It's all in the light -- or at least that's what many artists claim drew them to northern New Mexico. In truth, the light is only part of the attraction: Nature in this part of the country, with its awe-inspiring thunderheads, endless expanse of blue skies, and rugged desert, is itself a canvas. To record the wonders of earth and sky, the Anasazi imprinted images -- in the form of petroglyphs and pictographs -- on the sides of caves and on stones, as well as on the sides of pots they shaped from clay dug in the hills.
Today's Native American tribes carry on that legacy, as do the other cultures that have settled here. Life in northern New Mexico is shaped by the arts. Everywhere you turn, you see pottery, paintings, jewelry, and weavings. You're liable to meet an artist whether you're having coffee in a Taos cafe or walking along Canyon Road in Santa Fe.
The area is full of little villages that maintain their own artistic specialties. Each Indian pueblo has a trademark design, such as Santa Clara's and San Ildefonso's black pottery and Zuni's needlepoint silver work. Bear in mind that the images used often have deep symbolic meaning. When purchasing art or an artifact, you may want to talk to its maker about what the symbols mean.
Hispanic villages are also distinguished by their artistic identities. Chimayo has become a center for Hispanic weaving, while the village of Cordova is known for its santo (icon) carving. Santos, retablos (paintings), and bultos (sculptures), as well as works in tin, are traditional devotional arts tied to the Roman Catholic faith. Often, these works are sold out of artists' homes in these villages, allowing you to glimpse the lives of the artists and the surroundings that inspire them.
Hispanic and Native American villagers take their goods to the cities, where for centuries people have bought and traded. Under the portals along the plazas of Santa Fe, Taos, and Albuquerque, you'll find a variety of works in silver, stone, and pottery for sale. In the cities, you'll find streets lined with galleries, some very slick, some more modest. At major markets, such as the Spanish Market and Indian Market in Santa Fe, some of the top artists from the area sell their works. Smaller shows at the pueblos also attract artists and artisans. The Northern Pueblo Artists and Craftsman Show, revolving each July to a different pueblo, continues to grow.
Drawn by the beauty of the local landscape and respect for indigenous art, artists from all over have flocked here, particularly during the 20th and 21st centuries. They have established locally important art societies; one of the most notable is the Taos Society of Artists. An oft-repeated tale explains the roots of this society. The artists Bert Phillips and Ernest L. Blumenschein were traveling through the area from Colorado on a mission to sketch the Southwest when their wagon broke down north of Taos. The scenery so overwhelmed them that they abandoned their journey and stayed. Joseph Sharp joined them, and still later came Oscar Berninghaus, Walter Ufner, Herbert Dunton, and others. You can see a brilliant collection of some of their romantically lit portraits and landscapes at the Taos Art Museum. The 100th anniversary marking the artists' broken wheel was celebrated in 1998.
A major player in the development of Taos as an artists' community was the arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan. A writer who financed the work of many an artist, in the 1920s Luhan held court for many notables, including Georgia O'Keeffe, Willa Cather, and D. H. Lawrence. This illustrious history goes a long way to explaining how it is that Taos -- a town of about 5,000 inhabitants -- has more than 100 arts-and-crafts galleries and many resident painters.
Santa Fe has its own art society, begun in the 1920s by a nucleus of five painters who became known as Los Cinco Pintores. Jozef Bakos, Fremont Ellis, Walter Mruk, Willard Nash, and Will Shuster lived in the area of dusty Canyon Road (now the arts center of Santa Fe, with countless artists, approximately 100 galleries, and many museums). Despite its small size, Santa Fe is, remarkably, considered one of the top three art markets in the United States.
Perhaps the most celebrated artist associated with northern New Mexico is Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), a painter who worked and lived most of her later years in the region. O'Keeffe's first sojourn to New Mexico in 1929 inspired her sensuous paintings of the area's desert landscape and bleached animal skulls. The house where she lived in Abiquiu (42 miles northwest of Santa Fe on US 84) is now open for limited public tours. The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, the only museum in the United States dedicated entirely to an internationally renowned woman artist, opened in Santa Fe in 1997.
Santa Fe is also home to the Institute of American Indian Arts, where many of today's leading Native American artists have studied, including the Apache sculptor Allan Houser (whose works you can see near the State Capitol building and in other public areas in Santa Fe). Possibly the best-known Native American painter is R. C. Gorman, an Arizona Navajo who made his home in Taos for more than 2 decades. Now deceased, Gorman is internationally acclaimed for his bright, somewhat surrealistic depictions of Navajo women. Also in the spotlight is Dan Namingha, a Hopi artist who weaves native symbology into contemporary concerns.
If you look closely, you'll find notable works from a number of local artists. There's Tammy Garcia, a young Taos potter who year after year continues to sweep the awards at Indian Market with her intricately shaped and carved pots. Cippy Crazyhorse, a Cochiti, has acquired a steady following of patrons for his silver jewelry. All around the area you'll see the frescoes of Frederico Vigil, a noted muralist and Santa Fe native. From the village of Santa Cruz comes a new rising star named Andrés Martinez, noted for his Picasso-esque portraits of Hispanic village life.
For the visitor interested in art, however, some caution should be exercised; there's a lot of schlock out there, targeting the tourist trade. Yet if you persist, you're likely to find much inspiring work as well. The museums and many of the galleries are excellent repositories of local art. Their offerings range from small-town folk art to works by major artists who show internationally.
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