Archive for January, 2007

Mabel’s house


In Taos, they just say “Mabel.” No last name needed. Taos had a reputation as an arts colony before she arrived, but no one did more than anyone to promote and sustain that reputation than Mabel Ganson Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan.

Before she came to Taos, Mabel was a mover and shaker in the arts and society of New York and Europe. Born into a wealthy family in Buffalo, she spent her life entertaining, influencing, supporting, and not infrequently outraging her many artist friends. She could be imperious and cruel. But she knew how to throw a great party, and she surrounded herself with some of the most interesting people of her times. Along with Gertrude Stein, who became her friend and correspondent after they met in Paris in 1911, she was considered a leading female modernist of the early 20th century.

She was born in 1879, three years before my grandmother, and they both lived long lives. It’s difficult for me to comprehend that she was my grandmother’s contemporary. As a child, seeing Grandma sitting in her rocking chair, wrapped in her crocheted afghan and re-reading Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, I didn’t have a clue that Grandma’s favorite author often visited this woman in Taos who was considered to be avant-garde, even scandalous. D.H. Lawrence, Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Martha Graham, Maynard Dixon, Dorothea Lange, and Carl Jung, among many others, also came to stay at Mabel’s house. Perhaps they sat under this portal and talked about their art:


She arrived in New Mexico in December 1917, with her new (and third) husband, Maurice Sterne, and first visited Taos in late December of that year. She took to Taos from the beginning. Maurice was less enthusiastic: one of the first people Mabel met was Tony Luhan, a Taos Pueblo Indian who immediately captivated her and for whom she left Maurice.

In Maurice’s words: “Mabel had always been enthralled by the mystical. She thought that she had finally found what she had been searching for in Tony and in the Indian mystique. As soon as she discovered the Pueblo Indians, she was like someone under hypnosis. She sat entranced when they beat their tom-toms and chanted their weird music. Most of all, their silence fascinated her…. Mabel had no vitality or creative power of her own. She was a dead battery who needed constantly to recharge with the juice of some man, though she might leave him dead in the process.”

Maybe a little taste of sour grapes in that? Apparently, Mabel had indeed found what she had been searching for in Tony. They stayed together for 45 years, until her death at age 83. During her funeral, Tony cried out that the sun had dropped out of the sky — a rare burst of speech for a man who was, by all accounts, almost always silent.

Her sprawling adobe house, which they built together in the early 1920s, is now a historic site and a conference center/inn where guests enjoy “the best breakfast in town,” according to the receptionist. Here’s a photo of the dining room:


Mabel’s final resting place is marked with a small stone, and is in an inconspicuous corner of the Kit Carson Memorial Cemetery. However, as you can see, her fans have found it:


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A visit to Taos Pueblo


Today Pilar, Mark, and I drove the few miles to Taos Pueblo. We were lucky; the Pueblo will be closed to visitors for a couple of months by next week. We were luckier to get a good guided tour from a young Pueblo resident. Then, amazed that we were in the midst of buildings that have been sheltering people for more than 1000 years, we trudged about in the mud, snapping pictures and petting dogs. There were many dogs, and lots of mud. Each of us bought a fried pie that had been baked in an outdoor adobe oven. The dogs were very interested in our food.


We visited the church, which is Catholic; however, our tour guide told us that most residents practice both Catholicism and their own Pueblo faith. For that reason the inside of the church (no photographs allowed) is decorated not only with statues of the Virgin Mary but also with colorful paintings of corn, beans, and squash.


In the cemetery is the ruin of a much older church that was destroyed — killing about 150 Pueblo women, children, and elderly people who had taken shelter in it — during one of many uprisings. The residents of Taos Pueblo, who now number only about 100, have held on to their land and their lifestyle with amazing tenacity. Even now, by design, there is no running water or electricity in Taos Pueblo. Propane is the only fuel, used for heat, light, some cooking, and a few refrigerators. Water comes directly from the creek and is untreated.


So many walls and doors and windows seemed like abstract paintings to me. I won’t upload them all; I think that one is my favorite. And sometimes there was the odd juxtaposition of old and contemporary, as here:


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Strange beds, fellows!


Yesterday, just after this sunset, the eight of us who are currently occupying the casitas here all got together for the first time. We are five women and three men — two painters, two composers, two writers, an art historian, and a drummer for a jazz trio. We came from New York, Los Angeles, Kansas City, West Virginia, the Pacific Northwest, and Russia. We range widely in age and, I suspect, in temperament.

But if anyone came expecting lofty artistic conversation, that person might have been disappointed. Naturally we were curious about each other’s art, but we tacitly agreed to wait for a while before revealing much about that tender, personal aspect of being here. Last night, instead, we were much more interested in sharing practical tips: the most convenient places to find wireless access, the best cup of coffee, the best place to buy fresh vegetables or good-yet-inexpensive wine, the best public swimming pool.

One topic interested all of us equally: Can your neighbors hear the sound of one thousand vacuum cleaners and a couple of jet engines when you adjust the firmness of your inflatable bed? (I once actually made Michael get rid of one of these beds because no amount of night-time comfort seemed to justify the awful sound of filling it up. Now it has come back to bite me — or at least to roar at me.)

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The sense of sound

With composers on both sides of me, I have felt a little timid about making noise in my casita, frankly. And a little bit embarrassed that the only sounds I hear for most of the day come from a tinny, little AM-FM cassette player that is tuned, alternately, to KUNM in Albuquerque or to the local community station (whose call letters I have forgotten, but it’s another good one). The cassette player part of the machine makes a horrible thumping noise when it operates, so I haven’t been using that feature too often, though sometimes at night I have been thumping my way through a mystery novel Julie lent me. I do have a portable CD player, so it’s not really THAT dire a situation. But the point is, I have been feeling a bit as if I have been living in the backwaters of the audio world.

Then, yesterday, while checking my Neighborhood Delivery/Collection Box Unit (no kidding, that’s the official USPS name for the little clusters of mailboxes that replace home delivery here), I met an actual opera singer, Leslie Harrington, who has offered to give me a “voice consultation” and promises that I will learn something good about my own voice. He’s my neighbor! and his NDCBU is right next to mine.

And this morning I woke up to “New Dimensions” on my tinny little radio (another show we ought to lobby for on WV Public Radio, along with “Democracy Now” and “This Way Out”), and the topic was, guess what: “Sound as a Healing Modality.” It was a fascinating hour about the uses of chanting, singing, and natural sounds to promote physical health, marital harmony, even world peace. Probably the most important thing I learned (again) was that each of us has a most powerful healing tool right within us, in our own body: our own breath, our own voice. Whatever it sounds like.

Ahhhhh. Om. Shalom. Sha-la-la. Ahhhhh.

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Yesterday afternoon, on my daily walk to the post office, I stopped into a Mexican import shop. There were rugs, brightly painted ceramic garden animals, ceramic tiles, lots of beautiful jewelry, and a whole wall of these delightful carved wooden creatures, alebriges. Those porcupine quills are painted toothpicks, to give you an idea of the size. I do not know how the word “alebridges” translates. There are a few Spanish/English dictionaries in the Wurlitzer Foundation’s library, but I haven’t had a chance to get over there and look this one up.


Another word that I haven’t yet figured out is the name of my street: Los Panditos. It is a smaller street off Los Pandos. Because of the article, I assumed that both “pando” and “pandito” were nouns. However, I have looked the words up in about four dictionaries, and I have found several different definitions for the adjective “pando” — including “bulged” and “self-satisfied or conceited.” Another dictionary defines “pandito” as “a fat woman,” and yet another as “swaybacked or excessively drunk.” Hmmm. And all this time I had an illusion I was living on a street called “Little Loaves of Bread” or something like that. (Although “The Street of the Drunk Fat Women” has its own sort of flair, too.) Soon I will ask the foundation director, and I promise to let you know what it really means!

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New friends

It’s another brilliantly sunny morning in Taos. It amazes me that I need to use sunscreen in winter, but it’s true.

Yesterday was a social day, unlike the week that preceded it. In the morning I went with Galina, the Russian art historian who lives across the meadow from me, to Mondo Kultur, where we sipped coffee and tea and concentrated on our respective computers. Galina sometimes laughed or sighed; she was e-mailing back and forth with her son; she explained that they’d arranged to “talk” at that time, since it was a convenient hour in the evening, in Russia.

Galina is an expert on the art of Nicolai Fechin, a Russian artist who built the Fechin House here between 1927 and 1933, and she has edited two books about his art. (She is working on a third, which will be published in February.) She has invited me to attend an art opening at the Fechin House on Saturday. She laughed aloud when I said, “Does this mean we can dress up?” She’ll probably understand when she sees my handmade shibori kimono.

In the evening, my next-door neighbor, Paul Rudy, came over to share the last of the split pea soup and some baked squash. We both remarked that we’d like to at least meet all the others in our group, and Paul offered to host an informal get-together for the whole group of fellows sometime this weekend. Being a composer, he has what he described as “a bitchin’ sound system.”

Paul gave me a CD of some of his work, which I listened to while playing with Photoshop in the evening. It is wonderful and hard to describe. Some pieces were collages of sounds — whispers, drips, wind, scratchings that evoked textures. Others were choral works. I found the music evocative and conducive to playing with colors and shapes. Here’s what happened, under the influence of Paul’s music, to a picture I posted here earlier:


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Walking around Taos

I’m actually writing now. (Writer friends, I know you’ll be relieved. I’m really going to do something besides make origami boxes, I promise.) Which means that I don’t really have a lot to say! So I’ll just put up a few pictures of yesterday afternoon’s walk around Taos:


That sculpture is in front of a gallery on Kit Carson Road. A bit further toward town, on the way to Kit Carson Memorial Park, I happened on this nice example of icicles hanging from the canales on an adobe house. I’m putting this one up for Vera, who loves to knock down these icicles!


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Casita Sweet Casita

Here’s a picture of the inside of my casita. I’m so pleased with my washi paper “paintings,” and I love my adobe home. This is looking from the main room through the entrance hallway and into my itsy-bitsy kitchen. As it turns out, that little kitchen table seems to be my favorite spot for writing, though I have settled on a rocking chair in the larger room as my favorite reading spot.


Today I got a phone call from the director of the foundation; he has injured his back and won’t be in the office for a while! This is unhappy news, but it convinced me that I should to not wait for someone else to introduce me to my fellow fellows.

And now I have not one, but two social engagements for tomorrow! In the morning, I’m going to show Galina, a Russian art historian, my favorite-so-far wireless cafe, Mondo Kultur. (Galina speaks some English, thank goodness, though she made me feel very useful by asking me to help her navigate through her first calling-card call.) Tomorrow evening I will have dinner with my next-door neighbor, Paul, and learn about his art. He’s a composer, but I don’t know anything at all about what kind of music.

Today’s Tuesday. I’m thinking about my pals back in West Virginia who have been taking a walk every Tuesday afternoon for the past 15 years or so, and missing them like crazy. I wish we could walk around Taos together, you guys!

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Those mountains

This is what it looks like when you drive into Taos. I know that a little photo on the screen doesn’t really do the sight justice, but use your imagination. The town itself is flat, but the mountains rise up so dramatically that it’s hard not to think of them as a sort of theater backdrop. Sometimes the tops are shrouded in clouds, and a couple of days ago, for about fifteen minutes at sunset, they turned a glorious pink color. Naturally, I didn’t have my camera with me then….


Yesterday afternoon I thought I would walk to Taos Pueblo, about two miles north of the town of Taos. But, just north of town, where Indian land begins, there is a very clear sign that prohibits “walking, jogging, hiking, biking” and, well, anything but driving a car on the road. So I guess I will drive there sometime soon.

Instead I explored a small cemetery at the edge of town. I like walking through cemeteries anywhere because you can walk and read at the same time, and I like to look at the stones and inscriptions. (And occasionally there’s a really wonderful juxtaposition of words, as in the Morgantown, WV cemetery where one side of a headstone reads “Good” and the other “Plum” and “Rude.”) This one was very different from what I’m used to. The names in this cemetery, for instance, were mostly Hispanic names: lilting, musical words, even in their announcements of death. Also, there tended to me more than a headstone marker; many of the graves were delineated by metal structures that looked to me like bed frames, and a few were adobe, like this one:


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Now that I have discovered THREE places to buy beautiful paper in Taos, it’s pretty clear how I’ll be spending my spare time (and money). Last night I made a bunch of new cards and origami boxes. Does it go without saying that I am very glad I remembered to bring my paper cutter along?


Today I took a couple of small boxes downtown as a gift for the very sweet salesperson at Paper Day (she says she also has a “terrible paper habit.”) She was delighted, of course, and immediately asked if I could teach her to make them. So I have my first origami date in Taos.

By the way, that cute little teapot in the picture, which has five matching teacups, also came from the Goodwill in Santa Fe. This morning I was reflecting on how the perfect things have suddenly appeared, without too much expense or trouble on my part, just as I needed them. For instance, the window of great weather I had for driving here (I hear there’s a foot of snow in Amarillo now, though there has been very little snow here in Taos). The teapot. Vera’s cappuccino maker — okay, I don’t really NEED that, but I love it.

And, yesterday afternoon, I found the very pen I have been craving. It replaces a pen that Faith gave me a couple of years ago, and which I lost just a day or two before I left West Virginia. I was so annoyed that I wouldn’t be taking my favorite pen with me! I mean, it’s a writing retreat, you know? So, when I came across the very item yesterday, I took it as a sort of sign that The Universe is taking good care of me, and that Julia Cameron is right about abundance. I’m trusting that my writing will go the same way. If only I can stop making origami boxes for long enough to put pen to paper.

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