Art and History in the Southwest

This article is a little off the usual track, and continues my experiment in trying a little travel writing.  Enjoy.
Sometime in the spring The Week magazine had a piece about the Denver Art Museum featuring the works of five women who were leaders in abstract expressionism during the ‘40s and ‘50s.  My wife is an artist; would she like to go?  Of course, but it’s too extravagant to go to Denver just to see an art exhibit, so we made it bigger by adding stops in Santa Fe and Taos.  Now it made sense.  Two important galleries in Santa Fe, plus lunch with an old friend and his new spouse.  Galleries and several museums in Taos.  On to Denver for the first time ever exhibit of amazing women whose art was often ignored in favor of more famous men.  Throw in two wonderful days with one of our daughters, a museum dedicated to Clyfford Still (one of the men),  fifteen sculptures from the Walker on loan to the Denver Botanic Garden, some great hotels, even better food, and it was a hit.  See, if you spread extravagance out it seems less so. So who were the women?  Sonia Getchtoff, Judith Godwin, Mary Abbott, Helen Frankenthaler, Deborah Remington.  Never heard of them?  Look them up.  As for me, when it comes to art, I am the accidental tourist.  My wife is the artist and student of art.  I drive the car and carry the luggage.  So let’s go back to Taos to talk history.
I’m as amateur a historian as amateur can get, but I’m fascinated by it, so let me depart from art and say something about our time with Ilona Spruce, the director of tourism for the Taos Pueblo.  We had arranged for a half day tour guided by Angelisa Espinoza to include the Taos Pueblo and Millicent Rogers Museum, with a quick side trip to the Rio Grande Gorge just for the fun of it.  I suppose there are tourists who ignore the Pueblo, or treat it as just another roadside attraction.  What a shame.  They’re missing something as great as the art, and more important to understanding who and what America is.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Historic Landmark, it has been occupied for a thousand years or more as it is today.  Members of tribe who choose to live there, sans running water or electricity, do so not because they have to, or for the benefit of tourists, but because they want to continue in the traditional ways, preserving them for future generations.
The tribe owns several hundred thousand acres of surrounding land as well as the bulk of Taos Mountain, so the majority of members live in much the same fashion as other rural Americans in the Southwest.  They are not on a reservation. This is their ancestral land over which they have never ceded sovereignty or ownership.  Visitors are normally guided from the village center through the Pueblo where they can observe the methods of everyday life, and occasionally see dancing or other ceremonial festivities.  However, the day we were there the community was celebrating a funeral, and the grounds were closed to the public.  Our consolation was to spend almost two hours with Ms. Spruce, who talked story with us.  She rehearsed the history of the Taos Pueblo, the enormous extent of their pre-contact farms, their early contacts with Europeans, the contending claims of the tribe, Spanish, and Americans as the region struggled to find its identity in the modern world, and all from the point of view of the Taos Indians.
It’s a story not told in ordinary history books, at least not the ones I had in school.  Churchill is reported to have said that that history is written by the victors, and so it has been for millennia.  The Pilgrims defined Thanksgiving.  The American Revolution is a tale told by rebelling colonists.  The wining of the West is the story of heroic westward expansion of European settlement.  It condemns atrocities committed by Indians while ignoring the genocidal duplicity used to conquer them.  And so it was both refreshing and enlightening to hear the story of the Taos Pueblo as told by an articulate historian, without polemics, without apologies, without accusations.  It was the story of her people as told by her people.

She joined us later for another hour at the Millicent Rogers museum, taking us through displays that helped fill in details through art and artifacts, and saying more about the 20th century Americans who founded its famous art community.  They sustained themselves in the early days through paintings commissioned by the Santa Fe Railroad depicting Pueblo life as part of its advertising campaign to entice tourists.  Art and tourism helped save the Pueblo and its way of life.  It also endangered the Pueblo and its way of life.  They had survived battles with and between the Spanish and the Americans, but would they survive 20th century tourism?  They appear to have done a masterful job of maintaining a difficult balance.  Our time with Ms. Spruce would not have happened had the Pueblo not been closed, and we are grateful for it.  It was an extraordinary treasure.  Is there more?  Of course there is.  Look it up for yourself.

Leave a Reply