Friday, October 11, 2013

'How They Got Art in New Mexico'

The Crippled Wagon of Fate on the High Road to Taos, 1898

(Essay upon attendance at the First "Artists Century" talk at the New Mexico Museum of Art, October, 2013)

La Leyenda....

One day in 1898, Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips set out from Denver with a wagon and team of horses. They were highly trained and accomplished fine artists, "easel artists" as they've become known, who went Out West to experience the rough and ready Real World Adventures America still had to offer.

Apparently they were bored in Denver and thought they'd find more inspiration in Mexico. What better way to get there than by wagon and horseback over the spine of the Rockies until they reached the Rio Grande?

Except they never made it to the Rio Grande, never made it to Mexico. Well, of course they would, in time, but on this journey, they didn't.

No, instead, on the high road (such as it was) above Taos, in the wilds of Northern New Mexico, then still a territory of the USofA, a wagon wheel broke, and they were stranded. This is the legend, this is the story, endlessly repeated to this day. Blumenschein is said to have "shouldered" the broken wagon wheel -- though it was tied to the back of one of the horses --  and he humped it the twenty miles or so into the Village of Taos for repairs while Phillips stayed with the broken wagon and had lunch.

Bert Phillips having lunch beside the Fateful Wagon, 1898

But the trip into town was so moving to Blumenschein that he decided to stay right where he was and not continue on to Mexico, even with a repaired wagon wheel. He stayed in Taos for three months; Phillips stayed permanently, and in 1919, Blumenschein himself finally decided to make his home there, too.
Superstition by Ernest Blumenschein c.1921

Our Washerwoman's Family by Bert Phillips c. 1918

Taos was unlike anything they had ever experienced in the United States; apparently it was unlike anything they had ever imagined there could be in America.

As Blumenschein would later write about his conversion on the road to Taos:

 The beautiful Sangre de Cristo range to my left was quite different in character from the Colorado mountains. Stretching away from the foot of the mountains was a vast plateau cut by the Rio Grande and by lesser gorges in which were located small villages of flat-roofed adobe houses built a church and a plaza, all fitting into the color scheme of the tawny surroundings. The sky was a clear, clean blue with sharp moving clouds. The color, the effective character of the landscape, the drama of the vast spaces, the superb beauty and serenity of the hills, stirred me deeply. I realized I was getting my own impressions from nature, seeing for the first time with my own eyes, uninfluenced by the art of any man. Notwithstanding the painful handicap of the broken wheel I was carrying, New Mexico inspired me to a profound degree.

In 1898, Taos was isolated and quite difficult to get to. It was still recovering, I imagine, from the destruction wrought by American troops fifty years before as a consequence of the Taos Revolt against the American conquest of the region from Mexico.

The Taos Pueblo suffered the greatest destruction in the American military operations against the resistance of the rebels, and some of that destruction can still be seen. Hundreds of inhabitants were slaughtered while trying to escape the burning mission church, dozens or hundreds of others were killed in the artillery barrage that was launched at the residential parts of pueblo itself.

But as is the way in New Mexico, the ruins were largely rebuilt although the church was not. The survivors returned and went on with their lives.

Even so, Blumenschein apparently found the natives in the village beyond the pueblo to be friendly enough and upon repair of the wheel and recovery of Phillips and the wagon (they say that two of their three horses had run off; other stories claim that they sold the horses and wagon at the Taos Plaza and bought a house nearby with the proceeds) the artists immediately began to paint in Taos, and thus began the Taos Art Colony, from whence derives almost all the present fine arts industry of New Mexico.

In 1905, Carlos Vierra, recovering from tuberculosis, set up a photo studio on the Plaza in Santa Fe and that became the nucleus of the Santa Fe Art Colony which came to compete with and perhaps to superceded the Taos Colony, in part because Santa Fe was somewhat easier to get to and the weather was a bit better and there was an active academic community fostering interest in the locals and their society. But that's conjecture on my part. The two colonies co-existed for decades, and whatever competition there may have been between them was friendly.

The origination of (Fine) Art in New Mexico was not that very long ago and many of the prime movers of the Colonies and their artistic production lived on until fairly recently. Their works and their homes and studios are now pilgrimage sites; I've visited some of them and I'm not in the least embarrassed to say so. I will probably visit many more of them before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

One has to make the distinction between the "Fine" Art of the Colonies and the local arts which have an unbroken chain of history stretching back into the foggiest mists of time, hundreds, even thousands of years.

We recently re-visited the ruins of Kuaua Pueblo on the Rio Grande (it's been designated the Coronado [State] Monument for reasons that don't make a great deal of sense, but there you are) which contains a mural painted kiva that apparently dates to the 1300's if not earlier. It is said to be the only mural painted kiva in the Southwest, but I doubt that's true, as there are remnants of wall-painting and murals noted at many pueblos as well as at Chaco Canyon. The unique factor at Kuaua was that the murals were well enough preserved that restoration was possible, and they are now quite strikingly renewed -- and they can be visited by the public. The other pueblo mural sites I'm familiar with cannot.

Portion of Kuaua Mural as restored in the 1950's

Pottery arts, textile arts, painting on many surfaces including genuine fresco painting (as at Kuaua and elsewhere), rock art, and on and on are well known to have long predated the coming of Europeans, let alone the "easel painters" of the late 19th and early 20th century colonies who made bold to "establish" Art in New Mexico.

Art and the artists who made it were already here. Long since.

The colonists made the art market of New Mexico, which I've heard is the third most economically important in the United States after New York and Los Angeles. They did it with the aid of the Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad and with the assistance of their many friends in the already well-established New York and European arts markets.

The paintings, pottery, textile and other arts that were well advanced in New Mexico and were actively traded among the people living here long before the Europeans and Anglo-Americans came, settled and made their own markets are considered primary arts in the region.

Of course the Indians weren't the only ones making art in New Mexico prior to the establishment of the Anglo art markets. There were significant numbers of Spanish traditional artists as well, creating the retablos and bultos and colcha embroidery among the other religious, home and folk arts that the region is justly famous for to this day.

Both Indian and Spanish artisans made wares to be sold at the railroad stops in New Mexico beginning in the 1880s, and so it could be said that market for New Mexico arts and crafts began with the tourist trade for Native works at the railroad depots.
Placid Natives with Pots On Their Heads solicit cash customers at a Pueblo rail stop

The "serious" arts, however, only came with the easel painters, and the first of them were Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips, whose wagon breakdown above Taos in 1898 was the Beginning. Some would say the Beginning of the End.

We haven't been to Spanish Market yet, but we attended Indian Market in Santa Fe this past summer, and as overwhelming as it is, we know it is only a corner of today's Indian art market in New Mexico and nationally. It appears to operate in a strictly hierarchical manner, patriarchal as well, and we heard several artists complain about how difficult it is to get into or be recognized in any way by SWAIA -- Southwestern Association for Indian Arts -- the sponsor and presenter of Indian Market in Santa Fe. Often, who you know and who you are related to means more than what you do in these sorts of things, just as in other arts communities.

As I've said, Indians and Spanish had been making and trading arts in New Mexico long before the establishment of the Anglo market for art in New Mexico. Art was a normal part of life. Many homes had retablos and bultos made by local santeros, and Pueblo and Spanish made and decorated pottery was in widespread daily use for cooking, storage, and dinnerware. Indians and Spanish both made jewelry of silver and minerals like turquoise. The simple adobe churches were often decorated with elaborate locally made reredos.

The coming of the Anglo market for art in New Mexico meant that all the traditional local arts became commodified, first for the tourists who passed through on the trains, then for the "serious collectors"  who came from Back East (some of them stayed) and who are still highly influential in determining not only what is done and seen in the traditional arts field, but who are fundamental to determining what contemporary arts and artists are valued.

The coming of the Anglo market for art in and of New Mexico created an industry, and that industry is critically important to New Mexico's current economy. Yet there are more than a few rumblings that the voraciousness of the 'market' is such that it may ultimately be creating more harm than good. It's hard to know, though.

Art in New Mexico is one of the most favored and vibrant of endeavors. That's not so in many other places, where arts are considered frivolities or worse, and those who make art are considered to be eccentric at best, worrisome troublemakers or anti-social rebels more usually. At least one can do the arts here without social condemnation. On the other hand, because the market can be so competitive, it is often difficult for an "unknown" artist to be recognized and for his or her works to be appreciated.

None of the criticisms of the New Mexico art market, however, should be seen as diminishing the contributions of many individuals -- artists, critics, collectors alike, starting with Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips barely over 100 years ago -- who came here, were stricken by the light and the people and the landscape, and who made the market come into being.

What that market has become may not be what anybody had in mind back then, but things rarely turn out just the way they are imagined.

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