BO­HEMIAN RHAP­SODY

WAL­TER COOPER RE­MEM­BERS

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - Jen­nifer Levin

Santa Fe is of­ten de­scribed as a bo­hemian out­post where peo­ple can re­ally be them­selves. Cer­tainly this refers to the di­verse art scene and sheer num­ber of artists who make Santa Fe their home, as well as the fluid spir­i­tu­al­ity of the place and the vast num­ber of nat­u­ral heal­ers who at­tempt to treat the sick and seek­ing, who also flock here. But ask any­one who ever had to keep his or her sex­u­al­ity a se­cret from friends, fam­ily, and em­ploy­ers, and they’ll tell you Santa Fe is a great place to be if you are gay or les­bian — and has been since wealthy East Coast fam­i­lies be­gan send­ing their in­de­pen­dent, de­cid­edly un­mar­ried daugh­ters here in the first decades of the 20th cen­tury.

“Agnes Sims moved here from Philadel­phia in the late 1930s, and she was part of a group of very ex­tra­or­di­nary women, many of whom were les­bians,” Wal­ter Cooper, au­thor of the mem­oir Un­but­toned: Gay Life in the Santa Fe Arts Scene, re­called in con­ver­sa­tion with Pasatiempo. “They cre­ated a colony here that was very in­flu­en­tial. I think that’s re­ally sig­nif­i­cant, and I don’t think that story’s been told. These women were still here when I got here, in the ’70s. They had a great cul­ture — lots of din­ner par­ties, lots of dis­cus­sions — and they em­braced the gay com­mu­nity.”

In Un­but­toned, Cooper pays homage to Sims, pho­tog­ra­pher Laura Gilpin, and writer Ros­alind Con­sta­ble, as well as nu­mer­ous other men and women who pop­u­lated his world af­ter he moved to Santa Fe from New York City in 1973. The self-pub­lished mem­oir is a ver­i­ta­ble who’s who of the Santa Fe art scene in the 1970s and ’80s, filled with sto­ries, gos­sip, and re­mem­brances. Cooper writes can­didly about gay ro­mance and sex, and about the friend­ships he made with other gay artists, in­clud­ing For­rest Moses, Dou­glas Atwill, and the late Ford Ruth­ling. “So much of our queer his­tory has been swept un­der the rug, it’s al­most as if we never ex­isted,” he writes in the in­tro­duc­tion. “I’d like to … cap­ture a glimpse of Santa Fe’s un­sung gay cul­ture that con­tin­ues to thrive. Peo­ple tend to un­der­rate or ig­nore ‘ the queer fac­tor,’ the enor­mous im­pact gay folks have made on New Mex­ico’s unique cul­tural life.”

Cooper moved to Santa Fe when he was in his early thir­ties, af­ter 10 years work­ing in the ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try. He spent his first year in town in Te­suque, where he per­formed in the cho­rus of South Pa­cific, di­rected by Der­rik Lewis, at the Shi­doni Foundry, for New Mex­ico’s Mu­si­cal Theatre As­so­ci­a­tion — just one of many en­deav­ors over the years by res­i­dents to cre­ate a lo­cal the­ater com­pany equal in stature to Santa Fe Opera. “Der­rik was very am­bi­tious and he worked very hard, but af­ter about five years or so he couldn’t swing it fi­nan­cially,” Cooper said. “My part was a dis­as­ter. I fell off the stage. That was the end of my mu­si­cal ca­reer.”

Cooper had al­ways been in­ter­ested in art, so in Santa Fe he took up painting, earned gallery rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and sup­ported him­self well enough to buy a house, for $17,000, in the South Capi­tol neigh­bor­hood. “It needed a lot of work, but it was a charm­ing lit­tle street. So many artists moved here then. It was pos­si­ble. I think it’s much harder today. Rents are so high and the gallery sys­tem is much more com­pet­i­tive,” he said. He also took up pho­tog­ra­phy, mak­ing male nudes his sub­ject mat­ter.

The book has as much per­sonal his­tory as so­cial, with chap­ters delv­ing into fam­ily lore and Cooper’s chronic back pain. But be­fore his days of de­gen­er­a­tive disc dis­ease came the days of disco, which he spent danc­ing at The Se­nate, one of the many gay bars that have come and gone in the City Dif­fer­ent. La Fonda had a hey­day as a place for gay men to drink to­gether — and, in the era be­fore AIDS, its ground-level men’s bath­room had an even bawdier rep­u­ta­tion. “It’s a very dif­fer­ent ho­tel now than it was then. It’s pretty graphic stuff [in the book], but it was part of our life,” he said. Later, Vic­tor’s on West San Fran­cisco Street was the place to be, and for a time, Cooper re­called, you could go danc­ing at Gold Bar, on the site of the old El Paseo The­ater down­town. “It had been a movie the­ater, so the floor still had a tilt to it.” As to why Santa Fe’s nightlife can’t seem to sus­tain a gay club these days, Cooper blamed the in­ter­net. “If you want to meet peo­ple now, you don’t have to go out in pub­lic.” Drugs flowed freely in the bars back then — up­pers, down­ers, pey­ote, and other hal­lu­cino­gens, as well as ma­jor amounts of co­caine. Cooper par­took un­til one night he ex­pe­ri­enced a rapid heart­beat and wasn’t sure he’d live un­til morn­ing. It was a wakeup call while he was still in his thir­ties. Other artists didn’t fare so well, and some who be­came deal­ers even went to prison.

One lo­cal trend Cooper dis­cusses is the pen­chant for “woo-woo,” or New Age spir­i­tu­al­ity, psy­chol­ogy, and al­ter­na­tive medicine that is read­ily em­braced by many Santa Feans. He spends sev­eral pages on the self-ap­pointed god­dess Chris Griscom and her ex­pen­sive cour­ses at the Light In­sti­tute in Gal­is­teo. He also dis­cusses the ac­tress Shirley MacLaine, who brought at­ten­tion to Santa Fe woo-woo in the 1980s with sev­eral books about her be­lief in past lives.

In one pas­sage of Un­but­toned, Cooper re­counts a hor­ri­fy­ingly funny ex­pe­ri­ence with a high- colonic. “I par­tic­i­pated, I tried,” he told Pasatiempo. “I made a mess of things, lit­er­ally.” He is not fun­da­men­tally averse to al­ter­na­tive medicine, but said peo­ple call­ing t hem­selves pro­fes­sion­als were ex­per­i­ment­ing with so many un­proven prac­tices that it seemed dan­ger­ous to him, such as when his chron­i­cally un­happy neigh­bor, al­ler­gic to ev­ery­thing she en­coun­tered, had all her blood re­moved and put back into her body. “I had never heard of that be­fore and won­dered if it was le­git­i­mate. I asked her about it, but she didn’t want to talk about it. I be­lieve she was be­ing taken ad­van­tage of. I don’t mean to sug­gest that there aren’t en­vi­ron­men­tal dan­gers to our health and well-be­ing, but with her it seemed to be about more than en­vi­ron­men­tal causes. I think there was a lot of that in those years.”

Cooper found his al­ter­na­tive to Santa Fe woowoo in the teach­ings of Hazel Archer, an alumna of and for­mer in­struc­tor at the famed Black Moun­tain Col­lege out­side Asheville, North Carolina, where her peers in­cluded John Cage, Beau­mont Ne­whall, and Buck­min­ster Fuller. Fuller be­came a close friend, and with him she built early mod­els of ge­o­desic domes. Archer spent her l i fe in a wheel­chair be­cause of a bout with child­hood po­lio. She died in 2001. “Hazel never made any money,” Cooper said. “She lived at the edge of poverty. She was a won­der­ful per­son. She was in­ter­ested in the world of de­sign and math­e­mat­ics. I felt this was much more rea­son­able, com­pli­cated, and in­ter­est­ing than woowoo, than auras, or tak­ing in­ner child work­shops for thou­sands of dol­lars.”

In Santa Fe, Archer taught a se­ries of 10-week cour­ses called “An On­go­ing Per­cep­tual In­ves­ti­ga­tion, or Things Are Not What They Ap­pear to Be,” for which she charged $58. Be­cause her lessons con­tinue to res­onate so deeply with him, Cooper in­cludes sev­eral pages of notes he took in her classes in Un­but­toned, pre­serv­ing her lessons on Na­ture, Lis­ten­ing, Ge­nius, Fear, In­sight, and Chil­dren, among other top­ics, for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. “With Hazel there were no com­pro­mises, no half-mea­sures,” he writes. “She burned with a vi­tal fire. Her aim in life was sim­ple: To make over the world.”

“Un­but­toned: Gay Life in the Santa Fe Arts Scene” by Wal­ter Cooper was pub­lished this year.

Wal­ter Cooper with his Santa Fe Opera poster

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