Tomé — Illegal dumping is a plague that ravages most of the Land of Enchantment and many people are desensitized to the unsightly image of tires, construction materials and dead animals crisscrossing the landscape.

One concerned local artist is using her photographs of the trash dotting the countryside to encourage the community to clean up its act.

Joanne Ladisa photos
“Armchair Voyeur”

Joanne Ladisa, a transplant from New York City and current resident of Tomé, is working to raise awareness about the issue of illegal dumping in Valencia County.

“I love New Mexico and I don’t think people sometimes who live here, really appreciate it, especially with the dumping and stuff,” says Ladisa. “I got here and I didn’t know there were these open spaces available in our country.”

Her collection of photos titled, “The Castaways” will be showcased at the Belen Art League gallery starting on Saturday, Sept. 23.

Ladisa fell in love with the vastness of New Mexico’s landscapes.

In Ladisa’s artist statement for her show, she said not seeing a single person gives her an immense feeling of freedom, a feeling and belief that is the foundation of this great country.

The photos are a dazzling collection of images of Valencia County’s desert, which has turned into a wasteland due to the amount of trash people dump.

Jesse Jones | News-Bulletin photo
Photographer Joanne Ladisa stands in front of trash that was illegally dumped on the mesa near Tomé Hill. Ladisa’s collection of photographs of the illegal dumped trash titled, “Castaways,” will be on display the Belen Art League Gallery starting Saturday, Sept. 23.

In her images, there is an interesting juxtaposition between the postapocalyptic landscapes and the dramatic sky dominated by clouds.

Ladisa would go on adventures with a friend on their all-terrain vehicles zigzagging around the dusty trails near Tomé Hill or taking trips to ride up on the Manzano Mountains. It was on these adventures that she saw just how much illegal dumping was ruining the landscape.

During one of her trips to the mesa, she was filming some footage of the desert. She parked her ATV next to what she assumed was a large carpet but they soon discovered that it was the body of a deceased animal when the overpowering stench of decay hit them.

Unfortunately, those are typical sights and smells on the llano. On any given day, you can see decaying animals, appliances, construction materials or even the occasional boat stranded in the middle of the desert.

Ladisa took out her camera and began taking photos of the trash with the dramatic New Mexican skies. She posted one of her images on a Facebook group dedicated to abandoned places in New Mexico. The image sparked intense emotions among many people regarding the issue of dumping and she realized it was a very important topic to a lot of people.

“I saw something beautiful with the landscape and the position of the clouds and I have to capture this. It’s so beautiful,” Ladisa says. “When other people see this, it became more of like, ‘Oh, the dumping but it’s really about just finding beauty and every aspect in everyday life I think it’s so important.”

Joanne Ladisa photos

Ladisa, a first-generation Italian American, moved to New Mexico 23 years ago from Queens, New York.

After working as a paralegal for more than 20 years, the corporate world burnt her out and she decided to quit her job to try something new.

“It can be pretty toxic; you’re always bound by these deadlines and it causes a lot of stress and I just don’t want to do it anymore,” she said. “Life is short and I don’t want to be stressed out all the time.”

Ladisa decided to pursue art and become a certified Reiki practitioner, which is a therapy involving the flow of energy through the body, guided by gentle touch or hands placed above the body to promote balance and healing. She is certified in Reiki level one and is currently training for her level two. She’ll then be able to offer treatments.

“Reiki is really cool because it can really help but it’s not guaranteed. It’s supposed to really give you what you’re supposed to get and you kind of have to let go and trust that God or the universe is doing what’s right for you,” Ladisa says,

She finds that spirituality is a crucial aspect of her identity and art. It brings her a sense of calm and sparks her creativity, especially when she faces difficult situations.

Joanne Ladisa photos
“Mooring Mesa Day Dock”

“I always suffered from depression and it really came to light during COVID,” said Ladisa. “So I developed a big spiritual practice and did a yoga practice every day and got into meditation for the anxiety and struggling with my own mental health issues and getting through this journey.”

The isolation caused by the pandemic was a transformative period in her life. She took up art as a proactive way of spending her time and it was a way, she could confront her fear of rejection.

Ladisa learned about the Rejection Project, where a man applied for jobs he knew he wasn’t qualified for to become more comfortable with rejection. The project motivated her to try it for herself using her art to be rejected.

Ladisa aimed to avoid being affected by others’ opinions and judgments by seeking rejection. Her plan of being rejected backfired phenomenally. Instead of rejection, she found people enjoyed her photographs. She found people not only liked her photography for the visual elements but the images also conjured up memories for the viewer.

“They’ll tell me a story and for a moment I share something they went through that one of my photographs invoked in them. You get to connect with someone on that level for a brief moment,” she said.

Jesse Jones | News-Bulletin photo
Photographer Joanne Ladisa stands on her ATV, pointing out trash that was illegally dumped on the mesa near Tome Hill. Ladisa’s collection of photographs of the illegal dumped trash titled, “Castaways,” will be at the Belen Art League Gallery starting Saturday, Sept. 23.

Ladisa became involved with the Belen Art League and found a genuine sense of belonging within the community. She connected well with the people there and appreciated that they allowed anyone to display their art in the gallery without needing to pass a jury approval process.

She started volunteering and became actively involved in the community, recognizing the importance of coming together and supporting one another.

Some other artistic endeavors Ladisa is planning includes doing a series of self-portraits that highlight her own mental health struggles. She would also like to incorporate some of the trash that was dumped to make sculptures.

Ladisa hopes her photographs of the illegal dumping in Valencia County will create change in her adopted community.

“I know they’ve been working on trying to clean up the county for a long time but they’re very limited on resources as well but it’s more than that,” she said. “It’s about people saying, ‘Hey, I’m not going to do that. I’m gonna go to the dump and I’m gonna pay the fee even though it’s kind of a painful process.’”

Joanne Ladisa photos
“Far from Home”

Ladisa mentioned in her artist statement that according to the Valencia County Public Works Department, only three employees are responsible for cleaning up trash across an area of about 1,000 square miles. Every year, they manage to remove about 17,000 pounds of trash.

If any organizations or individuals want to help, they can volunteer by contacting the Valencia County Public Works Department at 505-866-2475.

“The Castaways” by Joanne Ladisa is at the Belen Art League Gallery, at 509 Becker Ave., Belen. The show opening starts at noon on Saturday, Sept. 23, with a reception from 5-7 p.m. The gallery is open from 12 to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.

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Jesse Jones lives in Albuquerque with his wife and son. Jesse graduated from of the University of New Mexico twice. This spring, he graduated with a degree in multimedia journalism and, in 2006, he received a bachelor’s degree in university studies with an emphasis in photojournalism. He is a current fellow of the New Mexico Local News Fund.