Friday, September 20, 2013

Two Lane Blacktop; Art and Found

On the way to Santa Fe

"Do you get to Albuquerque much?" asked the Native American film maker sitting next to me at a meeting in Santa Fe on Tuesday.

"Oh," I said, "about as often as we get to Santa Fe. It's about the same distance to go to one or the other, but the route to Santa Fe is a lot nicer..."

We travel to and from Santa Fe via NM 41, an iconic two lane blacktop highway through one of New Mexico's less populated regions. NM 41 aligns along a former railroad route that runs between the what used to be the AT&SF tracks south of the central mountain chain, and the northern tracks that run through Lamy, which was once the rail-stop for Santa Fe, though it is 18 miles or so east and south from the Plaza. The railroad builders at the time said they couldn't go into Santa Fe proper because the terrain was "too difficult." I suspect it had more to do with the amount of money they could or could not extort from the City Fathers.


There are some towns and former towns of a sort along NM 41, Estancia and Moriarty being the most populous with up to 1,000 people in each, but there's McIntosh, Otto, Buford and Stanley in the Estancia Basin, and then over a rise and through rolling country in the Galisteo Basin, you get to Galisteo itself, a dusty, ancient adobe town beside the often dry but recently roaring Galisteo River, a town with no services, yet one that serves as a kind of outpost suburb for Santa Fe these days.

NM 41 stubs out at NM 285 just east of Lamy. Two-eighty-five north takes a route across the railroad tracks and through the semi-rural El Dorado suburb of Santa Fe. After passing through El Dorado, you pick up I-25, whooshing by at 75 miles an hour north and west another few miles (the signs say 8, but I don't think it is) to the Old Pecos Trail exit, where you sort of follow your instincts -- and in my case, imprinting, since I've done it so often -- till you pick up the Old Santa Fe Trail and wend your way as best you can into Town, which for us is the Old Town around the Plaza.

Santa Fe is not a big city; it's quite small, actually, so it's not really all that likely you'll get lost in urban sprawl or anything like it, but the way the town is laid out and roadways, streets, and paths operate, it's very easy to get lost while trying to get from place to place within Santa Fe, or even get lost trying to find the Plaza. It's not as easy as it may seem.

I can only imagine what it must have been like in the Old Days, when wagon trains were driven into town along the Santa Fe Trail -- a trail which becomes quite a narrow track the closer it gets to the Plaza, then does some strange jogs at Water Street and then at the corner of the Plaza itself, beside La Fonda, it leaves you bewildered. What is one supposed to do here? And where is the Plaza, exactly? Quien sabe?

Unless they are adventurous, I try to dissuade visitors from navigating Santa Fe on their own for the first time. It can help to smooth some of the challenges to have a guide.  I'm sure that's what they did back in the day.

Getting out of town can be no less mystifying.

It is The City Different. And proud of it might I say.

We were in Santa Fe last evening for a reception at the New Mexico Museum of Art, one of Santa Fe's iconic structures, just off the Plaza across Lincoln Avenue from the even more iconic Palace of the Governors. I have little to say about the main exhibit the reception honored -- which I think had to have been a joke, a joke on us, and that's being charitable -- but the building itself and the other exhibits which were open (one was not) were really quite wonderful.

I've been there before, but I was in a rush and had no opportunity to enjoy either the place or what was on show -- which I don't remember. For all kinds of reasons (right) I hadn't been back until last night.

This iconic building was built in 1917, adapted from the equally iconic New Mexico pavilion at the Panama-California exhibition of 1915 -- the one in San Diego, I think, not the one in San Francisco, though I could be wrong about that and will look it up in due time. The New Mexico pavilion was in turn adapted from some of the Pueblo mission churches in New Mexico, particularly San Esteban at Acoma. I've written about it before, and when I scour up the link, I'll post it.

This was all part of "oldening up" Santa Fe back in the early heady days of statehood and expanded tourism. Prior to the re-doing of Santa Fe's Old Town to more thoroughly evoke the fantasies of a Pueblo Past, it had become quite Victorianized and Gingerbready, not without charm but hardly evocative of Old Adobe Haciendas and placid Natives with pots on their heads.

There are some aspects of the Victorian era still visible around the Plaza, the Catron Building at the corner of Washington and East Palace being the chief example, but even it's been "oldened up" and painted brown to blend in with the rest of the Oldened buildings.

There was a mayor of Santa Fe once who is remembered for her acerbic observation that the Chamber of Commerce had ordered all the buildings in Santa Fe to be painted brown and all the brown people be driven out. It may be an apocryphal observation -- and yet... sometimes it seems like there is a distinctive lack of brown people in and around the Santa Fe Plaza; other times, there's no lack at all. It depends...

The brown paint and the phony adobe look of Santa Fe are part of its... charm and uniqueness, a charm and uniqueness that's sometimes called "Adobe Disneyland." Tourists from all over the world are attracted by the pseudo-primitive appearance of the place. A man minding the artworks at a store down by the Plaza asked us last night, "So where are you folks visiting from?" Years ago, we would have said "California but we have a second home in New Mexico" and we all would have laughed, and we'd be asked, "Well, when are you going to move here for good?" but last night we said, "We're local." The man clammed right up. Had nothing more to say. Well, I never.

La Fonda (the iconic hotel just off the Plaza that I won't call "The La Fonda Hotel" because it's redundant) has recently been renovated top to bottom -- which had long been necessary as parts of the place were becoming pretty run down and grim and there were growing complaints about the worn out rooms -- but one thing that hasn't changed that I could tell is the lobby which sort of sprawls here and there in adobe (which may be genuine) and old wood vigas and tile floors in a kind of semi-chaos, with paintings by Gerald Cassidy decorating the walls and pillars. I've probably been to La Fonda more than any other place in Santa Fe, certainly have attended more events there, going back quite a few years, and it is something like a home-place for us in the City Different, as it is for many residents.

Gerald Cassidy (né Ira Diamond though accounts vary) is one of my favorite painters from Santa Fe's early art colony days. His works at La Fonda are more like posters than fine art -- though they are original casein on paper and not prints -- but I don't object at all. They are iconic in their own right, and Cassidy's fine art paintings on display around Santa Fe and at the New Mexico Museum of Art are among the finest of the genre and the era. Cassidy died in 1934 from toxic fume inhalation while painting the inside of the dome of the Federal Courthouse in Santa Fe. Although I didn't think there was a dome on the Federal Courthouse. Well, accounts of what happened and where vary, so don't take that as gospel. He may have died in his own studio. He is said to have been working on a WPA arts project, but it was probably for the PWA instead. Accounts, as I say, vary.

And that's one of the things about Santa Fe and New Mexico in general. Stories are told. Many of them are either inaccurate or false. They're stories. Requerdos. Some of it is, like Oldened Up Santa Fe, made up. Fantasy. Some of it's true.

There were some Gerald Cassidy paintings on exhibit at the Art Museum last night, in the show called "Back in the Saddle" that sort of fits with the Cowboys Real and Imagined exhibit at the History Museum across the street. Of course we live in cowboy country, real cowboy country, and there are real cows out in the pastures underneath the mountains and that gasp-inducing New Mexico sky.

While I was wandering through the Art Museum yesterday evening, passing through the upstairs gallery where there was a huge round piece made of tens of thousands of hand-cut paper butterflies that caused quite a stir, I happened to look out the partially shaded windows at the evening sky and the glow of the setting sun on the masses of the building and the masses of the piles of whipped cream clouds in the sky and the sight literally took my breath away. Good heavens, could this be real, or was it one of those iconic paintings you see of New Mexico? Oh, it was real all right. The sight out the window was a real as it gets, and my heart started racing as I gawped like a fool out the window rather than at  works of art on display for our evening's enjoyment.

I stared enraptured out the window.

Only in New Mexico.

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