did it any­way and it worked.”

Since the car’s last pub­lic out­ing — though it con­tin­ues to be in­fre­quently used as a pri­vate ve­hi­cle by Simp­son — the artist blew out the car’s re­built Chevro­let 350 block V8 en­gine and has since swapped in a cus­tom-made 410 horse­power, 350 small-block en­gine, a me­chan­i­cal beast that ex­erts so much power that a rac­ing-style vac­uum is re­quired to op­er­ate the brakes safely.

“This car is a power ob­ject. It’s also ag­gres­sive. It al­lows you to just be in that mo­ment of pride, to be very en­gaged and aware of your­self,” Simp­son said. “Th­ese days I drive a new Dodge Chal­lenger. The El Camino can just smoke that car any day.”

Rose B. Simp­son’s El Camino will be on the Plaza dur­ing Lowrider Day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sun­day, May 22.

Rose B. Simp­son and Maria, her 1985 El Camino; pho­tos Kate Rus­sell

Mod­els in Simp­son’s pre­sen­ta­tion at the Den­ver Art Mu­seum; above, Simp­son and Maria

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