Thursday, December 28, 2017

At Mabel's Place For Christmas

One of our principal destinations in Taos is "Mabel's Place," Los Gallos, the rickety old adobe house on a little ridge at the end of Morada Lane. Mabel Dodge Luhan and her husband Tony built it on 12 acres bordering Taos Pueblo land at the edge of town (well, it was then) starting in 1918.

The Big House, "Los Gallos"
The welcoming portal at Mabel's

Mabel lived there or in one of the smaller houses built on the property till her death in 1962. Tony died shortly afterwards. I understand the Big House and the various little houses the couple had built on the property were neglected until Dennis Hopper bought the complex in 1971, christening it The Mud Palace where he hosted a free-form counter-culture get together for the next three or four years.

The place was neglected again until a Santa Fe educator, George Otero, bought it in 1976 and began rehabilitating and expanding the deteriorated facility. He ran workshops at Mabel's Place for the next twenty years and continues to return annually with educational workshops.

My understanding is that the size and the scope of the rehab project turned out to be more than Dr. Otero could be responsible for, and so he sold it to the Attiyeh Foundation in 1996. The foundation continues the work Dr. Otero started. They operate the facility -- which includes the Big House and a number of ancillary buildings, some dating from Mabel and Tony's time, some built since -- as a bed and breakfast hotel, a conference and workshop center focusing on the arts and healing, and a center for the community.

The Big House was designed and built largely to house Mabel's and Tony's guests when they made the arduous trek up to Taos from wherever in the country or the world they'd started from. Nearly all were artists, writers and philosophers, some of whom were already famous, others were "up and coming."

There are numerous bedrooms -- eight or nine I think -- plus a series of reception rooms, a large dining room and a kitchen. Mabel had a room on the second floor just behind the deep porch in the photo above. The bed that was built for her in the room is still there. The windows in the bathroom next to Mabel's room were painted by D. H. Lawrence in 1924 to provide her with some privacy when she went to the loo. They say he was scandalized when learned that Mabel would do her business in front of uncurtained and unobscurred windows  in full view of everyone inclined to look.

But enough of the history of the place. There's plenty of information available online and in books for those who may be curious.

Our association with Mabel, such as it is, began through D. H. Lawrence surprisingly enough. Ms. Ché directed a Tennessee Williams one act called "I Rise in Flame Cried the Phoenix" years ago. The play is about D. H. Lawrence and his Brunhild-esque wife Frieda (a close friend of Mabel's as was Lawrence off and on) near the end of his life. The play centers on the disastrous exhibition of Lawrence's erotic paintings in London in 1929.

Those paintings were on display at the La Fonda on the Plaza in Taos the first time we visited the town more than 30 years ago and I took the opportunity to pay the small fee to have a look at them. Ms. Ché herself took a pass on the exhibit as she was indisposed. We'd been driving all day and into the night, having come from Meteor Crater in Arizona where we'd stopped that morning for a look-see.

I saw the paintings and couldn't quite figure out what all the fuss was about. They were not technically well done, and their eroticism was as much in the eye of the beholder as in the paintings themselves. Art and sex did not combine well in these supposedly scandalous works. But at least I saw them.

While I wasn't fond of his paintings, I was almost overwhelmed by his novels. Lawrence became my literary hero, in part because I thought he captured something in his characters that only I knew about from my own family and life experience. It was through these novels, but particularly "Sons and Lovers," that I began to suspect that my mother wasn't Irish like she seemed to think but was of English descent, for the Lawrence characters based on his own mother were so much like my mother they could have been sisters.   Later, I would discover that my mother was in fact mostly of English descent, but her English ancestors arrived in New England, New Jersey and New York in the 1600s. She had no recent connection with England at all. Of course, I had red hair and a beard (in those days) like he did, too. So far as I know, I wasn't tubercular then or later, but I'm currently being treated for pulmonary fibrosis, so...
[Edit to add: My mother's paternal grandmother was a Lawrence, but her paternal ancestors came to America from England some time in the 1640s and she probably had nothing to do with D. H. (David Herbert) Lawrence, although she was married to a D. H. (David Henry)]

Ms. Ché attended a poetry writing workshop at Mabel's Place several years ago, and that workshop was part of what spurred her to go ahead and get a degree in creative writing that she's working on now. She should graduate next May. Perhaps their oldest graduate, but what the hay! It's what she wanted to do.

She said that Mabel's Place and the spirits of Mabel and Tony and the many hundreds of artists and writers who have spent time there over the last nearly 100 years affected her deeply.

I felt much the same sense of the place on my own brief visits.

This year we decided to spend a Christmas overnight at Mabel's Place, as a kind of R&R and renewal.

Christmas at Mabel's is a simple affair. A large tree is set up in one of the living rooms, and smaller trees are in other rooms. Simple wreathes are put on some of the doors, and I understand that luminarias were put out on Christmas Eve but they were gone by the time we arrived on Christmas Day.

Christmas tree at Mabel's 
The Big House is stretched out like open arms. Staff is welcoming and serene as always. And so we return.

We've had no snow this winter at our home south of Santa Fe; it's been too warm, too dry, another La Niña winter. And it didn't seem like there was any snow in Taos, either, but as we explored, sure enough, there were patches of snow here and there, left over from a brief storm several days ago. 

Just enough to remind us that sometimes winter in Taos is just that (and also the title of one of Mabel's books.)

We had the Dasburg room for our stay. This is the one Ms. Ché wanted. It's in the Juniper House, a newer building -- but not that new, it's 40 years old -- with eight guest rooms and a conference room. We knew that it had a view of the sacred Taos Mountain, but we didn't know it had a little outdoor terrace (actually the roof of the room below) from which to watch the Mountain.

Juniper House at Mabel's Place, shadows of your correspondent and Ms Ché in the foreground.

The Mountain from the Dasburg "terrace"

Mabel's Place was full up on Christmas Eve. Many guests were attending the dances and Christmas Eve feast at the Pueblo. We were otherwise occupied on Christmas Eve as that is Ms. Ché's birthday. But Christmas Day was an ideal one to settle in. 

Up a steep set of stairs in Juniper House, we found the Dasburg room, named after  one of Mabel's artist guests, Andrew Dasburg, one of Ms. Ché's favorite New Mexico artists. We almost bought one of his drawings last year, but we decided to put it off for now, and it is probably for the best, as Ms. Ché was involved in that wreck in January of this year and I've been contending with the co-payment costs of very expensive RA treatment. While the price of the Dasburg drawing was certainly fair, it was a heavy expense for us at the time, and we would soon have some other expenses we didn't anticipate. cough.

I was disappointed there was no Dasburg work in the room, though there was a Georgia O'Keeffe (another of Mabel's friends). I sketched out an image of the Mountain while I was there, terming it "after Dasburg", intending to leave it in the room when we left, but I forgot. Sigh. Well. We'll just have to go back, won't we? (Smile.)

The Mountain smiled on us the whole time. It's hard to put into words the effect Taos Mountain has on us. In its own way, the Mountain has a kind of protective-watch-over energy. We can see and feel it. The Mountain is there as both the dominant element of Nature and as a stern and strong 'person' -- hard to explain.

Artists have been captivated by it for generations, and many thousands of paintings, drawings, photographs and prints have tried to capture its essence. I don't think any have quite succeeded. You have to see it for yourself. And then hope that your lines and colors will at least convey a partial sense of what the Mountain is in the flesh -- as it were.

The view is blocked by the Big House and Juniper House and the many trees bordering the property so that from most locations at Mabel's you can't see the Mountain at all, or at best you only have glimpses of it. Even in winter when the trees are bare, you only see bits of the Mountain through the branches from ground level.  From the second floor, you can see it better if you're in the right place, and from the third floor solarium, you have a 360° view of the whole property and well beyond.

We were in the Dasburg room on the second floor of Juniper House with an expansive view of the Mountain and its companions on either side. It was breath-taking though not quite as heart-pumping as the view of the Mountain from the Pueblo of Taos itself. There you are in the presence of... the ineffable.

Andrew Dasburg drew and painted the Mountain many, many times. This is an image of a more or less generic Dasburg mountain, but it's obviously based on Taos Mountain.

New Age types come to Taos and often settle there to infuse themselves with the Spirit of the Mountain. I don't know that they get what they come for, but oh well. It's not for me to judge...

I had the thought of doing some sketching with pastels while I was at Mabel's this Christmas, and so I did. It was both relaxing and inspiring to get out my pastels and have at it. Fun, actually. For years, I couldn't -- or alternatively didn't want to. Just the thought of drawing or painting made my joints ache, and it was better for me not to think about it.

But I've been getting used to the fact that I can do things now that I daren't even think of when time was. Even climbing the stairs at Mabel's is possible now though not necessarily easy. There was a time when climbing stairs was an almost impossible struggle for me. Holding a pencil was sometimes likewise challenging. So much of that struggle is over thanks to the treatments I've been given for RA. Even breathing in the rarefied though somewhat smoky winter air of Taos is... possible.

Simple things mean a lot.

I was most grateful to be able to enjoy Mabel's Place with Ms Ché without worry or fear of being unable to negotiate this or that problematic area that is obviously not handicapped accessible. The only areas that were difficult to manage were difficult for both of us.

Some areas of the Big House have low doorways on which tall people hit their heads, and there are tricky steps between one level and another which can trip you up if you aren't careful. Ah but slow and easy does it, and even if you hit your head on one of the doorways as I did, it's laugh-inducing rather than an Owie.

A pointed arch doorway at Mabel's Place -- watch your head, watch your step!

Ms Ché saw our Christmas at Mabel's  as an opportunity to renew and refresh after a very intense school year. She had put in so much time and energy that a break of this sort was essential. To take a break at Mabel's was invigorating. Even if it was only for a day -- this time.

A friend in California says we're in "Disneyland," meaning these sorts of experiences we're having aren't really "real" -- are they? Well, I guess it depends on your point of view, doesn't it?

After a wonderful breakfast in the dining room of the Big House, we packed up to leave, we really didn't want to. The daytimes and overnight we spent at Mabel's have stayed with us so strongly, though, we feel we haven't really left.

Breakfast isn't quite ready

It was a Christmas to remember!

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