His name was Michael. I met him in New Mexico on a drizzly night in spring. Standing in front of the Taos Inn dressed in a cook’s apron, he was puffing on a smoke before returning to the kitchen to clean up after a busy party. Like many of the people I met during my three-day stay in Taos, Michael was an artist. His medium was poetry, and when he asked if I wanted to hear his favorite poem—“A Turtle’s Dream”—I smiled and nodded.
In a melodious voice, Michael recited a marvelous poem about a turtle’s ambition to be as light as the air. At the poem’s end, the turtle got his wish and floated above the earth’s surface into the ether, finally free. After congratulating Michael on his moving poem and heartfelt performance, I chatted with him a few minutes and learned about some challenges he was facing. It was easy to connect the turtle with Michael’s wish to escape the problems of life, to rise up into a purer realm, a place where artists can do art without having to hold one or two other jobs to survive.
Since I also struggle with finding time to be creative, I identified with Michael and his turtle. Yet somehow I got the feeling that it was easier in Taos to be creative. During my brief stay I discovered that this rustic town on the edge of the desert fairly drips with creative juices. Far from being barren, Taos embodies creativity, encourages it. In fact, the connection between art and reality—more specifically, between art and a place—coalesced for me in Taos, a town built on dreams and desire.
I immediately sensed something special when I arrived there last May. It was as if the air were full of energy. Rising six thousand feet above sea level, Taos did in fact have different air than I was used to back East. There was a clarity, a pureness, a sense that breathing was good for you—deep breaths that quenched your thirsty soul. At this altitude the light was different, too. It danced on the town and the surrounding countryside, making the colors more vivid, the textures more palpable. It was as if there were an extra dimension, an unseen layer of meaning that enabled you to connect more closely to the people and things in your midst.
I wasn’t the only one to notice this magical quality about Taos. Creative minds have been drawn to the region since 1898 when two artists from the East—Ernest Blumenshine and Bert Philips—discovered this quaint town in Northern New Mexico when their wagon wheel broke enroute to the West Coast. The men looked around at the dramatic landscape—the Sangra de Christa mountains, the desert plateau sprinkled with sagebrush, the Taos Pueblo, the Rio Grande gorge—and knew this was no ordinary place. They stayed, establishing an art colony that continues to this day.
Other artists followed, including Nicholai Fechin, a Russian who moved to Taos in 1926. I visited his house, an architectural treasure designed by the artist, reflecting both his Russian heritage and the local Spanish and Pueblo architectural styles. Besides being a masterful portrait artist, Fechin worked with both metal and wood, and his home contains examples of both his carvings and metalwork. The Fechin House is now the home of the Taos Art Museum’s permanent collection featuring some of the artist’s finest portraits.
Another creative mind who settled in Taos was Millicent Rogers. An heiress for Standard Oil Company, Millicent was in fact a prominent socialite in the first half of the 20th century. Educated abroad, Millicent spent much of her time in Europe in the company of fashion luminaries, literary figures, and celebrities. On a visit to Taos in 1947, she fell in love with the peaceful grandeur of the region and decided to make Taos her home. Millicent embraced the Southwest style, incorporating Native American textiles and designs into her wardrobe. She also created her own jewelry primarily made of turquoise and sterling silver.
The Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos showcases her jewelry designs as well as her outstanding collection of Native American art, including pieces by renowned potter Maria Martinez, whose distinctive black-on-black pots now command thousands of dollars in local galleries. In fact, what’s unique about the Millicent Rogers Museum is its cohesive collection of art produced by the three cultures who share this corner of the earth. From Native American weavings and dolls to Hispanic tin work and retablos—painted panels depicting religious scenes, the art represents the history and traditions of the local people who have called this vast mesa their home, as well as the Europeans who joined them.
WISDOM OF THE AGES
Creating art continues today in Taos. One evening I met a jewelry maker, Charles, who showed me his box of rings. I couldn’t resist buying one with a green stone that spoke to me of deep waters and dense forests.
Another afternoon I visited the Taos Pueblo, an ancient living Indian village that has stood unchanged for centuries, its adobe buildings harmonizing with the landscape. There Native Americans displayed their wares—crafts, jewelry, clothing, and food—all created lovingly by hands that hold the wisdom of the ages. In the stillness of his small shop, one Indian gave me a song, accompanied by the simple beat of a drum. I can still here it echo in my mind, a chanting melody that touched my soul.
At the Martinez Hacienda, one of the few remaining Spanish Colonial haciendas, I watched a group of women create a stunning quilt of rich fabrics reflecting the colorful hues and patterns unique to the region. The hacienda once served as a thriving center of trade and now welcomes visitors to view its period rooms, to observe demonstrations—such as quilting and weaving, and to learn how settlers lived two hundred years ago.
In and around Taos Plaza, I visited galleries which featured the artwork of the region’s current generation of artists. Lucky for me, my stay coincided with an event called Best of the Best, which brought together a collection of the top works of area artists. I noticed nearly all of the art reflected the artists’ fascination with the surrounding landscape—the mountains, the mesa, the trees, and the sky—for in fact, the art of nature is really the most beautiful of all.
This close connection between art and reality seemed so strong in Taos, as if a compelling force draws creative minds to its borders, encouraging an honest appraisal of reality, colored by the artist’s emotional interpretation of the place. Emanating form the art—indeed from the very landscape around Taos—is a sense that beauty and truth are intertwined, that one can’t exist without the other.
While touring Nicholai Fechin’s house, I noticed that a portion of the stucco exterior had been removed. Through a piece of glass I could see the original adobe construction—a building technique still used in the region today—that formed the walls of the house. I asked the guide why the inner walls had been exposed, and she said, “It’s point of pride among builders to let others know they’ve used traditional techniques. They call this a truth window.”
A truth window. I loved the poetry of that phrase, the ideas it conjured up, the ripples that undulated outward. In my mind I pictured how a truth window could serve as a metaphor for life. For inside all of us, I think, is an artist seeking a truth window, a passageway to a place where creativity abounds, where turtles rise up from the muddy ground and float toward heaven.
Somehow during my short stay, Taos became a conduit to creativity for me, a dream of a place whose magic haunts me still. I know I have to return one day and discover what truths await.
IF YOU GO
Where To Stay
• Historic Taos Inn - A cozy, historic inn. www.taosinn.com 505-758-2233
• The Fechin Inn – Elegant amenities and southwestern ambience. www.fechininn.com 505-751-1000
• El Monte Sagrado Living Resort & Spa – Upscale eco-resort. www.elamontesagrado.com 505-758-3502
Where To Eat
• Adobe Bar at the Taos Inn – Casual eatery with great food and live music. 505-758-2254
• Eske’s Brewpub & Eatery – Try their chile beer and great Mexican dishes. 505-758-1517
• Apple Tree Restaurant – Home cooking and desserts to die for. www.appletreerestaurant.com 505-758-1900
• Joseph’s Table – Upscale dining. www.josephstable.com 505-751-4512
What To Do
• An outdoor enthusiast’s paradise, Taos County offers hiking, hot air ballooning, white water rafting, horseback riding, cycling, fly fishing, skiing, snowmobiling, and more. Nearby Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs offers a soothing escape in scared waters.
• Culture seekers can explore art and architecture—past and present—at the town’s museums, the history of the Spanish settlers at the Martinez Hacienda, and Native American culture at the Taos Pueblo. Other attractions include Kit Carson’s home, the San Francisco de Asis Mission, and Enchanted Circle, an 84-mile drive through breathtaking scenery.
For more information, visit www.taoschamber.com