Taos, NM once upon a time

I spent a year studying painting at the Art Department of the University of New Mexico. The wild west was still tailing off toward pickup trucks and modernization, but being from St. Louis, I was thunderstruck by learning to ride a horse and charging up the side of a butte or riding through the sand-floored forests along the Rio Grande. It didn't take long for me to realize that New Mexicos artists were mostly in a town called Taos, not down in Albuquerque trying to teach a bunch of teenagers how to wield a brush. So one day I took a bus and headed to Taos.

WOW, the Wild West. Except for the highway that ran through it there wasn't a paved street in town. There was a hotel on the plaza, the La Fonda, that felt like it was there since the Spaniards arrived. It was beautiful and exotic with tomato colored floor tiles, kiva fireplaces, adobe walls and great ceiling beams. It was one of just a few hotels in town and I felt I was stepping onto a movie set. The hotel faced the unpaved plaza with its dusty garden and bandstand in the middle. Of course, I immediately started doing the rounds of the art galleries.

The characters were bigger than life folks of all kinds. I met a framer who was also one of the best watercolorists I'd ever seen. He sort of took me in hand, introduced me to other painters, and invited me to dinner with his family. He'd studied frame making in Holland in one of the world's most famous frame shop. I learned from him that the frame should be there enhancing the painting, not so beautiful that it was a distraction, but an invisible complement to the work itself. It's like the make-up artist who makes a movie star more beautiful or more handsome. You must not notice it, but its presence should make the painting's colors richer and bring the subject into sharper focus. I'd not thought about framing my paintings yet so it was a new and marvelous piece of knowledge that many painters, even famous ones never learn.

Among others, he introduced me to an ancient couple who had been among the first artists to arrive in their Conestoga wagon. He took me around to the magnificent home of an old couple, Joseph and Sarah Imhof and suggested they let me stay with them. I was beside myself with excitement. The imhofs had first arrived just after the beginning of the 20th century and their home was the old adobe style with a great window that opened onto the Taos Pueblo. It was dark and mysterious outside of the grand studio. Joseph was a New Yorker who had lived and leaned his art in Holland and Antwerp. He had learned to copy the master works as many great artists did and he was so accomplished that the National Gallery purchased a pair of Franz Hals copies from him. His specialty was portraits of the Indians from Taos Pueblo. To me, at 17, it was a source of amazement that this couple of 80-year olds were up every morning at dawn to work in their garden. Mr. Imhof (it was never Joe or Joseph as it would irreverently be today) decided to teach me about my tools. The quality of the canvas, the brushes and especially the paints was as important as how you applied it to your painting. He talked about pigments that would fade or become dark with time, about paint that would crack in five or fifty or a hundred years, a time span that I would never have learned in art school, but then, he had learned from the masters.

Mr. Imhof left me wide-eyed with his experiences in the early 1900s. There really were shootouts on the plaza. Taos was a refuge of Texas killers to the point where Sheriffs from Texas feared to come into the town he told me. The result was a certain population of banditos who fought it out or shot it out on the public square. Imhof was so involved with painting the Indians that he was made a blood brother of the tribe. Also, much more rare, he was the first gringo initiated into the Pentitentives, the Spanish population whose blend of Catholicism and primitive Mexican mysticism caused them to actually crucify one of their members each year and to flagellate themselves on certain religious festival days.

Then I fell in love with Charlie Reynolds' daughter. Reynolds was the pot boiler master of Taos. I was once in his gallery/studio when a lady explained that she just loved one of his painting, but there were a lot of mauve and purple accents in her living room and she was really looking for a large work with more of those colors. "Ma'am," Charlie said, "come back tomorrow, I think I have just what you want."
As soon as the lady was out the door he took the painting off the wall, put it on his easel and the pink, greens, and blues of the sunset turned to exactly those purple tones the lady had described. There were a few deft changes here and there and when the customer returned the following day she purchased the "latest" work of the artist.

There was a restaurant tucked away from the main street called Frenchy's. Obviously, it was owned by a Frenchman who was a marvelous cook. It was not the high style, expensive food we have served today in any restaurant called French. It was just good French country cuisine. In the back of the restaurant was an illegal slot machine. Pat Kelly, a fellow UNM art student from Colorado's father controlled the slots in northern New Mexico so I felt it was all right to gamble a bit. Frenchy used to accuse me of more luck than anyone deserved, because I always walked out with more money than I had when I came in and I'd paid for dinner to boot. It was the local eatery and I met even more of the painting community there over a French dish and community chatter.

DH Lawrence was long dead, but his widow Frieda and their mutual lover, Mabel Dodge Luhan were still alive. Lawrence's books were considered very daring, if not plain shocking. And lesbian lovers were not in my range of experience. So when I met these two famous ladies, it was a major event in my life. Of course, they were ancient. Frieda used her fabled ear trumpet and turned to Mabel and said "Why don't we invite this nice young man to the house for tea time?" And they did. I felt I was experiencing a died-and-gone-to-heaven event. And perhaps I was. They were marvelous. Once again, their house was of adobe and Indian style architecture. The view on the Taos Pueblo was as spectacular as Imhof's. In part Mabel Dodge got the right to buy and build on the land because she had married Tony Luhan who was a Taos native. But they were intense, those two old ladies. They had been everywhere, seen everything and met everyone who counted in the art world. And here they were, serving me tea in a house that
D H Lawrence had lived in. Like every young, budding writer, I had read Lady Chatterly's Lover and knew all about their lives and here I was, in the very compound where the lore of Taos was made.

Perhaps the Taos event that most affected my life, however, was not any of the above. I was going to Taos as much as I could, but still studying at the UNM School of Art. My professors liked my work a lot. It was cubist influenced and as I think about it now, I guess it was quite promising. But one of the painters who befriended me in Taos, and whose name I have forgotten, invited me to his house for dinner. I met his wife and, I believe, three children. I liked his work a lot. In the course of the day, the dinner and subsequent times together, I realized that he was very depressed. He explained that he was in his forties, he didn't know how to do anything but paint, but he simply could not sell enough of his work to keep his family fed, clothed, and housed. He was at his wit's end and would commit suicide, except that that would leave his family in even worse shape than if he lived.

I thought a lot about this painter's work, which, as I said, I admired very much. Okay, he was not a ground breaking painter who was destined to be famous, but his work was beautiful and of a quality that should have earned him an honest living. His style was abstract, but not wild or avant garde. His life style was in a town that allowed artists to live inexpensively and still be in the social mainstream of the community as opposed to being "oddballs" as they would have been in much of America. Yet, it still was not working for him. The situation made me think long and hard about what I was doing. Was I a better painter than he was? Would my work be more saleable? Would I want to drag a family into poverty because I chose a profession that didn't pay? My answer to all of these questions was no. A clear, decisive No. At the end of the year I told my art teachers that I was not going to continue with my painting. I didn't want to end like him and I didn't see my work as better than his. In fact, my work was non-objective, probably more avant garde and therefore, harder to sell. My profs went crazy, but I stuck to the decision. Out in real life, I was an art critic for awhile. Most of my friends have been artists over the years. My closest friend in the world, Patrick Betaudier, is one of the marvelous contemporary painters of our time, but Patrick died a few years ago after spending a lifetime struggling with money problems. I admired Patrick immensely for his devotion, dedication, and love for his art. He followed the path I abandoned. In retrospect, I think each of us was right, which is to say, true to himself. As Shakespeare said, "To thine own self be true and thou canst not then be false to any man.

I didn't return to Taos for twenty years. I had told my wife about all of the adventures I'd had there. We were driving from LA to NY. As we drove into the town there was a big new motel and restaurant. In fact, there were a number of motels and restaurants. And the plaza had not only been paved, but parking meters had been installed. The La Fonda Hotel was the same Spanish adobe marvel as ever, but it was now a tourist town. "Sorry," I said to her, "I didn't imagine it had changed this much." We stayed the night and left. Frenchy's was gone and so were many of my personal landmarks. We stayed the night and moved on to visit my friend, Betaudier, who was teaching painting in Illinois.

Then, thirty years later I was seeking a quiet place to write a new novel. Taos, why not? By sheer good fortune I rented one of Mabel Dodge's beautiful houses. When the time came that I had to cede it to the owners who returned from Hawaii, I rented a house from a most incredible artist who sculpts in leather, Kevin Cannon. Kevin said that my new lodging was a house that Mabel Dodge had built for D H Lawrence when he first came to Taos. So I spent a few happy months back where I'd started with New Mexico, after all.

Jack Siler
Paris, France © 2012

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