Barn in Brown County, IN - I could easily do a whole series of paintings (photo)
Diann arrived on the Megabus from Chicago and I picked her up downtown Indianapolis. In Nashville, nothing else open, we had a pizza and beers at the brewery and off to the campsite. Temps drop to a comfortable 60's overnight. Early brunch at the Lodge for salad bar and an exploration of Nashville. We start at Brown County Art Gallery and view representative works from myriad Hoosier artists. It is very impressive a collection!
On recommendation from the gallery director, we head to Brown County Art Guild and are impressed again, most especially by the works from the permanent collection including Marie Goth and V.J. Cariani. Stunning. We spent little over an hour there, I imagine. More look-about and we check in at our B&B just outside of Nashville. After settling in, we discuss zipping in to Story, IN, a mere ten minutes away. But we don't want to short-change our time there so dinner at The Artists' Colony in downtown Nashville, pick up wine and champagne and chocolate and choose a video cassette (yes, I wrote "video cassette") from the B&B library collection and we settle in. The movie is "The Paper", fun, and I am in the whirlpool with champagne. From the camping, my lower back had begun to ache and this is just the medicine for it.
Tomorrow breakfast included at 9am, prepared by our proprietress, Billy Jean, and a trip to Story where I intend to paint in front of the infamous and fabled Story Inn - it is said to be haunted by the "Blue Lady." Then to join them at their lake house, friends of mine from way back - Mark Gabrek and his wife Lori, have generously invited us to stay with them Friday and Saturday evenings. I will participate in a Paint Out in Greenfield, IN, all day on Saturday, so as to arrive back at the lake near 5pm.
Mark and I grew up together in Fort Wayne and were able to visit last June when I was in Zionsville for a plein air workshop. After we shared a whole lot of stories, I began to discover one thing: all the times that I got in trouble or had a crazy time of it, Mark seemed to be there. Wrecked my Dad's van sneaking into the exit of a Ft Wayne drive-in theater after midnight in our college years - Mark was there; high school, trip to Florida, a flash flood and the car of our mutual friend, Joe Braun, goes floating away while we were driving - four guys jump out and and push it as 'twere a boat, back to terra firma; Mark was bassist and flutist for our first garage band in which I sang; we went to Notre Dame and played in the Commons our only four songs, one of which was Jethro Tull's "Freebird," I think we played it four times. "Suite Madam Blue" on tour with the high school show choir and performing in New Orleans' French Quarter in 1978 where Mark and I stumble onto the arrival of the band members of Styx, having an interview on the steps in the Quarter. I have pictures of Dennis DeYoung waving to me.
Uh huh, a recurring theme - Mark was seemingly always there; ergo, Mark Gabrek, this fairly quiet, unassuming gentle man, I believe, was the cause for any trouble in which I found myself. At least that is the story I shall continue to tell my mother. And she will believe me; unless Mark gets to her first. Bastard.
The Studio, T.C. Steele, Nashville, IN (photo)
Quote on mantlepiece at home of T.C. Steele
Okay, looks like I need to switch some gears. People have been clamoring, 'where are you, what are you doing?' I am afraid with regard to the blog, I got myself stuck in Texas some ten-plus days ago. So I will need to finish these next few days hopefully in real time and will go back and get my dailies in order at a later date. Simply, it has just been too difficult to keep chasing down WiFi at Starbuck's, various libraries, etc. And I am filling my days with experience rather than the process of writing about experience. You know?
Briefly, after leaving Seguin, Texas, I drove to the home of C.W. "Sonny" Bahs and his wife, Barbara, in Nacogdoches, TX. Always friend and mentor to me, Bahs was chair of the theater program at University of Wyoming where I did my undergrad. He retired five years ago as chair at Stephen F Austin University. They were extremely good and kind to me and Bahs gave a quick tour of their fair city before we lost daylight. Next morning, they bought a painting, proceeds of which put me on the road again.
Then I landed at the estate of my new bestest, bestest friends, Timothy & Jen. Forget'boutit, you will not find on this earth cooler and more generous people. Tim is a master painter; Jen is a voice artist/actor, does a good deal of voice-over work. We spent four incredible days together and I will need weeks to not only recover, ha, but to digest and assimilate the fun that we had. I promise to give them their due later by way of daily blog records. Um, yep and they bought paintings, and that is plural. Many hugs going their way, I miss them!
From their piece of paradise in Fayetteville, Arkansas, I headed for my final destination in Brown County, Ind, logging a total of .... wait for it.... wait for it.... 8,000 miles so far!
Ultimately I will stay for three days in Brown County State Park but not before landing in New Harmony, IN. Founded in late nineteenth century by Father George Rapp, the Harmonists were an ideologic utopian society with a combination of the Swabian work ethic ("work, work, work and save, save, save") and Benedictine rule ("work and pray!"). I camped in Harmonie State Park - wonderful - and got into town early for a look-about.
I was standing near the Granary, and a woman with water can in hand asked, May I help you? I suggested I might do a painting of the central building unless she might have other ideas. She says wait a moment and disappears, I think to deposit her water can. She returns and says, "get in" and I spy a lone golf cart (they are all over New Harmony). For the next ninety minutes I am enthralled with a golf cart tour of the town, she is dropping knowledge at every turn and seems pleased that I continue to jump out of the cart, often before it has stopped, to snap photos. I am armed with a mass of shots that could inform an entire series of paintings depicting this idyllic, pastoral, and inspiring community. I learn that my new friend, Nancy, is a volunteer gardener, is wife to a physician in town, is very proud of her community, and has lived here for more than 17 years. She grew up in the area.
Off to Brown County. The State Park is absolutely breath-taking. Then headed to the too-too-quaint-for-its-own-good Nashville, Indiana. I will live here one day; oh, yes I will, don't try to stop me :)
First thing in the morning, breakfast in Nashville (I will wait for Diann's arrival late on Wednesday evening to really explore the town on Thursday) and started painting downtown. Two hours, was just ready to sign it, lots of people coming up to say hello, and a fellow inquires price and says, I'll take it. Good, I can afford to take Diann to dinner.
The afternoon is spent touring the home and studio of T.C. Steele, Indiana's most prominent artist. He painted same time as van Gogh, to give some historical context, died in 1926, at the age of 78. Successful by the end of the nineteenth century, he was committed to the Indiana landscape, declaring to all that it rivals any other place in the world in its beauty. It is T.C. Steele that put me on this journey and it is thrilling for me to conclude the trip following in his footsteps.
Late in the day, I look for the town of Bean Blossom, five miles north, to find the red covered bridge there, built 1880, find it and decide that will be tomorrow's painting location. Now to celebrate the sale of a painting, I seek out the brewery. I will need more time to document my experience over those next four hours but it was touching and very emotional for me. Everything was coming together, full-circle, if you will.
My dad had taken us to camp and fish in Brown County. As a young lad, I had scampered up a boy scout observatory tower when I was ten - it now is fenced in and public access is prohibited. When I came around the bend and saw it in the state park and remembered my time here as a kid, well, there goes the hair on my arms. An electric memory for me.
My lovely new friend at the brewery, Stephanie, took great care of me and suggested that I stay to hear the acoustic duo on the restaurant's patio. "The Indiana Boys." Yep, there goes the hair again. Singing songs as though they had written them specifically for me suggests to me that I never left Indiana; it has remained somewhere deep inside of me. I bought the c.d. and said hello to them on my way out. The singer says to me, I know you, you been to other gigs, you live around here, you're very familiar. Nope, I live in Chicago, have never been here, just arrived last night but yes, familiar I am - 'cuz I, too, am an Indiana Boy.
Painting with Tim at the lily pad pond at the Arboretum, Arkansas (photo)
View from my cottage on the estate. I hope to convince Jen and Tim to name it "The Baumgartner Cottage" - I fear I may not have success :) (photo)
Day 36 – Wednesday
Today is more look-about and library. Late in the day I meet Kim and Sandra’s daughter, Kerri, who has kindly checked in on me, see if I needed anything. Is this whole family sweet or what? I was just leaving to go find Gruene, next town over. Kerri suggested following River Road for a wind-about, so I do and there I discover all kinds of wonderful scenes, potential painting sites, around each turn.
Problem is, I am finding, the roads have nary a turn-off, perhaps so as not to allow toobers free access to the river; at every turn there is a place to rent and access river for a fee, or little get-away camps and cabin rentals, again includes toobs and access etc. It proves very difficult to stop at any of these sites and vistas along the road. I consider painting on the narrow two-lane bridge where there are great shots of the rapid, cascading waters, but it doesn’t seem safe to me, so I opt out.
I take a lot of pictures, successfully get myself lost again through Canyon Lake, which is fine really, as it makes me discover new things, and amble down a highway that I think is going in the direction I want. This whole region apparently is considered “hill country.” Ah ha, I am back to a road name I recognize.
Kim had suggested earlier when we talked to maybe pop in for a beer at a little bar near the house in Barbarossa called “The Trough,” a public house. I do so and inside I find the proprietor and two cronies. A fascinating place, very dark, nostalgia dripping from every corner and wall space; coupla’ old pool tables. I spy two signs in particular that needs must get cited: “I’m confused what time we start around here because everyone’s already working when I get here.” And, of course, the classic “I’m not a FAST bartender, I’m not a SLOW bartender, I’m a HALF-FAST bartender!”
Couple of beers – they are $2 each, we are not in Chicago anymore – and back to the smokehouse for foodage and prep for tomorrow. I even manage to create an impromptu studio, put down a drop-cloth and knock out a painting from a photo I took of the Taos pueblo. I am pleased, it’s a good painting, simple, 9 x 12”. An opportunity this week to create a few paintings from photos by setting my laptop eye level, high on a bureau top. That is cool. That is a good thing.
Day 35 – Tuesday
Arrive in rural Seguin, Texas, a little after 3pm and pull into the driveway. I will be staying for five or so days in the coach house – or “smokehouse,” rather – of very good friends of the family in Ft Wayne, the hometown, where many friends and most of my family still reside.
The property in Seguin belongs to Kim and Sandra Cress and has been in their family since, I believe, the late 1800’s. Kim and Sandra live in Ft Wayne and spend their winters in Texas. Kim had done a great deal of work on the house and landscaping for my mom and dad, while he was living, and continues to do a lot for my mom today. But I must convey a fun story how I first met them both.
I was getting ready for my first five-week solo exhibition of over fifty artworks this past January in Ft Wayne; the exhibit opening would kick-off with me in a benefit performance, a staged reading, of the one-man theatrical piece BARRYMORE’S GHOST, playing the legendary actor, John Barrymore. The project was whimsically titled, “The Prodigal Son Returns.” The benefit was part of the season of the local community theater in Ft Wayne, First Presbyterian Theater, proceeds benefiting their programming; the theater’s lobby is a wonderful fine art gallery space, and it had taken me almost a year of planning with the staff at 1st Pres to bring off this truly unique event.
I had come home to do some painting ‘direct from nature’ one weekend in December in order to generate more inventory and execute some Ft Wayne scenes for inclusion. The local newspaper found me painting in one of the locations and next morning there was a prominent photo in the Arts section. I was painting again that day and several people stopped and asked, you the guy from Chicago? Saw you in the paper this morning, etc.
Late afternoon, I was downtown doing a painting of the charming and vintage Cindy’s Diner and a car pulls up: “saw you in the paper this morning.” We chat briefly through his car window while they wait for a green light, and he says, “You know what, we’ll pull around and park, come talk with you.”
Conversation leads to the fact that I am originally from Ft Wayne, doing the exhibit in January, and they ask, “Any chance you know or are related to Jack and Lois of the same last name?” and I reply that, indeed, I am their youngest of five.
He begins pumping my hand. “I’m Kim! I’m Kim! I’ve always loved your mother and dad! I’ve done a bunch of work for them!” I am stupefied, caught up in the excitement of the serendipity.
“Oh my gosh, you’re Kim! They have always talked about you, adored you! You built the waterfall garden for my dad bunch of years ago, and then planted the lavender tree in the backyard in 2004 after he died. You’re Kim!”
It was very wild and very special how it happened. Couldn’t wait to tell my mom, we talked about it for ninety minutes. Phone rings. I say, simply, “That’s going to be Kim!” It was. He says, “Man, that was just wild to meet you like that, we’ve been talking about it at dinner for the last ninety minutes. Say, how much for the Cindy’s Diner painting? Your folks have always had a special place in my heart, and we want to own it having met you the way we did.” And they own it.
When I began formulating a plan for the trip, an invitation materialized to stay in their smokehouse behind the main house in Texas. Well, turns out Kim had knee surgery weeks back and was unable to travel from Ft Wayne to Texas, and that I would still be welcomed to stay. A very generous offer and I was inclined to accept it.
The “smokehouse” was just that back in the day, where the meats were smoked for consumption. It had been fixed up as live-in and was charming as heck, very comfortable; one section of ceiling, say, eight by eight, the original wood from the smoking days. It was rural country, at least fifteen minutes from Seguin proper and actually nearer to New Braunfels; San Antonio is an hour south and west.
It was in New Braunfels that I would do any grocery shopping, library business for the blog, and discover all the “toobers.” Very much a river and water culture, people would rent “toobs” and float lazily down the river, hundreds of people at a time. What a fantastic way to take off the edge of the heat!
I very quickly pull the car up near the door and empty contents into the smokehouse, very organizedly. My fear is that anything left in the car this week might just bake so it all comes inside. To the library and a look-about in town; grocery and back for a big dinner. Wednesday will be seeking out painting locations and painting, painting. This will be a really perfect way to get caught up doing a whole lot of painting.
Oh, and look at the photo below, saw this and snapped a photo through the windshield as I entered Texas; in fact, saw another one similar ten miles down the road - makes sense....
Funny, I used to paint almost nudes exclusively, now I am doing plein air landscapes for awhile. Guess in Texas I shall do a bit of a combination of both.
Mount Breast "They grow 'em big in Texas" (photo)
Day 34 – Monday
Today is a travel day, from Albuquerque to Texas. Pack the car in the morning for three hours again. I am actually getting better at it – it takes only an additional fifteen minutes each time I do it now!
I am about an hour after check out and I know that the maid is waiting for me so as to get in the unit to clean. When I tell her I am still approximately 30 minutes yet, she says it is fine and aren’t you the painter traveling cross-country? Yes. She says, 'My son is an artist, a painter'. Ah. 'Take your time getting out, I am actually going to lunch and how’s about I simply take the sheets and towels, that way I can get the laundry started.' Great.
I am able to say goodbye to my lovely friends, Clarence and Alberta, and I hit the road. I decide to make the push to Seguin, Texas, the destination and the next leg of the journey for five or six days. I am over halfway through the trip.
No way to get there by night; in fact, I have so much energy that I drive past dark and decide to blow past the designated state park campground and drive well into the night. A truck stop for petrol at two am and a good place to sleep for a few hours. Sleep fairly upright in the car in a parking space at the truck stop, and awake with the sun. Morning ablutions and three breakfast burritos later, I am ready to head for Seguin.
There is something I want to report, got to thinking about it on the drive. About the time that I was commencing this trip, I had gotten a confirmation from ArtBarcs that it was launching mid-May, that I have been selected as featured artist, and that my work will be represented among 500 top living artists from five continents. Based in Chicago, ArtBarcs is essentially an online gallery whose mission is to put quality artwork in front of an exclusive list of patrons and collectors from around the world. I was thrilled to learn that I have been included in this enterprise!
Al in front of Fechin House at Taos, NM (photo)
Now on my resume: performed 20-second concert of America's "Daisy Jane" at Fechin House in Taos, kicking off a national tour of 20-second concerts (photo)
Day 33 – Sunday
Al comes by the Hilton to meet me; we drop my car at a Hobby Lobby, closed Sundays. I jump into his pickup, we grab a couple of breakfast burritos and hit the road. As we drive through Ranchos de Taos, Al pulls the truck off and we have arrived at the iconic and very famous Taos Mission, founded and built by Franciscan friars, it is called San Francisco de Asis.
It was built between 1772 and 1816. Georgia O’Keeffe did some wonderful paintings depicting the mission and Ansel Adams - no slouch himself - also had produced some famous images. I am almost as fascinated by some of the derelict buildings and crumbling adobe structures near the church and snap a bunch of photos. I am being subtle with the camera as it is my understanding that as Taos is generally considered a sacred place, oftentimes photography is prohibited. One would not, for instance, photograph a person indigenous to the area - a Native American - without their permission, sometimes offering to pay them for the opportunity. Al isn’t sure of any regulations, but encourages me to get some photos. I do so as discreetly as I may.
We arrive at the Plaza by 10am, and shops are beginning to open. In fact, we walk into the first gallery we see on the Plaza, just opening its doors and it appears to be a co-op of local artists. While very kind, one of the artists whose shift in the shop is today gives the spiel and, as it comes out that I am an artist in Chicago, she eagerly suggests, oh and we can ship purchased artwork to Chicago. She continues with a bit of the hard-sell - if you buy this or that, here is a piece very good value - and won’t let up on it. It gets tiresome after only a few moments and I no longer want to be in their gallery looking at their work. Ouch.
The Plaza is cool as heck, very charming. I grab a coffee and make inquiry as to the Fechin House and off we go. Pop in to another gallery. I tell Al not to talk so much in the gallery so as to keep moving (and he understands that, of course, I mean that I won’t talk so much). There is an artist painting from a plein air easel in the middle of the gallery and this evolves a conversation. I notice that a patron has cornered Al, who seems to be getting the life-story; Al's a big boy, he can handle himself, needs no help from me. What was supposed to be a pop-in is now twenty minutes later, ugh. We extract ourselves from our respective conversations. But it really is a beautiful place, Taos, and nice just to be walking about.
We find the Fechin House. I am banking on the fact that Al will humor me in that I really want to spend some time here. I have learned that Fechin hand-carved much of the wood trims and doors in this home that he designed and built – with the help of masons from the Taos Pueblo - for his wife and young daughter, and as Al is adept at wood-working, he might get a kick.
I am really looking forward to this – Nicolai Fechin was a Russian-American artist who came to Taos in 1927 as it was burgeoning into an arts mecca. Already established by 1915 was the Taos Society of Artists, originally founded by six master painters, which continued to grow substantially, both in membership and in reputation. Fechin was a pioneer and champion in plein air as a practice and so many painters whom I have met in the past two or so years share a tremendous admiration for him and his work; until recently, I knew very little about him.
He came to Taos after a bout of tuberculosis, but a nasty divorce caused him to discontinue working on this sumptuous adobe home, which now serves as the Taos Art Museum. He took his daughter, Eya, away and apparently the wife stayed in the home for a time. Fechin died in 1955 and Eya later returned to Taos and created, in 1981, the Fechin Institute. She allowed that the magnificent house be open to the public as a museum and educational tool where people could view Fechin’s artwork, as well as representative pieces by other Taos artists. Too, Eya, as a young girl, was Fechin’s primary model and many of the artworks are of her, haunting and beautiful.
Great story: remember that I had met the Shakespeare scholar, Charmazel, in Albuquerque, a friend of Clarence and Alberta’s? Well, she told a story that in the mid-80’s she visited the Fechin House and as she made her way through the house, she was followed by a little old lady, which she thought a bit odd. After a time, the old woman finally asked if she would like to see the rest of the house, typically off-limits to the public. As it turns out, this was indeed Fechin’s daughter, Eya, and a personal tour yielded stories and all kinds of fascinating tidbits. That is so cool! Eya died in 2002. Of the adobe home she was known to have said, “A Russian house out of New Mexico mud.”
So, as Al and I are making our way, I spy a grand piano that someone was just playing as we walked in. I get an impish grin and tell Al that I will play the only twenty seconds of a song that I know how to play. I have been playing that same twenty seconds for more than thirty years. It is a Vegas lounge-singer version of the 70’s America tune, “Daisy Jane.” Cracked him up. I'll be here all week, try the veal.
I am thrilled to be here, to be experiencing this formidable artwork by these Taos masters. And this home-turned-museum, is unbelievable! We were told that the upstairs, usually open, is closed this week for a new installation which disappoints. The studio where Fechin worked, on the grounds but separate from the house, also was closed as they are preparing for a workshop. Well, that’s a bummer. However, I won’t be stopped from at least peeking into some windows. Well, the director of the education program has the door open and invites us in to see the studio and it is gorgeous! Lots of light pouring in; Fechin insisted on windows, windows, windows everywhere so as to capitalize on these remarkable natural surroundings, including views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
The other thing to know is that an impressive array of artists and writers were in Taos at the time Fechin was here working: Georgia O’Keeffe, Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, D.H. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda von Richthofen. So it must have been a heady time, indeed.
Al and I get back in the truck and head for the Taos Pueblo, north of the Plaza. There is an admission fee and I opt for the camera fee of an additional $8 as now it is very clear to me the regulations. After purchasing, you must display a tag on your camera that allows you to photograph; fair enough.
Both Al and I are drawn immediately to the nearby pueblo cemetery. It is beautiful and a bit chilling. So many crosses, so much history. We make our way, I am still careful and respectful not to photograph the people. The most prominent residential area, I will learn later, was built for defense purposes, between 1000-1450 a.d. Each primary family would have their own residence e.g. if a son or daughter marry, they then would move to their own adobe home. Al is dropping knowledge to me about the construction of adobe, which I find endlessly interesting. A river runs through the middle of the pueblo; it is my understanding that there is no running water, or electric in the traditional adobes. The river provides water for drinking and cooking. Each home is typically comprised of two rooms, one for sleeping and one for preparing food and cooking. Most have a rounded adobe mound “horno” in front of the homes, which is an oven or “furnace.”
We pop in to one of the many shops and have a wonderful conversation with the shop owner, who appears to be in her thirties. She grew up here in the pueblo. She is a photographer, and very good at that, and explains that her primary aim is to represent her pueblo and its inhabitants traditionally and with respect. She will not, however, photograph traditional customs/costumes, rituals and celebrations – as least not for public consumption nor viewing, out of respect for her people.
As Al had posited to me week or so ago via an email, Taos has become for me a spiritual experience. I am very humbled, I guess that is the word for it. It is a very peaceful moment, and I appreciate having my buddy, Alfonso, there with me sharing the moment.
As we head back to Santa Fe, Al pulls off the highway several times so as to point out the Rio Grande in all of its splendor. Also, we chat at length about the roadside graves or memorials – in Spanish, they are called “descansos” - the crosses or markers indicating someone has died here, usually in a fatal car accident. I saw them all along the way, from California, Arizona, but most prominently in New Mexico. Al makes a great point, that because they aren’t really a grave or “resting place” but rather, an indication of a tragic accident and death, he prefers to call them “recuerdos” or remembrances.
We get back, bid farewell to each other and I head back to Albuquerque and dinner, as planned, with the Geise's.
Later, I send Al an email thanking him for such a great time. He does something which surprises me, he replies that he wants to thank me – he felt he was able to see what was familiar to him differently, as he wrote, “to see structures and things that I see everyday in a new light. I saw colors and the way light plays off of things, changing them subtly.” Guess it was a painter's influence. It was very moving and appreciated.
Nicolai Fechin's painting of daughter, Eya
Day 32 – Saturday
NOTE: Thanks to all who have been checking in regularly to the blog and might even have gotten anxious in that I am not up to current. Did he go over a cliff in Taos? No. It has been difficult to get internet in some locations, so I am doing some back-tracking, but my daily notes, in my inimitable “chicken scratch,” have helped immensely. Enjoy the journey with me, a bit Henry Miller, a bit Karourac, hopefully not too much Joseph Conrad and “The Heart of Darkness.” Peace
Here we go: Santa Fe about an hour drive, at most. I was in SF twenty-five years ago – don’t remember enough of it - after three years of intensive conservatory training as an actor in Denver, age 25. With another buddy of mine and fellow actor, Jeff Wittman, we were delivering our third amigo, Alfonso Gallegos, back to home base and we flew to our respective destinations east – Jeff (my other buddy) to Virginia, I flew to Chicago - from Albuquerque after couple of days’ exploration of Al’s glorious city, Santa Fe.
Now that I think about it, it’s how and when I first was dubbed “JB.” First day acting class with Sir Jack Fletcher in ’85, going around the room to learn our mates’ names, Jeff Wittman, Jeff Baumgartner. Yeah, Wittman, you will be “Jeff,” and Baumgartner – whatever – you will be “JB.” I was christened. It stuck, I struggled with it for awhile, but it stuck. Which is what it should do, when the moment is right and when given you by friends.
I remember being in the back seat of Alfonso’s pick up truck, 1987, as we loft over a particular vista, Al, driving, turns his head and says something like, “Jefe, you ready?” I am sure to have replied, ready for anything. And then we see Santa Fe; we descend. The hair on my arms stood at attention for the next two days.
Note: “Jefe” in Spanish glosses to “the Boss” - yeah, that’s not gonna happen, but I do like the ring of it…. Surely I can use this in a bar or a café for a cup of coffee in the near future… um, good luck with that; prob’ly end up doing dishes….
Santa Fe has always remained for me one of the three most magical places that ever I have experienced; the other two being Cape Cod , where I spend a summer stock theater season, and Greece where I spend five weeks with a production of LYSISTRATA and a whirlwind tour of the ancient amphitheaters. Glorious.
Fast-forward to present, it’s wild to me that Al calls on cell just as I arrive in Santa Fe on Saturday, as I pull onto Cerillos, the main thoroughfare. I hang up with him and arrive Water Street at the Plaza, which is crazy, because I am already lost, but loving finding my way, know what I mean? I had no plan. And no idea if I really have a destination; seems like a good idea to maybe paint here, it’s all I know at this time, ha. Remember, no expectations, no responsibilities. Wow, I am Henry Miller. Okay.
Opening line of Miller’s Tropic of Cancer: “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”
I take a right turn, a left, maybe it’s a right, oh, there’s the cathedral, and, oh, there’s a parking space. A meter, hmm, in Chicago, we simply would jam that with a… wait, where am I? Be respectful. So I score rock-star parking in front of the Cathedral Basilica and pay the meter (Eddie Izzard moment here, if you’ve been paying attention).
I put the standard note on the dash “JB ArtWorks: don’t even THINK about ticketing me - I am a PAINTER, YOU BASTARDS! (breathe) – ‘cuz I just scored Rock-Star Parking, who do you THINK you are”... it usually works in Chicago (Eddie Izzard has a moment).
A gentle visit to the tourist & visitor center where I hope to say hello to a volunteer person there, Ingrid, whom my friends, Clarence & Alberta, have known for 47 years when they met her in Vienna. Mr Izzard, wanna weigh in on this one? ha. Regrettably, she is not working the booth today, shame that.
Did I mention how CRAZY this all gets, interconnectedly?! Patsy Kline is blaring in my head just now. I haul out the gear, I paint. Two hours. I am painting the Basilica (you Google the history, it is pretty darned cool), lot of people coming up to me, cool, telling me about the cathedral – did YOU know they ran out of money, never finished it?, asking me various questions, including of course where you from? Chicago does have a certain sexiness to some folks, have you seen me do this dance, thank-you-very-much ha
*That is a pithy shout-out to my friend, Bohdan, in Chicago who cannot dance a proper lick and has successfully done so since his Andy Warhol days at Studio 54 in NYC and continues to single-handedly amaze as well as clear the best dance floors in Chicago with his avante garde. No disrespect, my friend, I do share somewhat the style of your dance-like moves … but I do digress…
Jeffrey, enough with the Side Bars, already -
Who are these people? Clarence & Alberta, Alfonso, Bohdan, Bob (recurring theme), who’s this Diann, Cathy, Guenther, Tim Tyler & Jen (ah, haven’t heard about them yet, have you! You must wait till Arkansas), your mother/your brother, your sister, these are characters in a Tennessee Williams’ play, right? This how you define yourself, Jeffrey? Ah, interesting proposition.
Couple of guys approach me, ask, Cuban cigars? My interest is piqued. My buddy, Alfonso, loves cigars, wait, he’ll be along in a moment. Shit, these are Cohibas – story just took a twist. Al comes 'round, likes the cigars, buys three, I will buy one from him… you know, when in Rome. The one guy speaks no English, he is Cuban, and holding a box of cigars; the other guy, African-American, serving as interpreter, speaks Spanish quite well. They inquire about the closest smoke shop, presumably to sell the balance of the goodies in the box , Al gives directions, alternating Spanish and English.
I have finished with the cathedral and Al and I head to San Miguel Mission where I will complete the initial sketch that I started in Show Low in front of the Olive Store. I tell Al to time me, I will finish in 45 minutes. Yep, good luck, that’s if you do not TALK!
Three and a half hours later - kidding – I am finished. A good little painting, too. We walk around the corner to a Mexican food place and have dinner and couple of beers. I have become fascinated with the immediate area. Directly next to the mission church (c 1610), which is the oldest church structure in the USA, is the oldest house in the US, dating to c 1646. That is pretty cool. It is believed to be pre-Spanish, the last remnant dwelling surviving from the Pueblo of Analco. Remember, to provide context, both Shakespeare and Cervantes died in the year 1616.
After dinner, Al shows me around a bit, including the somewhat newly-developed park and arts district, that apparently used to be a rather depressed and seedy area of shuttered warehouses. We walk around the park, Al having fired up our Cohibas for us, and we sit and chat about old times and new on a park bench, well after the sun goes down. It must be some two-plus hours and most enjoyable.
As we are going together to Taos in the morning, Al has surprised me by graciously getting a room for me at the Hilton, which proves luxurious, indeed! That way I do not have to drive to Albuquerque tonight and back again in the morning. A less expensive alternative could easily have been my faithful EconoLodge. We agree to meet early and I am thrilled by the prospect of discovering Taos with one of this enchanting state’s native sons.
Oldest house in the USA, the De Vargas Street House in Santa Fe, NM, dating to 1646 (photo by Dana B Chase, c 1885)
Soda Dam in Jemez Springs, NM (photo)
I could do a trip simply documenting old cars, tractors, and machinery. This is in the pueblo near Jemez Springs, NM (photo)
Day 31 – Friday
Leave at 8:30am with Clarence for Jemez Springs (pronounced Hey-mess) and the Gilman Tunnels. I am going in blind, no expectations, no idea what we are going to see. As I had gone to the grocery last night and shopped “European” – enough for one or two meals – I made some eggs for b'fast with the balance of the red/green/yellow peppers and was ready to attack the day. As we neared the pueblo, the roads began to wind around and climb. Clarence got to experience first-hand the awesome power of my Kia’s four-cylinder mechanism – a lean, mean fighting machine!
The pueblos at Jemez, as he explained, were often poignant and typical examples of abject poverty, pretty nastily down-trodden, junk and old cars everywhere, though he seemed surprised by how much new development had occurred since last he had been there, and with a great deal more modernity to the homes and structures, almost a suburb of the more rickety, original pueblo. At Gilman Tunnels, which are cut into the very heart of these enormous mountains, originally for the trains, I got out and took photos; there was an immense rock in front of one of the tunnels, and I felt it would make a good photo opp so up I went, scrambling quickly leaving Clarence with the digital camera. I think he was freaking out a bit and made several mock gestures holding the heart side of his chest and heaving back and forth, though smiling all the while.
What sucks to me is the reminder that even this pristine and untouched natural wonder is not safe from the inane side of humanity, as clearly some local gangs also found great enjoyment here - there was ample graffiti in evidence, much of it fairly accomplished, rivaling anything I have seen in Chicago; too, beer cans were strewn about everywhere. I picked up a few, put them in a baggy to dispose of later. "Gonzalez" was painted in a deep blue spray paint, very large script, across a massive rock. That’s when I become rather unpleasant to myself when I imagine what I would like to do to the morons that did this, would they were here with me just now.
I went home and looked up the name "Gonzalez" in the New Mexico white pages, then started calling one number at a time... No, I did not.
From the Tunnels to Soda Dam at Jemez Creek. The water coming through the dam was ripping along at high volume and capacity, as impressive as it was surprising as there has been very little precipitation recently. The wildfires have been raging in the region, as well as in Arizona and Texas, one day seemingly under control the next day, not, due to gusty winds and extremely dry conditions. And due to the actions of people like this "Gonzalez" lad.
This is really beautiful country, though. Clarence and I pop in to a small restaurant in Jemez Springs for a burger, his treat, which was very kind of him, but he was very insistent. We get back to the facility and he says, hey, how about a whirlpool and a swim? I was planning a short nap, perhaps after – I tell him, sounds great. Then he informs me that Alberta earlier had run into their neighbor, a Shakespeare scholar and lecturer, and invited her to meet me at their place in a half an hour. Maybe a nap after this casual meeting, that works for me.
Charmazel (pretty name) is East Indian, very tall, and extremely bright and personable. She and I exchange Shakespeare stories – Clarence and Alberta say later, it was like you guys were talking in a foreign language. She tells us that she saw the Stratford, Ontario, production of THE TEMPEST with Christopher Plummer and that a film version of the stage production will air in a select few cinemas around the country on Thursday June 14 and where will I be then? Sounds like I would be in Texas, and - as it will only be showing in bigger cities -options could include both San Antonio and Austin.
Really a delightful sit-down, she excuses herself and I am thinking, cool, naptime. Clarence and Alberta: Jeff, we were thinking of a pizza tonight if you might join us, like maybe we order it right now? Yes, of course, and then I will get my nap. But, of course, after I fetch a pizza for us, my treat this time, we go again till 10pm and my nap happens about 11pm and for about six or so hours, know what I mean? Cannot wait to finish this vacation so that I might get some needed rest, ha! But I have some terrific new friends.
Clarence, Alberta and Himself in Albuquerque, NM
Day 30 – Thursday
Meet them in the lobby so as to go to breakfast. I note that they seem a bit more quiet than last evening; Alberta perhaps a tad cool. I will learn in just a few moments that, while absolutely fine, Clarence had a fall last night, trying to put on pajama bottoms. His foot got tangled, down he went. He says, just a little bruised. I reply, "your ego or your body?" Okay, one too many martinis (Alberta did not partake). Tonight we are on best-behavior; we will mind our p's and q's, as they say in old England.
After b'fast, I venture out for a look-see at Albuquerque, get my bearings. I have asked if I could make them dinner tonight and then do so: a simple penne pasta with red sauce, spinaci and red/yellow/green peppers. I cook it in my place so that they don't have to live with the Italian seasoning aromas all evening, bring it up to their place where we eat.
Okay, we'll have just one martini, maybe a second. I do up the dishes for which I will not hear the end of it. I am certain that Alberta appreciates the gesture. Too, I am actually surprised how easily Clarence lets go of the f-bomb. I can't so easily counter. It's like when I was teaching at university, I certainly was capable of swearing in front of students in class or lectures, but the f-bombs were very carefully and deliberately used and only to good effect, usually to make a point about acting and the craft, thereof. We had previously agreed to make it an early evening, and of course, went later than last night.
Clarence has decided that I am his "cousin-brother," as the Navajo call it: dear friends, almost soul-mates. He later will begin saying that we are "metaphysical twins, separated at birth, brought back together some 37 years later." Trying to do the math, how old would that make me? I decide to excuse myself and go back to my apartment because I now am quite cognizant that we would continue to chat and discuss all night long.
The plan for tomorrow is that Clarence wants to take me to Gilman Tunnels up in the mountains, some ninety minutes away. We will try to get back by mid-to-late afternoon so that I still can paint. There will be some effort to prepare the Kia for a passenger, I will do that in the morning.
Clarence thought it would be funny to stage me trying to steal Christ's staff in the chapel. Can't a person get struck down by lightning for that? Thanks a lot, Clarence! (photo)
Day 29 – Wednesday
Up early, the camp host, Tom, meets me at the tent to confirm that I paid my fee (forgot to post receipt on the windshield for the ranger to see, wind kept blowing it off the dash). A brief chat, asks me from where have I just arrived. I reply, Gallup, and, of course, he says, "rough town, Gallup." He tells me to be sure to see the canyons just a spit down the road, a wonderful overlook right here in the camp. I go down to the lake where I painted last night and photograph the scene for posterity and archival purposes. Then to the canyon and it is spectacular! And with that send-off, I head to Albuquerque.
Arrive 1pm, hang out in Starbucks to get on-line. I am to get to new lodgings at 2pm. I will meet my hosts, Clarence and Alberta Giese, in their eighties, as they have arranged that I can pay for, at an incredibly cheap rate, a guest apartment for five days in the retirement center where they reside. I will use the apartment as headquarters so as to conduct day trips to Santa Fe and Taos.
These fascinating and colorful people are friends of my family. My mother and her childhood friend, Sally, with whom she has traveled extensively the last few years, dropped in on them unannounced a couple of years ago. Mom thought it hilarious that Clarence, at that time, had a still and made his own grappa, Italian-style. Sally and Alberta are sisters-in-law.
Now I need to preface this meeting by stating that Clarence, 87, is an accomplished abstract painter and keeps an impressive oeuvre of his work in their home. They lived in Vienna for many years, where he taught art and painted extensively. Moving back to the States, they lived in Vermont for a time and decided a change of life would take them to Albuquerque where they would work with the Navajo Indians there (specifically, in Thoreau), building community, teaching, and helping the Navajo with various issues being faced. In Vermont, they worked one-on-one with people with AIDS, and helped develop and facilitate an effective hospice program. These are, simply, good people showing true human kindness for their fellow man.
My interest was piqued in wanting to know more about them year or so ago and so I commenced a written correspondence with Clarence (remember letter-writing?! - he has no access to nor interest in email or computers). He has insightful advice and commentary on my artwork. As I begin to plan this journey, it will be very important to spend some time in both Albuquerque, as well as Santa Fe, with my good buddy, Alfonso.
So, I check in at the desk, get keys, and head to their apartment. Clarence has walked down the hall to greet me. He gives me a big hug and I say something like, “Seems our meeting each other was destined and inevitable.” I am introduced to Alberta who is lovely and very sharp; she listens very intently and seems to catch all subtleties. Clarence is more like me and attacks the world like buckshot. His hearing is going and he often misses what is said the first time around. They both have a wicked sense of humor. He jabs and I give it back to him in a joyful repartee. He walks down to my car with me, sees how packed in it is and inquires exactly how many months am I staying in New Mexico?
He shows me where to park, I check out the apartment and it is … wow! There is a huge bedroom, king-size bed, big bathroom, huge living room with dining table and a fully equipped kitchen. I am going to get spoiled pretty quickly. I remind myself that last night I slept in my tent on a plot of large gravel. My neck is still a bit stiff from sleeping wrong. No problem. Apparently there is a Jacuzzi and pool downstairs where I can work out any sore neck muscles. Kinda sucks I don’t have those things in my apartment, might want to make a complaint to the facility’s complaint department, why don’t I have a Jacuzzi?
They invite me to join them for dinner. Clarence and I walk next door to the grocery and get a rotisserie chicken; Alberta has cole slaw for us as a side. The still has been given away before they moved into this apartment a year or so ago; therefore, no grappa. But gin martinis are the drink of choice and here we go.
The Emile Zola quote above I have gleaned from a wall on their patio, which serves as a painting studio for Clarence. I felt it apropos.
A whole lotta conversation well into the night. I get suggestions from them as where and what to explore in their fair city insofar as painting ideas and an invitation to breakfast. I decide to throw a party in my new digs, hundreds of people show up and…. just kidding. To bed.