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.