The Liv­ing City: Mod­ern-day Taos

Taos has its roots in tra­di­tion and his­tory, but a new gen­er­a­tion is prov­ing that the North­ern New Mex­ico des­ti­na­tion is also look­ing to the fu­ture.

Western Art Collector - - CONTENTS - By Michael Claw­son

Over the course of nearly 1,000 years of hu­man oc­cu­pa­tion, Taos, New Mex­ico, has en­coun­tered a va­ri­ety of nat­u­ral and man-made phe­nom­ena, each one a cat­a­lyst of change: A 13th-cen­tury drought. Span­ish col­o­niza­tion in the 17th cen­tury. The ar­rival of ad­di­tional Euro­pean set­tlers. The Taos So­ci­ety of Artists. The mod­ernist and tran­scen­den­tal­ist painters who fol­lowed. Den­nis Hop­per, Easy Rider and the ’60s coun­ter­cul­ture. Poor economies and lan­guid growth. A re­ces­sion. Hip­sters, air­ports and trendy din­ing.

And yet for nearly 1,000 years, de­spite the threat of change at ev­ery turn, Taos has re­mained largely…well, Taos—un­mis­tak­able in its place within the fab­ric of North Amer­i­can cul­ture. There’s a rea­son the town’s nick­name is the Soul of the South­west. Now, like many times in the past, Taos is un­der­go­ing a sub­tle trans­for­ma­tion, one that will bring about an­other chap­ter. One of the epi­cen­ters of this next chap­ter is at the Couse-sharp His­toric Site, where ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and cu­ra­tor Dav­i­son Packard Koenig is help­ing to align many stars for the site’s next great project, the Lun­der Re­search Cen­ter, a repos­i­tory and ar­chive for all things re­lated to the Taos So­ci­ety of Artists. The cen­ter will house a com­pre­hen­sive ar­chive re­lated to the TSA, in­clud­ing the Couse ma­te­ri­als, a trea­sure trove of sales records, hand sketches, sketch­books, 8,000 ni­trate neg­a­tives used as ref­er­ence for paint­ings and count­less ob­jects. For schol­ars re­search­ing the TSA, or more broadly Taos, the re­search cen­ter will be the cen­ter of the uni­verse. For Koenig, who’s ex­cited to bring new gen­er­a­tions of re­searchers to the site, Taos has long been a place where cul­tures con­verge, and the re­search cen­ter will ex­em­plify that el­e­ment.

“Taos was this sleepy Span­ish town with a Pueblo next door. The ar­rival of Kit Car­son and the trap­pers, as well as a small An­glo pop­u­la­tion in the 1800s, re­ally put Taos on the map. Traders and trap­pers were aware of Taos as a trade cen­ter, also be­cause Taos had pretty mild win­ters com­pared to the North­ern Rock­ies. And then in 1893 you get Joseph Henry Sharp do­ing his first trip here. He later meets [Ernest] Blu­men­schein, [Eanger Irv­ing] Couse and [Bert Geer] Phillips in Paris and tells them they need to take a look. Later Blu­men­schein and Phillips have their fated wagon trip to Taos,” Koenig says, re­fer­ring to the trip that ended with a bro­ken wagon wheel that led the two men to stick around and even­tu­ally help cre­ate the Taos So­ci­ety of Artists. “When they ar­rive

it’s still a sleepy town—no run­ning wa­ter or elec­tric­ity, and the train never goes to Taos. There was the High Road to Taos, but it took a long time, so when you came here you stayed a while. Later Ma­bel Dodge Luhan shows up and things started to hap­pen for it to be­come this cul­tural jug­ger­naut. Then peo­ple like D.H. Lawrence, Ge­or­gia O’ke­effe and the rail­road. It changed very, very fast.”

Largely un­changed to­day, though, is the Couse-sharp site—“we see it even­tu­ally as a whole cam­pus,” Koenig adds—which is made up of nine build­ings, in­clud­ing Couse’s home and stu­dio; Sharp’s first and sec­ond Taos stu­dio, in­clud­ing the 1835 Luna Chapel; and the re­cently pur­chased Mis­sion Gallery, which will even­tu­ally house the Lun­der Re­search Cen­ter. In a town filled with his­toric sites—in­clud­ing the Taos Art Mu­seum at Fechin House, the Har­wood Mu­seum, the Kit Car­son Home and Mu­seum and many oth­ers—the Couse-sharp site has be­come an in­trigu­ing fo­cal point, es­pe­cially in the way it brings in con­tem­po­rary artists, in­clud­ing Na­tive Amer­i­can artists from Taos Pueblo, as well as art col­lec­tors, his­tory buffs and even just ca­sual art en­thu­si­asts tak­ing a day off from the slopes in Taos Ski Val­ley. It’s also bring­ing in the next gen­er­a­tion with cov­eted artists in res­i­dency pro­grams for artists and im­mer­sive in­tern­ships for schol­ars and art his­to­ri­ans, as well as doc­toral pro­grams.

But even with a grow­ing well of re­sources to draw from, Koenig says that Taos still has to work twice as hard as other New Mex­i­can towns to bring peo­ple in. And the town and its res­i­dents are up to the chal­lenge. “We’re slower paced here in Taos and be­cause of that Taos has a dif­fer­ent qual­ity of life than places like Santa Fe. And yet, for many peo­ple, we’re rel­e­gated to a day trip from Santa Fe, when a day here doesn’t be­gin to re­veal all that’s spe­cial here. We en­cour­age peo­ple to come and stay for a few days or more and re­ally en­gage with our past and our story. Don’t just do the day trip from Santa Fe. Come and stay and see how im­por­tant Taos is to the world,” he says, adding that tourist dol­lars are not taken for granted in a town with a pop­u­la­tion un­der 6,000, which is why all the gal­leries, mu­se­ums and other des­ti­na­tions work so closely to bring peo­ple in. “All the mu­se­ums and cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions have worked to­gether now more than ever. Whether it’s a mu­seum, a lit­er­ary group, an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal so­ci­ety or cul­tural or­ga­ni­za­tion, we all plan stuff to­gether so we don’t hold events on the same night. We’re all try­ing to build some­thing to­gether, and you can start to see it come to fruition now. This is the next trans­for­ma­tion of Taos. It’s hard to say what it is go­ing to be now, but I def­i­nitely think we’ll all dis­cover what it is to­gether as we make a bet­ter, more sus­tain­able com­mu­nity.”

These sen­ti­ments are echoed by Caro­line Jean Fer­nald, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor at the Mil­li­cent Rogers Mu­seum, an in­sti­tu­tion just north of Taos that is ded­i­cated to Mil­li­cent Rogers, the in­flu­en­tial ad­vo­cate and tastemaker of early South­west­ern cul­ture. Fer­nald, who in­terned at the Couse-sharp His­toric Site in 2016 through the Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa, re­mem­bers her first trip into Taos from Ok­la­homa. “My first day in Taos was my first day of my in­tern­ship. I took the High Road and was im­me­di­ately struck at the beauty—it was un­like any­thing I had seen be­fore,” she says. “Taos is work­ing on a very strate­gic plan, and one of the things I’ve gath­ered from the process is that Taos may move a lit­tle slower and be a lit­tle smaller and ev­ery­one wants to see busi­ness thriv­ing, but we don’t want to be Santa Fe. It’s just such a uniquely dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. Taos has its own pres­ence.”

Fer­nald says that change hap­pens very slow in Taos, and some­times it’s not al­ways wanted by res­i­dents. A re­cent air­port ex­pan­sion, for in­stance, took nearly 30 years to fi­nally hap­pen, and even as Taos Pueblo dancers were ded­i­cat­ing a run­way that can now ac­com­mo­date com­mer­cial jets, many res­i­dents

were con­cerned about traf­fic, pol­lu­tion and air­plane noise. (One agree­ment that was made, to cheers from all par­ties, was that planes would not be able to fly be­low 5,000 feet over Pueblo land.) Other changes may be smaller, but their im­pacts can be mea­sured, in­clud­ing in­creased web pres­ence by many gal­leries and mu­se­ums, as well as the pres­ence of on­line-friendly busi­nesses like Airbnb, Lyft and Uber, though Fer­nald rec­om­mends ex­pe­ri­enc­ing Taos the way lo­cals do, at a slower, more ge­nial pace.

One of the mu­seum’s proud­est achieve­ments—be­sides its 6,000-item col­lec­tion that fo­cuses on the Na­tive and His­panic cul­tures that have in­flu­enced Taos for cen­turies—is its fre­quent show­case of Taos Pueblo artists, which shows lo­cals and vis­i­tors alike that the Taos Pueblo is a liv­ing com­mu­nity, not just a static dis­play in a text­book or mu­seum ex­hibit. “The artists never left Taos. They are still there and still mak­ing art­work,” she says, adding that they have shown work from sculp­tors Larry Bell and John Suazo, painter Jonathan Warm Day Com­ing and fash­ion de­signer Pa­tri­cia Michaels, as well as many oth­ers. Ad­di­tion­ally, the mu­seum has part­nered with the Taos Pueblo on nu­mer­ous ex­hi­bi­tions and events, in­clud­ing San Geron­imo Feast Day held ev­ery Septem­ber 30.

“Even with all the ski­ing and the out­door ac­tiv­i­ties, Taos is still an art town. And it’s com­mend­able that we all work to­gether in

the com­mu­nity. The gal­leries and mu­se­ums ac­tu­ally all like each other, and we get along. We want to make our sched­ules work to­gether and be sup­port­ive,” Fer­nald adds. “It’s not so cut­throat here.”

An­other young mover and shaker in Taos is Ash­ley Rol­shoven, di­rec­tor and co-owner of Robert L. Par­sons Fine Art, a his­toric gallery, and Par­sons Gallery of the West, its con­tem­po­rary sis­ter in the for­mer home and stu­dio of Vic­tor Hig­gins. Rol­shoven, the step­daugh­ter of gallery founder Robert Par­sons and a dis­tant rel­a­tive of TSA mem­ber Julius Rol­shoven, grew up in Taos and is in love with the rich cul­ture of the town. “My ca­reer goals have been to pre­serve tra­di­tional Taos art here in Taos. And not just any art, but a high level of art, to carry that on to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions,” she says. “It just seems like Western art is for an older gen­er­a­tion, so it’s been fun and chal­leng­ing bring­ing it to younger col­lec­tors.”

She says that young peo­ple are liv­ing in Taos at the right time. “This younger gen­er­a­tion is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing it in a new way. There are so many op­por­tu­ni­ties here, whether it’s work­ing for a mu­seum, own­ing a gallery, start­ing a restau­rant… And there’s so much here to do and en­joy. There are more great restau­rants here per capita than

I’ve ever ex­pe­ri­enced in an­other small town. There’s food, mu­sic, arts…it’s re­ally a mecca for cre­ative peo­ple,” Rol­shoven says. “Young peo­ple were un­cer­tain where Taos was headed a decade or so ago, but young peo­ple are tak­ing charge and lead­ing it in their own di­rec­tion.”

One thing Par­sons is do­ing, Rol­shoven specif­i­cally, is bring­ing artists to Taos to see its beauty. And not just day trips, but thought­ful and in­volved vis­its that al­low them to ex­plore the Taos Pueblo, the Rio Grande Gorge, the San­gre de Cristo Moun­tains and other land­marks that cap­ti­vated Couse, Sharp and Blu­men­schein more than a cen­tury ago. Two artists she’s worked with re­cently were Mark Mag­giori and Lo­gan Maxwell Hagege, both of whom came out and worked with Rol­shoven on day trips, live paint­ing mod­els and pho­tog­ra­phy ses­sions. The two Cal­i­for­nia artists left with a pro­found sense of Taos’ great­ness and ref­er­ence ma­te­rial for sev­eral ma­jor paint­ings.

“My first trip to Taos was some­time around 2002-2003. Taos has al­ways been a lo­ca­tion that I wanted to visit. So much great art was pro­duced there and I fig­ured there had to be some­thing spe­cial about the place,” Hagege says. “I in­stantly feel a spe­cial en­ergy when I visit Taos. The Pueblo and its peo­ple, the light, the land­scape, all of it is so spe­cial. There are cer­tain places that artists have on their list to visit and Taos is def­i­nitely at the top of this list.”

Rol­shoven also shows works from many other artists with strong con­nec­tions to Taos, in­clud­ing Jerry Jor­dan, Ju­lian Robles, Dean Porter, Brett Allen John­son and Chloe Marie Gail­lard. The glory days of the Taos So­ci­ety of Artists are over, but a new gen­er­a­tion of artists is still be­ing in­spired by the color, the light, the peo­ple and the land of Taos.

“Taos is one of the last great places in this coun­try. Peo­ple here take a lot of great mea­sures to keep it that way. We don’t want to be­come su­per enor­mous. We want to see it grow, but not change so much,” Rol­shoven says. “This is one of the last places of the Wild West, and it still feels very pure—pure Taos.”

The Taos Pueblo, with a his­tory that spans 1,000 years, is con­sid­ered the old­est con­tin­u­ously in­hab­ited com­mu­ni­ties in the coun­try. Photo courtesy Visit Taos / Re­becca Hicks

Ash­ley Rol­shoven, di­rec­tor and co-owner of Robert L. Par­sons Fine Art. Pho­to­graph by Daniel Nadel­bach.

Par­sons Gallery of the West, which is lo­cated in the for­mer home and stu­dio of Vic­tor Hig­gins.

Jerry Jor­dan, The Mu­sic of Yel­low Leaves, oil, 36 x 36”. Avail­able at Par­sons Gallery of the West.

The en­try­way at the Couse-sharp His­toric Site, which fea­tures homes and stu­dios of Eanger Irv­ing Couse and Joseph Henry Sharp.

Dav­i­son Koenig, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and cu­ra­tor at the Couse­sharp His­toric Site in Taos. Pho­to­graph by Daniel Nadel­bach.

Chloe Marie Gail­lard, Women Rid­ing in the Field of Sage, oil, 12 x 16”. Avail­able at Par­sons Gallery of the West.

Caro­line Jean Fer­nald, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor at the Mil­li­cent Rogers Mu­seum in Taos. Pho­to­graph by Daniel Nadel­bach.

The Mil­li­cent Rogers Mu­seum near Taos, New Mex­ico.

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