This post was originally written before the horrific event in Orlando, Florida, last weekend. I’ve rewritten it in part as I reflect on what is happening in the US these days and how the opportunity to see another part of the country affected my views.
The Road to Taos, Taos, and the Road Back to Denver
Because we had taken the “low road” or “river road” from Taos south to Santa Fe when we arrived, we decided to take the “high road” back to Taos when we left Santa Fe. Although some commenters on TripAdvisor had made it seem as if this was going to be a very scary ride, it wasn’t at all. It was, however, incredibly scenic.
We stopped at the Santuario de Chimayo on our way. It is an important Catholic pilgrimage site and a pretty adobe church on lovely grounds. I was particularly taken by this painting, which reminded me of Da Vinci’s Last Supper; the people surrounding Jesus are quite obviously Native American and Spanish in their ethnicity.
We continued north, and the scenery just got better and better.
Finally, we arrived in Taos. As you can see, there was some kind of motorcycle event going on that weekend, and everywhere we turned, we saw and heard motorcycles.
Taos is actually quite a small town, and we realized pretty quickly that we had seen a good part of the town when we’d stopped to stretch our legs on our way south to Santa Fe four days before. In fact, Taos seems like a down-sized version of Santa Fe. There is a plaza and even a hotel called La Fonda on the plaza. There is an old street called Ledoux Street that has some galleries and historic homes, like a much smaller version of Canyon Road in Santa Fe.
On the outskirts of Taos, a few miles south of the town, there is a church named for St. Francis, just as in Santa Fe. This one, however, is an adobe church, and it has been painted by Georgia O’Keefe and photographed by Ansel Adams. You can see why even in my photographs. The way the light hits the various planes of the church’s exterior gives it a sculptural feel that goes beyond its architectural and religious aspects.
The scenery around Taos also makes you stop and appreciate where you are:
Despite its small size, Taos has four museums that we found well worth visiting. Two reflected the importance of Taos as an art center. First, on Ledoux Street, we visited what was once the home of the artist Ernest Blumenschein and is now a museum of his works and those of his wife Mary Shepherd Greene Blumenschein and his daughter Helen Greene Blumenschein. Ernest Blumenschein was one of the founders of the Taos Society of Artists in 1915 and is considered one of those who drew other artists to Taos, making it an important art center. Blumenschein himself was considered one of the leading artists in the Taos art community.
I’d never heard of any of the Blumenscheins before, and although their art was worth seeing, what was more interesting to me was the house itself. It was created from what had once been a fortress surrounding the town made up of interconnecting rooms. Over time the Blumenscheins acquired a fair number of these rooms for their home. The rooms are all connected end to end (with a few exceptions), and it was interesting to see how the family had decorated them and turned what had been a fort into a home.
The second museum we visited was also on Ledoux Street, the Harwood Museum of Art, where we saw a really fascinating exhibit about Mabel Dodge Luhan, another person whose name was unfamiliar to me, but whose life was quite remarkable. As described on the brochure for the exhibit, Mable Dodge Luhan (1879-1962) “brought modern art to Taos, New Mexico, putting it on the national and international maps of the avant-garde and creating a ‘Paris West’ in the American Southwest.” Among those whom she invited to Taos were Georgia O’Keefe, D.H. Lawrence, Edward Weston, Martha Graham, and Ansel Adams.
Mabel was born in Buffalo, New York, and lived in Paris, where she met her first husband, Edward Dodge, and then in Florence, where she and her husband established a salon attended by Gertrude Stein and many other artists and writers of the early 20th century. When she and her husband returned to New York City, they established another salon and became instrumental in introducing modern art to the United States in the 1910s. Mabel left her first husband for John Reed (subject of the movie Reds) in 1913, and in 1915 she established the Elizabeth Duncan [sister of Isadora] School of Dance in Croton-on-Hudson, New York (where 50 years later I would go to a music and arts camp).
Mabel then met her second husband, Maurice Sterne, and spent the summer of 1915 with him in Provincetown (a town I know well, having visited there every year since I was ten years old). She and Sterne married in 1917 in Peekskill, New York (where my husband and I were married just about 60 years later and almost 40 years ago). Shortly after, Mabel and Maurice moved to Taos, where she lived for most of the rest of her life. She married her third husband, Tony Luhan, in 1923, and that relationship seemed to endure for the remainder of her life. She died in 1962 and is buried in Taos.
I was tickled by the number of geographic parallels Mabel and I shared (Croton, Provincetown, Peekskill), and the exhibit was very effectively organized to show the impact she had on Taos by displaying works of the artists she drew to Taos and various quotations and other writings by or about Mabel and her role in the Taos art community.
In the other two museums we visited we learned more about the general history and culture of the region. First, at the Kit Carson Home & Museum, we learned something about the real man behind the myth of Kit Carson (1809-1868). Although he is best known for his role as a trapper and scout who helped with the exploration of the American West, he was also a family man. He was married three times, each time to a Native American woman. His first wife, with whom he had two daughters, died; his second marriage did not last; his third marriage to Josefa in Taos lasted until his death. With Josefa he had eight children; Josefa died in 1868 giving birth to the eighth, and Kit died just a month later.
Although Kit Carson is known as someone who fought in many battles against the Indians, he also served as an agent for the Native Americans in the Taos area. However, he is known for leading the relocation of the Navajo people from Arizona to New Mexico at Bosque Redondo. I found this description of that event and Carson’s role in it quite disturbing:
Although his orders were to capture women and children and kill all men, Carson chose to disregard the orders. He ultimately gained the submission of the Navajo people by destroying their food sources at Canyon de Chilly.
Escorted by U.S. troops, over 9,500 men, women and children were led on foot to Bosque Redondo, a reservation in New Mexico 400 miles from their homes. The march was brutal and many Navajo died on The Long Walk.
Realizing the utter failure of the Bosque Redondo reservation, Carson was influential in urging Congress to grant permission to the Navajo peoples to return to their homeland in 1868. Today there is a memorial to the Navajo people at Bosque Redondo.
[From the guide to the Kit Carson Home & Museum]
Thus, Carson had conflicting roles and relationships with the Native American people. He married three Native American women, but he also fought to take the land from Native American people. He led a forced relocation of the Navajo people, but then acted as their agent and argued to obtain permission for them to return to their original land.
Finally, we visited the Millicent Rogers Museum. Millicent Rogers (1902-1953) was another name that I’d not heard before. Her grandfather Henry Rogers founded Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller; she herself was an artist and a collector, and she moved to Taos in 1947 in the aftermath of a relationship with Clark Gable. She designed jewelry, and she supported the artistic careers of many Native American and Hispanic artists. The museum not only displays her own work, but also (and primarily) the work of those local artists. I found an exhibit comparing Native American weavings with Hispanic weavings quite interesting as it showed how the two styles influenced each other over time. An exhibit of baskets revealed how different tribes used different basket making techniques and styles.
The following photos were taken on our way to the Millicent Rogers Museum, as we started our drive north from Taos towards Colorado.
From these four museums, I developed a perspective not only on Taos, but on art, culture, and history. All four museums focused on how individuals can influence history and culture and effect changes in both: Carson, through his explorations and through his role in the mistreatment of Native American peoples; Blumenschein, Luhan, and Rogers through their efforts to support and encourage the creation of artistic works. Rogers helped to preserve the local culture of the Native American and Hispanic communities in and near Taos.
I also was struck by the painful disparities that exist in this country: people who have incredible wealth and power or perhaps just one or the other, like Carson, Blumenschein, Lujan, and Rogers, and people who are poverty stricken and powerless. People who abuse their power and people who use their power for good cause. People who respect the diversity and cultures of others and people who believe that only they know what is right and good.
Traveling back from Taos to Denver, we again marveled at the open spaces, the gorgeous vistas, the limitless sky. The views from the Rio Grande Bridge north of Taos are breathtaking. Crossing through the mountains east of Fort Garland was incredibly uplifting.
Looking back on this trip and all that we saw, especially in light of what is happening across this country, I am struck by the contrasts and incongruities that riddle our nation. This is such a beautiful country. Everywhere you look, there are sights to inspire you and make you realize how small we are and how majestic nature is. Everywhere you go, there are signs that we human beings recognize that beauty, that majesty, especially in the art we are inspired to create and to appreciate.
But there is also much ugliness in us, so much hate and disrespect and intolerance. There is not enough understanding of diversity; there is not enough empathy for those who live in poverty and feel powerless. There is too much ignorance and prejudice.
In light of this weekend’s hate-filled massacre in Orlando, in light of the electoral process which has produced a candidate who promotes hate and intolerance, in light of the continuing paralysis in our government over issues like gun control and climate control and so many other critical issues, it is hard not to feel hopeless and disgusted and despair about our country.
But then I look back on my photographs and remember all that we saw and felt and learned, and I remember that people can appreciate each other and can be sensitive and tolerant. People can be filled with awe and inspiration and love and respect. Yes, we have much to be ashamed of in our history, but we also have much that should give us pride. We have moved forward in many ways. In my own lifetime, I’ve seen much social progress; the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the LGBT movement, and the environmental movement have all had major impacts on our society, making this a better place for all of us to live.
We can make the right decisions. Yes, too often we have chosen the wrong path. But I want to believe that we can more often do what is right—that we can live in peace, that we can love and respect one another, and that we can appreciate the beauty that surrounds us all, inside and outside.
 Blumenschein was born in Pittsburgh in 1874, and his father was a German immigrant. I wondered whether his family had any Jewish roots or whether he might have crossed paths with my Schoenthal relatives in Pittsburgh, but I’ve found nothing to support either notion.