the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury, pho­tog­ra­pher and ar­chae­ol­o­gist Jesse Nus­baum doc­u­mented the con­struc­tion and early days of Santa Fe’s iconic Scot­tish Rite Ma­sonic Cen­ter. The ed­i­fice, a Moor­ish-re­vival-style struc­ture based on a gate­house to the Court of Lions at the Al­ham­bra in Spain, was de­signed by the ar­chi­tec­tural firm of Hunt and Burns af­ter a re­jected bid by ar­chi­tect Isaac H. Rapp, and con­struc­tion was com­pleted in 1912. But a side-by­side com­par­i­son be­tween Nus­baum’s pho­to­graphs, made from glass-plate neg­a­tives, and the rich im­ages of con­tem­po­rary pho­tog­ra­pher Jo Wha­ley, who has been shoot­ing the tem­ple since 2013 — the year it went up for sale — proves that lit­tle has changed in­side the build­ing over the course of a cen­tury. Wha­ley has two on­go­ing projects in­volv­ing work at the Scot­tish Rite Cen­ter: One is his­tor­i­cal, the other is more cre­ative and makes use of a num­ber of back­drops from the build­ing’s the­ater, which is still used as a venue for lec­tures, cer­e­monies, and per­for­mances.

“In Cal­i­for­nia, to sup­port my­self as an artist, I worked in the­ater,” Wha­ley, who hails from the Bay Area and now lives in Santa Fe, told Pasatiempo .“I did that for about five years.” Wha­ley’s ex­pe­ri­ence in­cluded day jobs at the San Fran­cisco Opera, the Berke­ley Reper­tory The­atre, and other com­pa­nies. In Santa Fe, she would take stu­dent groups to the cen­ter to pho­to­graph it. “I saw the back­drops that they have. They re­ally needed to be doc­u­mented in situ.”

The build­ing, known to Freema­sons as the “Santa Fe Lodge of Per­fec­tion” and to lay­men as the “pink church” be­cause of its star­tling color, is a meet­ing place for the An­cient and Ac­cepted Scot­tish Rite Ori­ent of New Mex­ico, an ap­pen­dant body of Freema­sonry. The Scot­tish Rite still owns the prop­erty af­ter vot­ing in 2014 to form a hold­ing com­pany to pre­vent it from be­ing sold af­ter it went on the mar­ket. “Ob­vi­ously, the build­ing’s no longer for sale, but I con­tin­ued the project, and it just grew,” Wha­ley said.

Since doc­u­ment­ing the painted the­atri­cal back­drops, Wha­ley has been the prin­ci­pal pho­tog­ra­pher on a book project about the his­tory of the build­ing and Freema­sonry in New Mex­ico. The forth­com­ing vol­ume, slated for re­lease in 2017 by the Mu­seum of New Mex­ico Press, in­cludes es­says by state his­to­rian Rick Hen­dricks, Mu­seum of In­ter­na­tional Folk Art di­rec­tor Khris­taan Vil­lela, and scenic his­to­rian and con­ser­va­tor Wendy Waszut-Bar­rett. “All these back­drops were painted around 1911, 1912,” said Wha­ley. “It’s un­usual to have painted back­drops kept for so long. When I was paint­ing for the opera, we would only paint the drops to look good for 25 years. We fig­ured, by the end, they needed new styles. When I worked for Berke­ley Reper­tory The­atre, we would just paint and then trash them right away. They would only be used for one pro­duc­tion.”

The back­drops in the the­ater num­ber about 72, ac­cord­ing to Waszut-Bar­rett, and they were in­tended for use in Scot­tish Rite cer­e­monies. “Ev­ery Scot­tish Rite tem­ple fea­tures a the­ater, since the main func­tion of these struc­tures is to pro­vide a space to con­fer the de­grees to the brethren,” wrote Vil­lela in the ar­ti­cle “More Ori­en­tal­ism in Santa Fe” (The Santa Fe New

Mex­i­can, Oct. 4, 2013). Wha­ley cre­ated a se­ries of im­ages she calls Stage Stills, in­cluded in the New Mex­ico Mu­seum of Art’s Al­coves 16/17 #6, the sixth en­try in the mu­seum’s on­go­ing ex­hibit se­ries. For the Al­coves shows, five solo artists ex­hibit their work for a pe­riod of seven weeks. The other artists with solo Al­coves ex­hibits open­ing Satur­day, Dec. 10, are Chris Collins, Christy Ge­org, Jami Porter Lara, and Valerie Roy­bal.

“The show in the Al­coves is the free-form, cre­ative re­sponse I have to the Scot­tish Rite Tem­ple,” she said.

“I’m look­ing at these back­drops for what they are, not what they were, and re­spond­ing to them in a kind of ad-lib sce­nario, pulling props from around the build­ing be­cause they never threw any­thing out,” she said. Wha­ley runs the rig­ging to lower the back­drops one at a time and uses live mod­els (some­times her­self) and props ar­ranged in photographic com­po­si­tions. “The the­ater is like a lit­tle jewel box, and it’s all of a piece. It’s like go­ing back in time be­cause it hasn’t re­ally been al­tered,” she said.

Most of the drops were painted by Bri­tish-born scenic artist and land­scape painter Thomas G. Moses (1856-1934), who trav­eled the United States, paint­ing scenery for the­aters and Ma­sonic tem­ples. “The Ma­sons have been a se­cret so­ci­ety for cen­turies, and I was al­lowed to work with a scenog­ra­pher and pho­to­graph each back­drop,” said Wha­ley. “There’s 27 dif­fer­ent scenes we set up, and we had Ma­sons in cos­tume and recre­ated the de­grees and how the Ma­sons used this par­tic­u­lar the­ater. That will be in the book. As an artist, I orig­i­nally just wanted to doc­u­ment the back­drops for the Ma­sons and for the state of New Mex­ico, just to have it as a record. I made a deal with the Ma­sons that if I did all that work, they would give me a lo­ca­tion agree­ment to bring in my own mod­els and props. Ba­si­cally it’s like a stu­dio for me. All my light­ing gear is there. I just go there and work.”

The im­ages in the Stage Stills se­ries are a near seam­less blend of mod­els, props, and back­drops that at times look more like painted com­po­si­tions than pho­to­graphs, bear­ing traces of a fin de siè­cle, Ori­en­tal­ist aes­thetic and a more mod­ernist em­pha­sis on ab­sur­dity. Fly­ing Drop with

Red Chairs is an ex­cep­tion. The fore­ground im­agery, an ar­range­ment of three chairs, is jux­ta­posed with a back­drop shot in a timed ex­po­sure as the drop was be­ing low­ered from above. The re­sult­ing im­age con­trasts move­ment and still­ness, as the blurred drop takes on the ap­pear­ance of a translu­cent veil. Judg­ing by the col­ors, the same drop seems to have been used for The Un­der­study, in which a fig­ure en­ters from the right, face ob­scured by a golden pedestal she car­ries in her arms, and also for

Miss­ing Script, where a set of stacked black chairs is off­set by the anachro­nis­tic pres­ence of a black and red fire ex­tin­guisher. The em­pha­sis is on stage­craft — Wha­ley presents what is nor­mally be­hind the scenes from an au­di­ence per­spec­tive, giv­ing it the im­port and pres­ence im­parted by the magic of the­ater.

Most of the drops de­pict scenes, such as an­cient tem­ples, lush draped in­te­ri­ors, and enchanted for­est land­scapes. Wha­ley’s pho­to­graph An Idea

of a For­est puts one in mind of the art of stage­craft. The back­drop con­veys the idea of a for­est, but it is un­re­al­is­tic, the stage be­ing the arena for fan­tasy. The vis­i­ble opera net­ting, along with the pres­ence of a sin­gle chair po­si­tioned down­stage, in front of the drop, negate the fan­tasy. A re­lated im­age — The Ac­tor’s View; For­est Scene — de­picts another wooded back­drop from the van­tage point of a per­former on stage, pro­vid­ing a kind of neg­a­tive view of the for­est. The photo reaf­firms the the­ater as the realm of il­lu­sion, a qual­ity it shares with Wha­ley’s pho­tog­ra­phy, which has di­rectly in­spired her work as a scenic artist. “The whole idea of the­ater is that you’re invit­ing the au­di­ence to have that sus­pen­sion of disbelief and pre­tend with you. The­ater is the beau­ti­ful lie that tells the truth.”

Wha­ley: An Idea of a For­est, 2014, archival pig­ment print

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