Santa Fe: The Landscape of Art
by Dalia Miller
Photos: Kip Miller
Northern New Mexico has been a center for native arts for generations. In the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and surrounding ranges, pueblo tribes produce distinctive pottery, inlaid turquoise jewelry, and weavings with geometric motifs according to time-honored traditions. The rugged landscape, burnished in rich earth tones, also serves as inspiration for the region's indigenous adobe architecture, a style virtually unchanged for centuries. The region's dramatic scenery and artistic legacy have been a magnet to artists since the late 19th century, attracting dozens of America's finest talents from John Sloan and Robert Henri to Ernest Blumenschein, Gerald Cassidy and Georgia O'Keeffe, to name just a handful. Today Santa Fe ranks as the third largest art market in America after New York and Los Angeles, with nearly 300 galleries crammed with endless arrays of art for every pocketbook. My husband and I were sufficiently dazzled by these riches on three prior trips. But recently, as our penchant for art collecting evolved into a full-fledged obsession, Santa Fe beckoned anew. "Don't you think it's time that we go again?" I ask my husband. So on a balmy April morning, we head out to Santa Fe, first meeting up in Albuquerque with our favorite traveling friends, Kathy and Eric.

Adobe Revival architecture dominates Santa Fe, a walkable town radiating from a central plaza, the oldest in America.
It's only about an hour's drive to Santa Fe. As we approach, the countryside turns noticeably greener, the air cooler at 7,000 feet. "It's is the oldest capital in the country," Kathy reads out of her guide book, "with a population of 82,000 not including the suburbs." Just as expected, adobe revival architecture dominates the entire town, an easily walkable, intimate municipality that radiates from its central plaza, the oldest in the country. On our last visit, we stayed at the historic St. Francis, but this time we have chosen La Fonda, a five-star hostelry built in 1922 just off the plaza on a site that housed three previous hotels. Recently refurbished, it is a treasure trove of southwestern art, colorful tiles and antiques. We check in, delighting in our spacious rooms with separate sitting areas and well-appointed baths. Minutes later, the four of us are off on an afternoon stroll to soak in the ambiance.

St. Francis cathedral is a local standout due to its Romanesque Revival architecture.
Dating from 1869, it honors Italy's patron saint.                                                        
Steps away from La Fonda is St. Francis Cathedral, dating from 1869 and a standout because of its Romanesque Revival architecture. It was built on the site of an older adobe church under the aegis of Father Lamy who migrated from France to become New Mexico's Archbishop. According to local lore, four Hebrew letters are embedded in the triangle of the keystone arch, probably a tribute to local Jewish merchants who contributed to the cathedral's building fund. A large bronze statue of St. Francis of Assisi reigns in front of the facade, conferring blessings on all who come to gawk at its stunning interior. "I'm glad we visited Assisi in Italy last summer," says my husband, amazed that the saint's legacy had traveled all the way to Santa Fe.

Chile ristras -- braided strings of red Anaheim peppers - are hung from lanterns,
museums and shops throughout Santa Fe.                                                           

We wander toward the Plaza, where an obelisk marks its center and lanterns are festooned with chile ristras--braided strings of red peppers that decorate the facades of many museums and galleries. The iconic peppers make me wish we could be here at Christmas, when hotels, shops and walkways throughout the region are outlined in luminarias-candles lit inside paper bags-a unique take on holiday décor. The plaza dates back to 1610 and in front of the Governor's Palace, the oldest continuously inhabited building in the U.S., local artisans have spread their wares on blankets: hand-crafted silver and turquoise jewelry, textiles, small watercolors, and pueblo pots in traditional shapes. Each vendor displays his or her wares proudly, and while there are no bargains, a little haggling is in order.

"Time for a pick-me-up," announces Eric who has done all the driving. He dashes down Palace Avenue to Chocolate and Cashmere, a unique shop displaying hand-loomed accessories such as scarves, ponchos and hats, complemented by an array of chocolate bars and truffles. As he tears into a bar of melt-in-your-mouth chocolate, the rest of us scout out a place for tonight's dinner. The Shed, owned by the Carwell Family since 1953, is famed for classic New Mexican fare based on locally grown Sandia and Hatch chiles. Early bird patrons are already sipping margaritas at the bar area. "Looks promising," says my husband. When we return after our siesta, The Shed is packed with customers. We grab the last empty bar table and linger over drinks until our name is called. My selected combo plate is full of flavor, but I crave more counterbalance to the heat! Our waitress, a veritable stand-up comedienne who has been working at The Shed for several years, offers non-stop commentary, and whatever may be lacking in our selections is compensated by her lively repartee. "You will get used to the chiles," she assures us. "Just keep eating. Soon your taste buds will be happier than a lizard on a hot rock after sunset!"

La Plazuela, La Fonda's soaring courtyard restaurant, is famed for a large menu of New Mexico specialties.
A chill morning mist is hovering over Santa Fe, but we can't wait to get going. Since reservations at Santa Fe's top restaurants are often hard to get, Kathy and I approach La Fonda's concierge desk for assistance. Patrick Tolen is already on duty at eight AM and immediately comes up with several suggestions: Geronimo, La Boca and Coyote Café. "Can we also arrange for a private tour of Santa Fe and the surrounding area?" asks Kathy. Patrick scans his computer: "Nat Shipman is very best guide I know," he says. "Luckily he is available for a one PM tour today!" Arrangements made, we head for breakfast at La Plazuela, La Fonda's soaring courtyard restaurant where the service is attentive and a large menu highlights local specialties such as pine nut and blue cornmeal pancakes.

Andrea Fisher Gallery offers eye-popping displays of pueblo pottery.

Santa Fe is a "shop 'til you drop" destination and Owings Gallery is renowned for museum-quality art. Its sprawling Marcy Street location showcases paintings, sculpture, and prints by established southwest and regional artists, including several Taos greats, not to mention pueblo crafts and contemporary pieces. Behind the showrooms are enormous storage vaults crammed with endless arrays of other treasures. We linger for a couple of hours, admiring their trove, finally selecting an etching by John Sloan, the Ashcan School artist who split his time between New York and Santa Fe. At Andrea Fisher, probably the finest Indian pottery gallery in the entire world, the array of pueblo pots is mind-blowing. According to manager Celia Williams, the gallery serves as an educational retail experience: "We let the pottery speak for itself." She brings out several black glazed pots by Maria Martinez, the world renowned artist from San Idelfonso, whose work is the most collected of all pueblo pottery, followed by several pieces by Lucy Lewis, the iconic Acoma potter who, by the time of her death at age 93, had trained several family members to continue her legacy, turning out exquisite, thin-walled pots painted with geometric designs. Just as you would expect, "name" pottery is very pricey, so we hold off, turning out attention to Ortega, an elegant jewelry shop across the street brimming with a dazzling array of hand-crafted necklaces, earrings and other items. "I have to have these!" Kathy announces as she models a handsome necklace and matching earrings studded with semi-precious stones, coral and turquoise.

Nat Shipman is already waiting for us when we return to la Fonda. "Before we head out," he says, "let me give you some background on Santa Fe." We gather around a table and I immediately realize that Nat is not merely a tour guide, he is also a history, archaeology and anthropology professor all wrapped up in one. "My family came here from Boston in 1948 when I was just 17 months old because my father was involved with the Atomic Energy Commission in Los Alamos as a specialist in industrial medicine," he explains. "There were six kids in my family and we lived in Pojoaque, near the pueblo settlements, because Los Alamos was not built up yet. At that time there were only two dozen Anglo families living on non-pueblo lands that were owned by Hispanics." Nat reveals that he grew up in a tri-cultural atmosphere, living in a 200-year-old hacienda. "People don't realize that New Mexico is the fifth biggest state in the country. About 47% of our total population is of Hispanic origin, 10% are pueblo Indians, and the rest are Anglo and Asian. We are proud of our diversity and that our communities respect one another. In fact, Santa Fe is a ridiculously tolerant place!" he emphasizes. The Spanish Colonial ambiance combined with a rich pueblo presence has been a powerful magnet for tourists because each group has sustained its individual identity. "For example," Nat boasts, "our pueblo dance festivals and Indian market days attract huge mixed audiences."

The region's commercial activities date back to the time pueblos began operating individual trading posts. "When the Santa Fe Trail and the Camino Real were extended to Santa Fe, the amount of trading skyrocketed. The Rio Grande River was the conduit from the north," says Nat, "bringing lots of people to the area." But women from abroad were scarce, so the traders and artisans married local women, creating a large mestizo population. This new group was heavily influenced by the agrarian pueblo Indians who had an intimate knowledge of nature and a love of crafts. However, the initial domination by the Spanish was insensitive and often coercive, fomenting the great Pueblo Revolt of 1680 led by 2000 pueblo warriors that resulted in the death of 400 Spaniards. The remainder retreated. "Twelve years later, the new Spanish governor Diego de Vargas arrived to reclaim Santa Fe for the Spanish," Nat explains. "He was instructed by his authorities to 'assimilate, not dominate,' leading a peaceful, bloodless re-conquest of the area. One thing that I want to leave with you today," he emphasizes, "is that today locals of Spanish origin in New Mexico are radically different from Latinos in other areas. They have fully embraced the entire community and its various traditions. They still have the spirit of Vargas."

The historic Loretto Chapel houses an unusual 20-foot helix staircase, its "miraculous"
construction confounding carpenters to this very day. Photo by Kathy Denardo.
Nat continues his history lesson and I am convinced that one day he write a book on Santa Fe. "OK, let's take off on our tour," he finally announces, leading us to his SUV. As we curve past St. Francis Cathedral, he points to Loretto Chapel, a popular wedding venue. Once the domain of the Sisters of Loretto who operated school for girls, it houses an unusual 20-foot helix staircase, a tour-de-force of construction since it makes two revolutions in only twenty feet, its stairs held together by wooden pegs. "The staircase was built by a reclusive French carpenter named Francois Rochas who was brought in by Lamy. The sisters were convinced that its construction was a miracle," Nat explains. "Even modern carpenters are confounded by its meticulous execution and that it is still standing today!"

Barrio De Analco ranks as the oldest neighborhood of European origin in the U.S. Its first adobe house,
at 216 East Vargas Street, features extra thick walls to insulate against both heat and cold.

We leave the Plaza area and its museums for later exploration and head toward the Barrio De Analco, the oldest residential neighborhood of European origin in the U.S. Located across the Santa Fe River, its adobe brick buildings have withstood the test of time. "It was the first neighborhood that was attacked during the Pueblo Revolt," Nat reveals. "These old buildings originally had flat roofs with tamped earth and vigas (poles). They are superb examples of Spanish Pueblo architecture." We stop alongside the oldest house in the neighborhood at 215 East Vargas Street. "It has extra thick walls that insulate against both cold and heat," says Nat. Nearby, the chapel of San Miguel is one of the oldest churches in the country, rebuilt several times, but still clinging to its original adobe walls.

"How did Santa Fe become such an enormous art market?" I ask Nat. "It's an unlikely answer," he responds. "The real reason is that pulmonary diseases such as tuberculosis and asthma brought many people from the East Coast to heal in New Mexico's clean, high altitude. Two major sanitariums were built, inviting wealthy, cultured people to come out to be cured. Some of them started dabbling in art to fill their time. They wrote letters to friends and relatives, promoting the benefits of living in Santa Fe and brought their paintings and images with them when they went back to visit. The rest is history. The 'lungers' who came to heal, stayed to paint!" Nat exclaims. I totally get it. New Mexico became known as 'the place' to express yourself. In Taos, the mountain scenery provided extra inspiration, and most East Coast artists who came out never looked back.

With that Nat winds along Paseo de Peralta heading toward Santa Fe's famous enclave of art galleries. Nedra Matteucci is a handsome adobe complex complete with rambling gardens filled with bear statuary. Known for major western and southwestern art, it houses an enormous inventory of works by major artists such Emil Bisttram, Gustave Baumann, Joseph Imhof and Joseph Henry Sharp, to name only a few. He continues to Canyon Road, nearly a mile-long stretch lined with galleries covering the entire range of art from kitch and pop to major southwestern and pueblo. As we climb higher, the wind kicks up, rustling the spring green leaves of towering Siberian elms imported in the 1930s to check the erosion of Santa Fe's dirt hillsides. "Unfortunately, these trees produce millions of seeds and they take over the landscape," says Nat. "They are a pain in the butt." I notice properties here are surrounded by tree branch fences. "Those fences keep the coyotes out," Nat explains with a smirk. "In this barrio (neighborhood), dirt roads predominate. It's a crazy reverse snob scene! People who live here have made it, yet they live on a dirt road and drive a funky car. Their motto is to be discrete and blend in." He points to a small market on the right: "They sell killer tamales here!"

We pause by the McCarthy residence, the New Mexico home of the national construction czar. I notice that its exterior walls and surrounding enclosures are all undulating. The entire property has an organic quality, with walls that curve in random fashion, as if the residence were a living creature. Nearby, the newer area of Camino de Monte Sol is subdivided into lots of more uniform size. We climb toward Museum Hill, where several of Santa Fe's prized institutions crown a knoll with breathtaking views of forested hills. The trees here are much more diverse, including old cottonwoods, pines, junipers and ornamental cherries now in full bloom. "There was a paradigm shift in the '70s and '80s," says Nat. "The city and state decide to dedicate more money toward tourism. Several super chefs such as Mark Miller of Coyote Café and Matt Yohalem of Il Piatto descended on Santa Fe. All at once we found ourselves on everyone's bucket list. Even Hollywood arrived to shoot movies here." Soon after, Santa Fe got discovered by the rest of the country. With the advent of the technology revolution, newly rich tech magnates decided to build showy mansions here. Nat points out a Frank Lloyd Wright residence called "Pottery House." Nearby, the Sierra del Norte subdivision is built atop rock deposits. "Today the median price in a nice neighborhood is $375,000, and $650,000 and up in new subdivisions. We have properties that exceed ten million and many of these are owned by the super-rich who also have houses elsewhere. Believe it or not, Santa Fe is the highest paid community in the country today," Nat says as he deposits us in front of La Fonda.

Back on Canyon Road for dinner at Geronimo, we are impressed by its elegant, understated décor. A fine dining establishment, it specializes in global eclectic fare. We feast on leek and white asparagus bisque and Fujisaki Asian pear salad followed by green miso sea bass and tellicherry rubbed elk tenderloin. "The elk is farm-raised in Australia," our waiter whispers in my ear, as if divulging a trade secret.

The International Folk Museum, unique in the world, boasts over 100,000 pieces of folk art showcased in multi-level vignettes.
Billowy clouds drift in the morning sky as we wind up Museum Hill, popular for collections housed in four buildings. At the International Folk Museum, "No idle Hands" is a ground-breaking exhibition on tramp art which has been on view since last September. We happen to be tramp art aficionados, with several boxes and picture frames in our own collection, and are enthralled by the pieces in the show. Tramp art utilizes a pen knife to work pliable wood, making rows of niches that form a rich texture on the item created. IFM's main collection, "Multiple Visions: A Common Cause," is the brainchild of Alexander Girard, a former designer at Herman Miller, and his wife Susan. An assemblage of over 100,000 pieces of folk art, miniatures and textiles is showcased in multi-level vignettes. "The museum itself was founded by Florence Dibell Bartlett, a Chicago heiress and major folk art collector," explains Kay Gerald, a docent who is leading today's tour. "More than a million visitors have seen this collection," she brags as we survey a colorful assemblage of protective amulets, ex-votos and apotropaic eyes designed to deflect the evil eye and keep a family safe. We trail behind her, past one eye-popping installation after another. But museum overload is taking its toll and we head for a snack at Museum Hill's café, aptly named "Lunch with a View."

Nedra Matteucci Gallery on Paseo de Peralta showcases an enormous trove of museum-caliber art by major Santa Fe and Taos artists.

"Shall we return to Canyon Road?" suggests Kathy. At Nedra Matteucci on Paseo de Peralta, we meander from one room to another, gobstruck by its eye-popping holdings, from Gene Kloss and Doel Reed aquatints to paintings by the southwest greats, plus several equine sculptures by Frederick Remington and bronzes by Felipe Castaneda, who trained with Mexico's great sculptor Francisco Zuniga. An attentive staff provides answers to any questions we may have. Next door, Gerald Peters is also one of Santa Fe's best, with spacious galleries displaying a wide assortment of western and contemporary art by established and emerging artists. We turn on Canyon Road and Eric pulls into a parking lot near Morningstar Gallery. Probably the country's finest gallery for Native American art, it is chock full of treasures from 50 Indian tribes ranging from museum quality basketry and kachinas to pottery and textiles. We breeze through several more galleries before a final stop at Zaplin Lampert, renowned for exceptional works by name regional artists. We are especially taken by the gallery's display of Gustave Baumann color woodblock prints whose popularity has soared of late.

"What an art-filled day!" sighs my husband as we stroll to La Boca, a popular, James Beard-nominated Spanish restaurant featuring tapas and Spanish wines. Jesus Bas, a mellow singer from Madrid, strums his guitar, taking requests to a receptive audience. Our small plates of jamon Iberico, a flat iron steak salad, grilled octopus, house cured tuna and other tidbits are complemented by Estrella lager beers. As we head back to La Fonda, a chill, damp night air is settling in. "So far, the dining scene in Santa Fe has totally exceeded my expectations," I blurt out loud.

The light snow that fell in the wee hours on Saturday morning has vanished, nonetheless we dress in layers as we depart for Taos, about an hour's drive north of Santa Fe. A feeder of the Rio Grande River snakes to the left of the highway. Here and there roadside stands are piled high with roasted pinon nuts. In the distance, the rugged Sangre de Cristo mountain peaks are still streaked with snow and I am reminded that Taos is renowned for fine skiing and a huge annual snowfall. Above the town looms the historic pueblo of Taos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home of the Red Willow people, the only American Indian tribe never displaced to a reservation. Unfortunately, the Pueblo is closed to the public today, so we turn into Taos Plaza, the hub of the town and brimming with kitsch trading posts and eateries.

The Adobe Bar of the historic Taos Inn is a social hub for both locals and visitors. Its award-winning
Doc Martin Restaurant is famed for creative cooking and an enormous wine collection.
On Bent Street, a narrow back lane, I step over a raised threshold into Robert Parsons Fine Art Gallery, a low-ceilinged adobe complex crammed with a trove of oils and prints by a dozen or more southwest luminaries. Nearby, Taos Fine Art features a large inventory of resale fine prints, vintage paintings, and textiles. We head to the old Taos Inn dating from the 1800s, where Doc Martin Restaurant is famed for the best cooking in Taos. Thomas Martin was the county's very first doctor, tirelessly traveling by horseback over Taos's rugged terrain to reach all his patients. The Inn first opened its doors in the late 19th century and through the years became a magnet to dozens of celebrities, from Greta Garbo and D.H. Lawrence to Robert Redford and Jessica Lange. The hotel's lively Adobe Bar is a popular social hub, famous for powerful Margaritas laced with Cointreau. Kathy points to its neon Thunderbird trademark: "I believe that Doc Martin is listed in 'Wine Spectator' because of its enormous wine cellar." We savor every last bite of Chef Bill Hartig's scrumptious Portabella sandwiches and garden fresh spinach salads with toasted pinons. "Outstanding!" exclaims Eric, emphasizing that Doc Martin's only uses locally sourced, organic produce.

At the popular Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, bold colors enliven a painting of the surrounding desert. O'Keeffe's iconic work serves a metaphor for Santa Fe and the southwest.
It's a sleepy Sunday morning, but Santa Fe's central plaza is already crowded with squealing toddlers and doting mothers. On its north side, The New Mexico Museum of History exemplifies adobe architecture at its best, decorated with tiled murals and plump chile ristras. We whiz through the museum's special exhibition of member-chosen favorites, with evocative oils by Gustave Baumann, Marsden Hartley, Peter Hurd and others. I fixate on a breathtaking oil by John Sloan, "Music in the Plaza," painted during his sojourn in Santa Fe in the 1920s. The popular Georgia O'Keeffe Museum is just minutes away on Johnson Street. While O'Keeffe's greatest masterpieces are hung at the Museum of Modern Art and other institutions worldwide, a recent documentary film, "A Life in Art," adds depth to its local holdings. When O'Keeffe starting coming to New Mexico in 1929, she was transfixed by the sky, the very air and by Pedernal Mountain. "God told me if I painted it often enough, he would give it to me," she says. So O'Keeffe built her studio and home at Abiquiú, generating a torrent of paintings thereafter. She lived to the ripe old age of 99 and is universally regarded as "the mother of American Modernism," her art also serving as a metaphor for Santa Fe and the southwest.

Mark Miller's innovative Coyote Café was the first to incorporate native ingredients into contemporary American dishes. Here, a tangy key lime tart is accented with pineapple sorbet and tropical meringues.

We have been anticipating our grand finale dinner at Coyote Café all day. Mark Miller's signature restaurant on Water Street has maintained an international reputation for elevated Southwest cuisine and mixology ever since it first opened its doors 30 years ago. An early advocate for incorporating traditional native ingredients into contemporary American dishes, Miller has long since passed his baton to Chef Eduardo Rodriguez, who masterminds a kitchen known for eclectic fare in visually arresting presentations. "Is that a Chihuly piece"? Kathy asks our waiter as we are seated near a dramatic red glass chandelier. It is. The décor is also accented with prints of Mexican folk animals, adding color and panache to the room. "Wow, what to order?" asks my husband as he peruses the menu. We zero in on poached lobster with green chile polenta and rainbow cauliflower, seared divers scallops, arugula salad with aromatic pears. And for dessert, tangy key lime tarts accented with pineapple sorbet and tropical meringues. And let's not forget Coyote's signature corn sticks! They are to die for. As we return to La Fonda, I am struck by how much Santa Fe exemplifies the true spirit of America. This intimate adobe city has blended cultures, art forms and cuisines with ingenuity, forging a bold identity that is simultaneously traditional and new.