New Mexico’s Taos: An Enclave in the Mountains
By Lee Foster
The northern New Mexico high-desert town of Taos ranks as an alluring place for the traveler who delights in contemporary art, historic culture, and desert alpine beauty.
Overshadowing the Taos town story is the nearby, multistory architectural treasure known as the Taos Pueblo, dating from roughly the 1400s. Besides being a vital village today, the Taos pueblo is, arguably, the most impressive historic Native American architectural element in the United States. Into this world of pueblo people entered pioneering Spanish families. These enterprising and religious families established a trade pattern of Taos buffalo hides and wool weavings sold in Mexico City.
The inevitable westward push of American settlement reached Taos in the form of legendary characters, such as Kit Carson, the noted scout, whose house can be visited. However, Taos and New Mexico in general were too spare and hardscrabble a place for a massive invasion of westward-venturing settlers. Having avoided this impact, New Mexico proceeded in semi-isolation, preserving a certain foreignness, which makes it appealing today.
The landmark event that sent modern art-saturated Taos on its path occurred in 1898 when two, young, Paris-trained artists, Ernest Blumenschein and Burt Phillips, set out from Denver on an ill-planned wagon trip to some imaginary place in Mexico, where they hoped to establish an artistic space for themselves. Their wagon broke a wheel not in Mexico, but in New Mexico, near Taos. After looking around, mesmerized by the light, basking in the solitude, and sensing the fullness of the native pueblo culture, they decided to settle here and paint. As the word got out and paintings of the area were seen and published, many other major artists were attracted to the area. Today, on summer Friday nights, a traveler can enjoy a “Meet The Artist” Arts Walk from gallery to gallery.
The natural beauty of the area can be enjoyed in summer with a hike through the spruce forests from the Taos Ski Valley. The Rio Grande Gorge near Taos also impresses as the river slowly erodes its way through a chasm of volcanic rock.
Though Taos has only 6,000 people, there are multi-star lodgings and inventive chefs doing creative cuisine.
Most travelers will fly into Albuquerque and rent a car for the three-house drive to Taos. Once you are in Taos, you absolutely need your own car. There are no taxis. If you choose to fly into the small regional Taos-Angel Fire airport, there is one rental car provider, but be sure you have made an advance reservation.
The Tiwa-speaking Taos tribe flourished for perhaps a thousand years at the well-watered site, now known as the Taos Pueblo, a few miles from the modern town of Taos.
Blessed with a permanent river running through a relatively fertile agricultural plain, the Taos tribe grew in population. Their crowning achievement was the building of multistory dwellings out of adobe, a mixture of soil, water, and straw. The adobe was formed into bricks to build walls. A thin adobe coating on the building exterior, which required annual maintenance, kept the spring and summer rains from disintegrating the structure. Long and straight ponderosa pine logs spanned the distances between the walls, creating a flat roof, which was topped with pine boards. Today about 50 of the 2,800-member Taos tribe still live in the historic structures, surviving without benefit of modern conveniences, such as electricity and indoor plumbing. Most of the tribe lives in nearby, modern homes.
Start off your Taos trip with a visit to the Taos reservation and pueblo to see this landmark architecture. There is a charge for entrance, which gives you the benefit of an hour-long tour with a college-age Taos native guide providing commentary. There is also a charge for each camera used to photograph the site.
Among the various pueblos of northern New Mexico, Taos has always played a major role. In the 1680 revolt against the Spanish, Taos led the fight, which forced out all the Spanish presence. Taos later suffered the trauma of revenge when the Spanish successfully returned. Because of its generous river, the Taos tribe is known as “the people of the red willow,” the typical vegetation along the banks. The San Geronimo Church adjacent to the historic pueblo architecture emphasizes the tribe’s veneration of the Virgin Mary. As in generally true of the Christianized native people of the Southwest, there is a Christian veneer atop the indigenous ceremonials, such as the corn or rain dances.
TAOS HISTORY/ART MUSEUMS
After visiting the Taos Pueblo, there are seven stops a traveler should make to understand the thick cultural texture of Taos, a place where spirituality and artistic creativity are held in high regard.
Start with the historic church San Francisco de Asis in Rancho de Taos, adjacent to the town of Taos. This church was the regional focus of Catholicism in the Taos area. If you happen to visit in June, you may see parishioner volunteers doing the annual re-mudding of the exterior of this adobe building. Enter the church to see the religious ornamentation and the classic architecture of the region, adobe walls spanned with ponderosa pine beams and planks.
Then proceed to the Taos Plaza, dating from 1615, the focal point of a typical Spanish new world village. Around the Plaza today, the main commerce is art shops. Ogelvie’s restaurant at one end of the Plaza is a pleasant lunch stop on an elevated outdoor deck overlooking the drama of life below. A block off the Plaza is the historic home of Kit Carson, the noted scout. However, the artifacts on display, as this is written, are quite limited.
Next, to keep your experience in a proper historic sequence, drive a couple of miles out to the preserved and restored Martinez Hacienda. Dating from 1804, this home of Don Antonio de Severino Martinez and his wife Maria shows the culture of the prosperous Spanish families of Taos. Martinez was the alcalde or mayor of Taos. He managed major multi-year trade ventures shipping buffalo hides and wool weaving from Taos down the El Camino Real, or King’s Road, to Mexico City. Practical items like wool socks were in high demand. The Martinez family lived in this 21-room fortress continuously from 1804-1930. Artifacts on display at the Martinez Hacienda are illuminating, such as a room of looms, showing how this cottage industry flourished, or a room storing buffalo hides awaiting transport.
Then return to near the plaza and a visit to the Ernest Blumenschein Home and Museum. There you’ll see paintings by Blumenschein, his wife Mary, Bert Phillips, and other earlier artists who banded together in 1915 to found the Taos Society of Artists. The Society served as an organization with which to market Taos art and mount exhibitions in cities back east. One class of customers for all this art were the railroad entrepreneurs who wanted to encourage rail tourism.
By the 1920s Taos was a factor in the American art scene. The Blumenschein house has original furnishings and reminds a visitor of the era when Taos was a walled village, with adobe rooms bought and sold one room at a time. The Moorish influence in Taos can be seen in the ubiquitous blue paint around windows and doors, a Moorish preference for warding off evil spirits. Mary Blumenschein’s paintings from her Paris and Taos periods, sitting side by side, show a visitor how her artistic palette changed. The diffuse light of Paris yielded to the vibrant, sharp colors of the Southwest.
Across the street from the Blumenschein house is the Harwood Museum, the next recommended stop. The Harwood Museum has a dual mission, bring Taos art to the world and bring world art to Taos. This is the setting in Taos for major, outside shows. However, to inform a traveler on the local scene, there is a particularly fine Hispanic Traditions Gallery of religious carvings and paintings from the Spanish era, a tradition of art subject and materials that still flourishes today in New Mexico. There is also a room devoted to the Taos Society of Artists. Possibly the most famous work at the Harwood is Victor Higgins’s Winter Funeral, a brooding snowy Taos landscape with the reminder of mortality under a swirling, angry sky.
Make your next in-town stop the Fechin House, also known as the Taos Art Museum. This craftsmanly house was constructed by the noted Russian artist, Nicolai Fechin, who came to Taos in 1927 with his wife, Alexandra, and daughter, Eya. Life in Russia after the Bolshevik revolution had become difficult for Fechin, though he was already famous in Russia and Europe for his paintings. The Taos house is a small masterpiece of sturdy Southwest design, with an added Russian genius for wood décor, plus some eccentricities, such as a Slavic asymmetrical balance in the details, such as the fireplace. The house is full of paintings by Fechin and other early-Taos painters.
The final cultural stop not to miss is outside of town at the Millicent Rogers Museum. Millicent Rogers was the granddaughter of Henry Huttleston Rogers, a partner with John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil. She was a femme fatale of 1930’s-40’s period, and had money, brains, beauty, and artistic talent aplenty to energize her life. She became a collector of art and material culture artifacts from the Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo peoples of the Southwest, focusing especially on New Mexico and Taos.
The museum has impressive holdings in many categories-weaving, religious art, pottery, jewelry, furniture, and paintings. For example, the museum has a major collection of the black pottery of Maria Martinez, the New Mexico ceramicist who is considered one of the finest potters of the 20th century. Fifteen intimate galleries show the Rogers’ collection, which includes Millicent Rogers’ own jewelry designs, shown from the drawing stage through their exquisite execution in gold and silver.
ART TODAY IN TAOS
An immersion in the historic art story of Taos will whet the appetite of the visitor, who is bound to ask: what’s happening in Taos art today? The art scene here is robust and diverse. Here are some galleries to see, as you browse on your own. Be sure to get the weekly newspaper, which comes out on Thursday afternoon, to see what galleries might be open for the summer Friday night Art Walks.
R. C. Gorman’s Navajo Gallery is filled with his paintings of Navajo women, whose figures seem to capture the mystery of life itself. He is possibly the most successful and widely known Native American artist in the country.
J. D. Challenger has been recording the identity of the Southwest American native people. Following in the great tradition of George Catlin, Challenger paints these first Americans in a dignified and ennobled demeanor. At the gallery you are likely to see J. D. himself, who likes to paint in a social setting. He is a tall, bearded, and gregarious man, dressing in cowboy hat and boots.
The Brazos Gallery represents 32 painters in Taos. One of these is Mary Dolph Wood, who specializes in flowers. She likes their freshness and momentary beauty. Working in her home studio, she sets up still life displays and paints them.
The J.H.S. Gallery, owned by Jody and Mike Simone, specializes in religious art, a continuing and vital part of the Taos art mix. They display works that range from strict traditionalist crafts following the iconic traditions of New Mexico Catholicism, such as straw and wood crosses, to modern, even abstract, paintings emphasizing Christian themes.
NATURE TRIPS: RIO GRANDE GORGE/ALPINE HIKING
Two satisfying nature experiences are readily accessible to all travelers in Taos. The first amounts to peering into the Rio Grande Gorge. The second involves a hike in the lovely alpine environment of the Tao Ski Valley.
The Rio Grande River, snaking its way through New Mexico, is a major definer of life here. Near Taos the Rio Grande cuts a deep canyon through the volcanic rock. This Rio Grande Gorge is spanned by a long suspension bridge, putting you 650 feet above the river. A traveler can walk across the bridge and peer into the gorge.
Hiking in the alpine forest beauty near Taos is another treat. The area immediately around Taos is mostly a sagebrush desert. But if you drive to slightly higher elevation at 9,200 feet in the Taos Ski Valley, you encounter a spruce and aspen forest. You can start your hike into this Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area right from the base of the ski lift, where there is a restaurant that remains open in summer. The ski lift also runs during the summer, allowing you to start your walk at the top of the ridge line if you wish. Mountain wildflowers are plentiful.
LODGING/DINING IN TAOS
Taos offers a range of possible lodgings. The Taos Inn is a venerable favorite, partly for its lively restaurant/bar. The modest Inn on Rio is an ex-motorcourt nicely personalized with lovely floral paintings on the doors and windows. Casa Benavides provides not only breakfast, but also afternoon tea.
Perhaps the most unusual lodging is the new and upscale El Monte Sagrado, whose 36 private suites are epitomized by its Kama Sutra casita. El Monte Sagrado is definitely in the luxury class, but is built specifically to illustrate that luxury does not mean high environmental cost. The creation of a quality lodging/dining/life experience, but hopefully at minimal environmental cost, is an often-expressed Taos passion. All the water used on the property is recycled into the landscaping, for example. The Kama Sutra suite is full of paintings and carvings illustrative of the epic of Hindu eroticism.
A private, rustic stone-decor pool outside the door is not just a pool, it is a cenote, as in the sacred cenotes of the Maya. The elaborate casita has its own hot tub in a sheltered, private open-air patio. El Monte Sagrado’s fine dining restaurant, El Tierra, serves inventive modern food. The property’s wrought iron art work, waterfalls, and rolling landscape present a kind of Southwest International style signature. The Egypt Suite, for example, begins as your basic Southwest adobe casita, but is decorated with a middle-eastern flair.
For innovative fine dining, the place to savor is Lambert’s, run by Zeke and Tina Lambert. Try the pepper crusted lamb or the elk, preceded by a salad. One favored side dish is the blue cheese mashed potatoes.
For the best sunset view while dining, proceed to the Players’ Bar and Grill at the Taos Country Club, a few miles out of town in a wide open sagebrush environment. The salmon with black sesame seed or the ribeye steak are good choices.
Traditional Mexican food, perhaps accompanied by a margarita, is the expectation at Antonio’s.
For a casual lunch, try the Greek salad dishes, with humus and dolmas,at the airy Western Sky Café.
FINAL THOUGHT FOR A TAOS TRIP
The Taos phone book, available at the Taos County Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center, sets the tone for your trip. On the cover is a work of local art, with R. C. Gorman getting the position in 2005. The center of the phone book is a lavish spread of other painters’ works. Where else will you find a small-town phone book devoted to art?
TAOS, NEW MEXIO: IF YOU GO
For further information on Taos, consult the Taos County Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Drawer 1, Taos, NM 87571; 877-587-8915; www.exploretaos.com.