on the road

WITH ROBERT WOLF

Pasatiempo - - JENNIFER GOES -

Robert Wolf be­gan his search for Amer­ica at the age of sev­en­teen when, inspired by the writ­ings of Jack Ker­ouac and Carl Sand­burg, he ran away from an af­flu­ent home in New Canaan, Con­necti­cut. Wolf sought out ex­pe­ri­ences among the na­tion’s work­ing classes in ar­eas of the coun­try that had not yet caught up with the mod­ern world. “There were two rea­sons I left,” Wolf told Pasatiempo. “One: hav­ing grown up in such a con­form­ist com­mu­nity as New Canaan and feel­ing as though I lived in a strait­jacket out there. There was a code; you were sup­posed to go to col­lege, get a good­pay­ing job, get mar­ried, re­tire, then ev­ery­one lives hap­pily ever af­ter. It was a fan­tasy. On the other hand, from an early age — prob­a­bly through the in­flu­ence of movies and TV shows — I be­came fas­ci­nated with the West. When I was in high school I sub­scribed to

Ari­zona Highways. I had this great long­ing. That com­bined with the TV show Route 66 and Ker­ouac’s On

the Road — all these in­flu­ences got me on the road.” In the pro­logue to his new book In Search of Amer­ica, Wolf writes, “I de­ter­mined to go in search of the Amer­i­can soul and look for it, not among busi­ness­men and their wives (I had plenty of ex­po­sure to them grow­ing up) but among farm­ers, ranch­ers, welders, fish­er­men, auto me­chan­ics.” It was the be­gin­ning of a quest that would lead him — by train, by car, by bus, and on foot — on an odyssey into small back­wa­ters with dis­tinc­tive re­gional cul­tures. “In these back­wa­ters — His­panic vil­lages, Iowa farms, Texas Pan­han­dle and Ten­nessee Delta towns — I have found most of my close friends, the peo­ple with whom I am most sim­patico,” he writes.

Wolf’s book, pub­lished in July by Ruskin Press and as an ebook by Stay Thirsty Media, is writ­ten in a con­ver­sa­tional style, and de­tails the au­thor’s ad­ven­tures as a young man in the 1960s. There’s plenty of thought­ful, hu­mor­ous, and telling anec­dotes from his jour­neys hitch­hik­ing cross-coun­try and hop­ping freights with ho­bos. In New Mexico, where Wolf lived off and on, he met and shared re­mem­brances of some of Santa Fe’s more rec­og­niz­able artists, and his sto­ries of meet­ing them are in­ter­twined with his rec­ol­lec­tions of ru­ral New Mexico. Works by sev­eral of these artists, in­clud­ing Harold West and Tommy Ma­caione as well as some of Wolf’s own paint­ings, are in the ex­hi­bi­tion New Mexico Wild: Type­writer Tales of a Santa Fe Bo­hemian, which opens Fri­day, Oct. 16, at Matthews Gallery. Wolf signs copies of In Search

of Amer­ica dur­ing the re­cep­tion. The idea for an ex­hibit came about af­ter Wolf saw the old hand-carved wooden sign advertising Claude’s Bar — a pop­u­lar bo­hemian gath­er­ing place at mid-cen­tury — hang­ing above a lin­tel in­side Matthews Gallery, which is close to the now-de­funct bar’s for­mer lo­ca­tion. “I started telling sto­ries about Claude’s Bar and some of the pain­ters they had in their gallery,” Wolf said. Claude’s was a fa­vorite hang­out for lo­cal writ­ers and artists such as Al­fred Mo­rang, but other bars on Canyon Road also had rep­u­ta­tions. “You know Geron­imo used to be Three Cities of Spain. Just across the road from that was a re­ally wild bar where, re­put­edly, some­one had got­ten killed. Mo­rang had done paint­ings that hung on the walls there, prob­a­bly in ex­change for drinks.” Mo­rang died in a fire at his stu­dio in 1958, af­ter a night of drink­ing at Claude’s. Sev­eral of his paint­ings are in the ex­hibit.

Wolf first came to New Mexico in 1963. He hitched a ride from In­di­ana with a pis­tol-pack­ing young jour­nal­ist who wanted to see Mexico. At Vaughn they headed south with­out a map and no real sense of the dis­tance to the bor­der. They drove 30 miles and stopped in Du­ran. “Du­ran looked like it was out of a Western set. I mean it looked like it hadn’t changed a bit since the 1880s. Be­ing a ro­man­tic, I said, ‘I’ve got to come back here.’ ” At a gen­eral store he saw a sign be­neath a gun be­hind the cash register, which read, Yes­sir, this ain’t the gun that killed Billy the Kid. “That clinched it. Ev­ery­thing out here was so dif­fer­ent from what I had known. You were free to be your­self and to ex­plore.” Still, he re­turned to his par­ents for sev­eral months, worked for a sur­vey com­pany and saved his money. Then he re­turned to Du­ran, rent­ing a small cabin with no run­ning wa­ter for $10 a month.

By 1966, Wolf was at­tend­ing St. John’s Col­lege and liv­ing in Santa Fe where he met artist Harold “Hal” West, whose pres­ence had a pow­er­ful and im­me­di­ate im­pact on Wolf, as he de­scribes in the book: “Some­thing flashed, a recog­ni­tion I have had a few times see­ing cer­tain men, some­thing in their dress, or poise, or speech or all of these tells me these men are com­plete, that what­ever their re­al­ity, what­ever scope of the world they have set for them­selves, they fill it com­pletely, and I knew then that West was such

In these back­wa­ters — His­panic vil­lages, Iowa farms, Texas Pan­han­dle and Ten­nessee Delta towns — I have found most of my close friends, the peo­ple with whom I am most sim­patico.

Robert Wolf, from “In Search of Amer­ica”

a man.” More­over, West was ap­proach­able, which was a big deal for the young Wolf, who was raised in a world where re­laxed en­coun­ters be­tween el­ders and youth were rare. Gath­er­ings in 1960s Santa Fe were spon­ta­neous. Peo­ple op­er­ated on a dif­fer­ent sense of time than they did in Con­necti­cut.

Wolf met other artists and writ­ers that year, in­clud­ing Shane au­thor Jack Schaefer. With his col­lege friends, Wolf per­formed in melo­dra­mas at the Tif­fany Saloon in Cer­ril­los. One day, a friend ran into Wolf’s dorm and raved about an artist “as good as Van Gogh.” They drove to a one-story house on Canyon Road and met Tommy Ma­caione, whose stacked paint­ings, in dif­fer­ent stages of com­ple­tion, vied for space with empty dog food cans and other de­bris, the house reek­ing of dog urine and fe­ces. He was in a dire state, hun­gry and con­cerned for his dogs who, like him, were starv­ing, Wolf said. Wolf and his friends got him some food. Soon af­ter their first meet­ing, the stu­dents ar­ranged for him to have a solo ex­hi­bi­tion at St. John’s.

Wolf left Santa Fe in 1974 but re­turned again six years later, as if to another world. “I was shocked,” he said. “I knew I was leav­ing at a time when the money first started com­ing in to Santa Fe and af­ter I left, the flood gates were open and so much more money came in.” When he re­turned he went im­me­di­ately to the Plaza. “Ev­ery­thing was stuc­coed. There were por­tals added. It was clearly a much more af­flu­ent town, and I did not feel at home. It’s taken me a while to get used to, but I have so many friends in Santa Fe. That’s why I keep com­ing back, for all my friends.”

Left, Al­fred Mo­rang: Moon­light on the Ace­quia Madre Road, no date, oil on panel; right, Robert Wolf: New Mexico Land­scape 2; top, Eli Levin: View From My Stu­dio, 1999, egg tem­pera on panel; op­po­site page, Robert Wolf (far right) with lo­cals in Cer­ril­los, circa 1960s, photo Hugh Hazel­rig

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