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Letter from Taos

Picture Perfect?

Taos has long attracted artists and art lovers, from Georgia O'Keeffe to Agnes Martin. But now some Taos gallery owners worry that skiers and anglers are replacing their customers.

By David A. Fryxell
Photos by Lisa D. Fryxell

 

Taos is the place that many people in other New Mexico art hotbeds — like Silver City, for one — don't want their town to turn into. Although folks around the state talk grumpily of not wanting to become "another Santa Fe," that's not a realistic fear for places with one-sixth the population of Santa Fe and with the state's capital already spoken for. Bustling Taos, though, boasts only about half the population of Silver City — a figure that's hard to believe when you're actually there, or when you ponder Taos' far-and-wide renown.

The San Francisco de Assîs Church made famous
by Georgia O'Keeffe.

No, it's Taos that, with a few breaks (for good or ill, depending on your point of view), places like Silver City or Ruidoso could become. When visitors from Silver City see the bumper-to-bumper traffic snaking from Taos' historic plaza out to the highway, they shudder. Admittedly, of course, struggling gallery owners from this side of I-40 might take a different, more envious view of booming Taos.

These days, however, it seems that not even Taos wants to be Taos.

Just ask artist and gallery owner Ouray Meyers, whose career bridges Taos' present with its storied artistic past. His father, Ralph Meyers, was an Indian trader, artist and writer who helped transplanted socialite and arts impresario Mabel Dodge Luhan buy her Taos house. A photo of Ralph Meyers and Luhan occupies a place of honor in Ouray Meyers' spacious, airy Spirit Runner Gallery (303 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, 758-1132, www.ouraymeyers.com). But that's not all: "My dad lies buried next to Mabel Dodge Luhan," Meyers says. "When they moved her body, they had to ask my mom's permission to move my dad, too."

So Ouray Meyers has watched close up Taos' rise to one of America's most prominent art towns. Today, while estimates vary, as many as 500 artists make their home in the Taos area (as do celebrities such as movie star Julia Roberts). "That's more artists per capita than anyplace in the world," says Meyers.

But lately, Meyers worries that Taos is attracting too many outdoor lovers and not enough art lovers. Four years ago, he says, the area boasted 96 galleries — a number that's now dropped to about 50. The Taos Gallery Association (www.taosgalleryassoc.com) numbers just 38 dues-paying members.

What's happened? Other art destinations such as Scottsdale, Ariz., and even Silver City have popped up to compete, while Taos has promoted its outdoors — from fly fishing to skiing — as much as its art. Significantly, Meyers points out, the president of the Destination Taos tourism-promotion organization is the owner of a river-rafting company, not an art gallery.

"There is a certain, finite group of people interested in culture and art," says Meyers. "If Scottsdale or Silver City advertises to them, they'll go there instead."

And all tourists aren't created equal, he adds. "People who come here for art do everything, stay in hotels and eat in fine restaurants," Meyers explains. "People who come for rafting go camping and eat at Wendy's."

 

Not that Taos isn't still a mecca for art lovers, despite the downward trend that worries Meyers. Though Taos is no Santa Fe — which ranks as the second-largest art market in the country, behind only New York City — touring its galleries can easily consume an entire weekend, with little time left for river rafting.

Envious gallery owners from elsewhere in New Mexico, however, can perhaps take comfort in the experience of Leroy Garcia, who owns Blue Rain Gallery just off the Taos Plaza (117 South Plaza, 751-0066, www.blueraingallery.com). Garcia opened a second Blue Rain Gallery in Santa Fe four years ago, and says, "Santa Fe attracts a higher dollar-spending crowd, but that's not to say we can't sell the same pieces in Taos. Here, we get the T-shirt-buying tourists and the sophisticated art people, all in the same day. We do 90 percent educating, 10 percent selling."

Garcia's plaza-adjoining gallery is unusual in its location; most of the shops facing Taos Plaza sell souvenirs or jewelry, not paintings and sculpture. Instead, most Taos galleries cluster along Paseo del Pueblo Norte, the main drag running north of the historic plaza towards Taos Pueblo, or east of the plaza along Kit Carson Road (which also features the adobe home of the famous scout and soldier).

A visitor from Silver City can't help but be impressed by the sheer size and exhibition space of many of the galleries here. Meyers' Spirit Runner Gallery, which he opened in 1989, sprawls over 4,500 square feet — plenty of room for his large, light-filled landscapes as well as for paintings by a handful of other artists.

Growing up surrounded by artists, it was only natural that Ouray Meyers would decide to become one, too. Largely self-taught, he calls his Southwest impressionist style "illuminist" because of the importance of light to his work. "I paint with the theory that each piece has its own light from within," he says. "Lighting is the thing that has really inspired the artistry in Taos throughout the years."

He's quick to add, however, "Taos is much deeper, full and richer than what I or anyone else can see with the naked eye."

 

If not for a broken wagon wheel, Taos today might be just another northern New Mexico pueblo, home to an Indian casino and not much else. As the story goes, in 1898 painters Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips were en route from New York to Mexico for a sketching trip through the American West. But as their overloaded wagon crossed from Colorado into New Mexico in a thunderstorm, it slid into a muddy rut and broke a rear wheel. After "a cold can of beans and a pickle," as Blumenschein later wrote, he took on the chore of riding 20 miles to the nearest town — Taos — to get the wheel fixed. It would be "the most impressive journey of my life," he wrote.

"No artist had ever recorded the New Mexico I was now seeing," Blumenschein later recalled. "No writer had ever written down the smell of this air or the feel of that morning's sky. I was receiving under rather painful circumstances the first great unforgettable inspiration of my life. My destiny was being decided as I squirmed and cursed while urging the bronco through those many miles of sagebrush."

It would be 17 years before that destiny was fulfilled, as Blumenschein and Phillips returned to form the Taos Society of Artists. They would be joined by Joseph H. Sharp, E. Irving Couse, W.H. Dunton, Oscar Berninghaus, Kenneth M. Adams, Victor Higgins, E. Martin Hennings, Catharine C. Critchen and Walter Ufer. And Taos would begin to become a town synonymous with art.

Blumenschein's home today, on narrow, angling Ledoux Street, two blocks from the plaza, serves as a museum exhibiting the works of the society (758-0505).

It's the museums, added to Taos' galleries, that elevate this small town to international artistic prominence. You can hardly turn around in Taos without bumping into another museum. Just down the street from the Blumenschein Museum, for instance, stands the Harwood Museum of Art (238 Ledoux St., 758-9826, harwoodmuseum.org), the state's second-oldest art museum. The Harwood features works by the Taos Society of Artists and their successors, the "Taos Moderns," as well as by John Marin, Marsden Hartley and Agnes Martin, the renowned abstract artist who made Taos her home until her death in 2004.

Two years after the establishment of the Taos Society of Artists, in 1917, New York socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan similarly discovered the town's high-desert beauty. In her memoir, Edge of Taos Desert, she describes "standing breathless in awe" at the first sight of Taos' dramatic setting among the mountains and the rugged canyon of the Rio Grande. Fascinated in particular by the local Indian pueblo, Luhan would move to Taos and attract her artistic and literary friends there, including author D.H. Lawrence and, in 1929, painter Georgia O'Keeffe.

O'Keeffe would ultimately make her New Mexico headquarters some 60 miles to the southwest, at Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu. But her paintings of the San Francisco de Assøs Church in Ranchos de Taos immortalized what O'Keeffe called "one of the most beautiful buildings left in the United States by the early Spaniards."

Luhan also hosted Russian emigré artist Nicolai Fechin, who moved to Taos in 1927. One of the most important portrait painters of the 20th century, Fechin built a home in Taos that in 2003 became yet another museum — the Taos Art Museum (227 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, 758-2690, www.taosartmuseum.org). In addition to a wealth of works by Fechin, the museum's collection includes more than 300 pieces by more than 50 Taos artists. Museum officials are currently planning an ambitious expansion, adding a new building adjacent to the original Fechin House. The $5 million project will enable more of the collection to be exhibited to the public, while also providing growing room for museum programs such as art classes, seasonal contemporary art exhibits and hands-on activities for children.

Even into the 1940s, Taos continued to charm the famous and sophisticated. Heiress and art patron Millicent Rogers came in 1947 and was instantly captivated: "Suddenly passing Taos Mountain I felt that I was part of the Earth, so that I felt the Sun on my Surface and the rain," she later wrote to her son. "I felt the Stars and the growth of the Moon; under me, rivers ran." Rogers, too, left a museum legacy: Four miles north of Taos, the Millicent Rogers Museum (1504 Millicent Rogers Road, 758-2462, www.millicentrogers.org) houses 15 galleries featuring traditional and contemporary Native American and Hispanic works.

 

Although its museums and large galleries set Taos apart from other small art towns, its prevalence of artist-gallery owners would seem familiar to a visitor from, say, Silver City. Unlike Santa Fe, where rents are sky-high and most galleries are owned by business people who simply have an eye for art, many Taos gallery owners wear both hats of artist and gallery operator. Besides Meyers and his Spirit Runner Gallery, other examples include expressionist and colorist Inger Jirby (207 Ledoux St., 758-7333, jirby.com), potter and painter Stephen Kilborn (136a Paseo del Pueblo Norte, 758-5760, www.stephenkilborn.com), colorist-expressionist Jerry Mann (136 Bent St., 737-9600, www.artofmann.com) and J.D. Challenger (201 Paseo del Pueblo Sur, 751-4677, www.jdchallenger.com), known for his stylized depictions of Native Americans. Gallery owner-artist John Farnsworth paints near-photorealistic, close-up images of horses (133 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, 758-0776, www.johnfarnsworth.com). In the little village of Arroyo Seco, a few miles north of Taos, serigraph artist Doug West painstakingly creates limited-edition prints of the New Mexico landscape that he sells from his eponymous gallery (480 State Hwy. 150, 776-0505, www.dougwestart.com).

West, who relocated to the Taos area from Socorro, says he was attracted by the opportunity to be part of a community of artists. The University of New Mexico branch in Taos, he adds, has an excellent printmaking program.

Another Taos artist-gallery owner, Ed Morgan, combines blind embossing with watercolor, gold leaf and other colorings, selling to collectors including songwriter Paul Simon. He's operated Morgan Gallery since 1972, representing a variety of artists besides his own work, all but one of them local.

"The best thing I ever did was open my own gallery," he says. "Taos still has a great flavor to it you won't find in other places. It's like what Santa Fe was 25 years ago."

Not all Taos galleries are owned by artists, of course. Among the large, commercial galleries representing a wide range of artists are Act I, featuring loosely rendered oil landscapes by Dinah K. Workman as well as tightly realistic Southwestern scenes in oil by Joyce Hamil and Stephen C. Datz (218 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, 877-228-1278, www.actonegallery.com). Also on Paseo del Pueblo Norte, the roomy Walden Fine Art, home mostly to regional artists, has space for traditional Southwest scenes by Stephen Spellman and Marie Massey, Western oils of longhorns and mountains by Charles Ewing and vivid serigraphs by Robert Daughters (106 A Paseo del Pueblo Norte, 758-4575, www.waldenfineart.com).

On Kit Carson Road, the long-established Total Arts Gallery represents landscape oil painters such as John D. Phillips and Teruko Wilde as well as close-ups of Southwestern subjects rendered in bold acrylics by J.K. Lamkin (122-A Kit Carson Road, 758-4667, www.totalartsgallery.com). Mission Gallery ranges from the abstracts of Mark Adair to the soft watercolor landscapes of Mary Hoeksema to the stylized acrylics of Stephen Quiller (138 Kit Carson Road, 758-2861). And Grimshaw Fine Art features fun watercolor/gouache animals by Karen Ahlgren, haunting acrylics of Indians with pueblo log ladders by Carla Romero, and even hand-painted touring bicycles by Gregg Rochester (132 Kit Carson Road, 758-4949, www.grimshawfineart.com).

Those drawn to Taos by those outdoor attractions may also find something to like at Tailwater Gallery and Flyshop (204-B Paseo del Pueblo Norte, 758-5653, www.tailwatergallery.com). Besides the gear and handmade flies, buyers can admire the fish paintings by Stephanie Woolley.

 

It's not only the shift to outdoor tourism that's changing Taos' art scene. As gallery owner Ed Morgan says with a cranky smile, "Times are changing and I don't like change at all."

Fads come and go, for one thing. "For a while, New Mexico was really in fashion," Morgan adds. "There was Urban Cowboy and everywhere had boot stores, turquoise and coyotes. That faded out, but it may come back like all things do."

Blue Rain Gallery owner Leroy Garcia says that its focus has changed, too, in his 15 years in the art business. Although Blue Rain still emphasizes Native American artists, the range of works has become more eclectic. Taos art buyers have likewise evolved, Garcia says, broadening their interests beyond native crafts and traditional Western art.

Besides the competition from upstart art towns like Scottsdale and Silver City, Taos has also felt the proliferation of art festivals. Says Morgan, "In the old days, Taos was one of the few places people could come to see art. Now there are arts festivals from here to the Canadian border. It's really spread out, and art sales depend on traffic."

But the biggest change for Taos galleries has been the rise of the Internet, which makes up an increasing share of sales. "It's immediate," Morgan says. "In the old days, the only time clients could see an artist's work without coming here was a gallery ad in a magazine." With increasing online sales and declining walk-in trade, Morgan now employs only two people instead of five.

"We do an amazing volume on the Internet," agrees Denise Phetteplace, who works at Blue Rain Gallery. "It's amazing how much people are willing to spend on art they've never seen in person."

On the other hand, the younger generation that's come of age with the Internet seems simply less interested in art than their predecessors. That worries Morgan, who says, "We used to have a lot of young people buying art. They might start in their late 30s and 40s or even younger. We used to have kids going to the university who'd buy a painting, put it on layaway and pay it off over time. Or there would be young couples for whom we'd hold a painting all summer.

"Now we don't have people in their 30s even coming in to look," he says. "Maybe they're spending all their money on iPods and computers instead."

Still, the longtime Taos artist is philosophical. "Galleries come and go," Morgan says.

And Taos will always have the light that has captivated generations of artists, whether they arrive by car or on horseback carrying a broken wagon wheel.

 

For more information: Taos Chamber of Commerce Conference & Visitors Bureau, 1139 Paseo Del Pueblo Sur, Taos, NM 87571, (505) 758-3873, www.taoschamber.com. Destination Taos, www.taosguide.com.

David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.

 

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