Right at the Blinking Light - 5/12/2014

Today's guest blog post comes from Sara Ford, a Santa Fe resident and member of the museum's docent program.

Some years back, the late Fayne Lutz, a popular columnist with The Taos News, told me that whenever she volunteered to welcome visitors to Taos, she looked forward to that sincere tourist, who could be counted on to ask: “Where exactly is the art colony?” Fayne confessed that she was tempted to tell the visitor to turn right at the blinking light, a Taos landmark at the time.

Since then I’ve wondered what those eager visitors were looking for. A garret? No, that’s La Boheme. A cluster of lofts? To me, that says SoHo. Real live artists, then? Skinny, of course, because they must be starving. They’ll be wearing paint stained smocks and jaunty berets while they stand in front of easels perched precariously on the rim of the Rio Grande Gorge, where they’re breathing plein-aire.

Or, do the tourists expect to find the art colony in a bar, where raucous bohemians can be overheard arguing? “A cube, Pablo? You must be kidding.”

Now that I think about it an intense discussion about Cubism, Modernism, Impressionism, techniques, philosophy or marketing is one of the ingredients essential to an art colony. Art colonies began in the 19th and 20th centuries in villages usually, where creative souls interacted with one another. The key seems to be interaction.

In viewing Southwestern Allure, The Art of the Santa Fe Art Colony, I was struck by two paintings by John Sloan, an artist who summered in Santa Fe for more than thirty years. Sloan’s Picnic on the Ridge depicts a group of his friends, and their dogs, making merry around a campfire. Their joy is infectious. Their freedom complete.

John French Sloan
Picnic on the Ridge, 1920
Oil on canvas
26 x 35 inches
Private Collection, Los Angeles, California

For me, the painting typifies the camaraderie among the artists who arrived here in the late 19th and early 20th century, seeking a locale, where they were free to experiment and grow. Many of these artists were encouraged to come by artist Robert Henri, invited by the Museum’s first director, Dr. Edgar Hewett, who wanted to build a museum that would be a nucleus for the growing art colony, similar to those in Europe. Artist studios were provided in the Palace of the Governors, where the museum was first located. When the current building opened its doors, all artists were allowed to exhibit their work under the museum’s open door policy, championed by Henri, who, like Sloan, didn’t believe in art academies or juries.

In the second painting, The New Homestead, Sloan again has painted close friends – he and his wife are included - at a housewarming at artist Will Shuster’s small shack, where they’re smoking and drinking with one another, in other words: interacting.

John French Sloan
The New Homestead, 1930
Oil on board
24 x 32 inches
Courtesy of Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico and Kraushaar Galleries, New York, New York

Where exactly is the art colony centered now? The Museum of Art, where most of the artists in this exhibit first found a home, will soon celebrate its one hundredth anniversary in its current location. But it’s not the only museum in town now. There are ten art museums in Santa Fe, exhibiting a wide variety of art, including folk, Indian, contemporary, and Spanish Colonial.

There are art galleries now, galleries galore. According to the New Mexico Department of Tourism, three hundred galleries are in Santa Fe. One hundred fifty galleries and restaurants are on Canyon Road alone. Restaurants and coffee shops often exhibit and sell art, so they’re counted.

How many artists are here I asked? Surely, someone in state government got a head count.

That’s impossible to say, the state tourism person replied. “But I can tell you this,” she said. “It’s estimated that one out of six people are involved in some way in art.”

That means Santa Feans are appraising, framing, packing, shipping and selling art in addition to painting, photographing, working in ceramics, creating sculpture or experimenting with new media, not to mention teaching art. Sometimes that gang you see on the Rio Grande Gorge is made up of art students who come every summer to learn how to draw, paint or work with clay. What about that guy walking around the plaza juggling chain saws? Or the one on the unicycle? Or the mime? Artists? You be the judge.

According to Dr. Hewett, “Art is the great, lasting, self-revealing activity of life. Through it we transmit our spiritual power through the ages.”

You don’t have to turn right at the blinking light to find the Santa Fe art colony or the Taos art colony for that matter. In Northern New Mexico, you’ll find art everywhere. It’s interactive.

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