Monday, October 08, 2007
Thanks to a Poetry Translation Residency from the Witter Bynner Poetry Foundation and the Santa Fe Art Institute, I spent a few spectacular weeks in September in New Mexico:
Located on the College of Santa Fe campus, the Institute is designed by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta. Centered around a courtyard, the offices, galleries, studios, resident rooms and living areas are light-filled and airy. Residents’ rooms open on a private patio, and I was fortunate to face a rock garden full of lavender and blue grama. Most days, I would sit outside early in the morning as the sun rose and write.
Artists in community
What was extraordinary about the residency was the high caliber and creativity of the artists—as committed to their craft as they were generous to each other:
Zelda Alpern, fiction writer and recipient of an Individual Woman’s Artist Grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, whose work has appeared in Chain.
Cathy Chung, fiction writer and 2007 MacDowell resident, whose work will soon appear in The Journal.
Rachel Cohen, dancer and artistic director of Racoco Productions—a movement theater whose production “If the Shoe Fits,” won raves reviews from The New York Times’ John Rockwell.
Jillian Conrad, sculptor, who had just completed one show in Hartford, “Name”, and will give the visiting artist lecture at Rhodes College in Memphis this month.
Patty Rosenblatt, ceramist, whose prints, sculptures and installations grace places such as the Jimmy Fund Clinic at the Dana Farber Cancer Center. Patty and Rachel are collaborating on innovative work involving dance and clay.
Marguerite Kahrl, visual artist, whose industrial hemp installation is getting rave reviews at the “Weather Report: Art and Climate Change” Exhibit at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art.
Julie Anne Pieri, visual artist, whose performance-based videos have been screened at the New Orleans and New York International Independent Film & Video Festivals.
Michael Sandoval, cinematographer and novelist, whose work “Ariana” appeared in the Berlin Film Festival, teaches film directing at the New York Film Academy.
Shigeki Yoshida, photographer, whose mesmerizing silver gelatin prints are exhibited this month at Susan Eley Gallery, 46 West 90th Street, in New York.
When I flew into Albuquerque, I watched the midwest’s green circles and tan squares give way to mountains whose dotted greenery looked like Chinese dragons against the desert. Landing at Sunport International, a pink adobe building surrounded by mountains, I could practically hear the “wah-wah WAH” and rattlesnake opening of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
Artist Lorraine Serra said that New Mexico is “like being on another planet.” During the ride to Santa Fe, I believed her: I saw inactive volcanoes and wild horses. I watched a thunderstorm, hundreds of miles wide, pound mountains while the rest of the vast sky remained a vacuum blue. Relentless sun exposed mustard, pink and clay colored sand. Native American animal images and pueblo names adorned pink and turquoise highway overpasses.
My van driver insisted I attend the Zozobro burning the following night, and called his mother to ask when the Sunday candlelight procession would begin. His accent, a monotone clipped with something neither Spanish nor Native American, was a combination of two cultures I would often hear. Like him, everyone I met in Santa Fe would be welcoming: I would have guides on this new planet.
Santa Fe’s 300-year-old Fiesta, which celebrates Santa Fe’s Spanish re-occupation, begins with the burning of Zozobro, a 65-foot paper marionette at dusk.
For weeks the local newspaper collects Santa Feans’ bad karma in form of parking tickets and divorce papers—to be burned in Zozobro, aka Old Man Gloom.
Julie Pieri, Michael Sandoval, Shigeki Yoshida and I caught a bus to the Plaza to join hundreds making their way to Fort Marcy Park.
Valerie Cordova, a Santa Fean whose ancestry goes back 400 years, fell in with us, pointing out her family’s coat of arms on the Governor’s Palace. “Two dogs,” she said, “facing opposite directions.” She taught us to shout, “¡Que viva la fiesta!” to elicit “¡Que viva!” from the crowd.
When Valerie bought us day-glow necklaces, we pronounced her the unofficial Fiesta Queen—although we later met and bowed to Teresa Rodriquez, the real title holder.
Rock bands played as Zozobro groaned over the audio, opened and closed his mouth, and pointed gruesome fingers at the crowd. As night fell, an elaborate choreography unfurled around the puppet’s base with children dressed as angels and dancers tauntingly bearing torches.
Fireworks exploded on lines inching towards Zozobro. Finally, Old Man Gloom’s eyes and mouth ignited, fireworks exploding out of his head, until he collapsed into a burning heap. Many believe that this ritual cleanses participants of gloom, as one man assured his granddaughter, “Now we’ll have a good year.”
Over the weekend, the Fiesta continued in the Plaza with mariachi bands, vendors selling enchiladas, and craftspeople displaying weavings and jewelry. Sunday night, Marguerite Kahrl, Rachel Cohen, Julie, Michael, Shigeki and I attended the candlelight procession that commemorates the martyrdom of eight Franciscan priests.
Julie and Michael first attended the mass at the Cathedral of St. Francis. While we waited for them, we met a woman whose father had built most of Los Alamos during WWII. Her parents were concerned about spies and her safety, so they taught her—then five years old—to say that she lived in “Santa Fe” and later “Arizona.” She seemed like a living piece of history, and we listened, fascinated.
With a church group singing Spanish softly behind, and mariachis ahead, we wound our way up cobblestone streets to the Cross of the Martyrs. Two Spanish musicians lounged in a restaurant window, one holding a guitar and another an accordion. Many women wore traditional long dresses and shawls. If I had dropped there, I would’ve thought I was in another country.
The hilltop offered a bird’s eye view of the city, where breezes blew out flames and strangers dipped candles toward each other’s to re-light them. A priest celebrated Santa Fe’s unity and a chorus sang hymns. When it was over, in contrast to the solemn procession, everyone sped downhill—one banner bearer tripping over a curb and mariachis practically running down the street toward the Plaza.
Father Sky, Mother Earth
Another treat was attending an evening of Native American storytelling at the College of Santa Fe. I was privileged to hear Hoskie Benally, a Diné (Navajo) who told a moving story warning children about the impact of alcohol. Hoskie, who became blind at 22, overcame alcoholism and depression to find his true path as a spiritual leader. In New Mexico, it's easy to see why indigenous peoples deify the landscape--it is so vibrant and alive.
Even the prairie dogs and jackrabbits seem livelier. As Carl Jung once said to a Native New Mexican about his beliefs, "Everyone knows it to be so." Awed by the great and changing landscape, I became a believer too.
Santa Fe's centuries-old plaza is lined with stores full of striking jewelery, clothing, rugs and crafts.
Just beyond it, vendors display wares outdoors--near the Loretto Chapel. The Chapel looked familiar and then I found out it was based on La Sainte Chapelle in Paris.
Inside, a winding staircase to the choir loft is said to have been built by a mysterious carpenter who appeared, built it without any nails, and disappeared. The sisters there at the time believed him to be Saint Joseph.
Chimayo is a village famous for its centuries-old tradition of weavers. Heading north for a day, novelist Zelda Alpern and I stopped at Trujillo Weavers, where the third-generation owner demonstrated weaving on his grandfather’s loom. “Where in New York are you from,” he asked me. “This rug,” he said, “is going to New York.” His family taught him to weave when he was a boy. “I didn’t want to learn,” he said, smiling. The shop, full of wool rugs and throws, featured the Chimayo pattern, a diamond bordered by two stripes.
We entered the Sanctuario de Chimayo, known for its curative dirt and primitive paintings more Native than Spanish colonial.
An elderly woman, helped by her daughter, approached the altar on her knees, as did a teary young mother carrying a disabled toddler. Left of the altar was a door to a narrow hut full of crutches, letters, needlepoint and paintings bearing witness to Chimayo’s red earth. “His cancer has not gone away,” wrote one, “but the dirt has given him peace.”
A low entryway led to a square room, a hole at center with fresh dirt and a spade. Each day, the priest goes to the hillside, digs out soil and refills the hole each day. I knelt to shovel some earth, silvery with minerals, into a plastic bag. An old woman, extending a tiny box, asked me to fill hers too.
As urged earlier by Julie, Zelda and I took the high road to Taos—where the desert landscape turned surprisingly green and mountainous. “I could live here,” Zelda, a Vermonter, said approvingly. At a scenic lookout, we were startled by a long-crested jay.
In Taos, we enjoyed a garden lunch at Orlando’s New Mexican Café. Fortified, we ventured across a dramatic desert stretch to seek out D.H. Lawrence.
D.H. Lawrence Ranch
I had read Sons and Lovers in high school, and more recently, an essay by Lawrence on New Mexico shared by poet Mary Ladd. Lawrence, who had come to Taos in his last years, adored the “uncivilized” environment:
New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I have ever had. It certainly changed me forever… The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul…
A long dusty drive led to the Lawrence Ranch, owned by the University of New Mexico, where a sign pointed to a concrete walk. After a five-minute walk zigzagging uphill, we found the grave of Frieda, Lawrence’s wife, in front of the crypt. In a deft Nancy Drew move, Zelda unlocked the narrow door which creaked open a few inches.
We gasped: Inside was the altar where Frieda is said to have mixed Lawrence’s ashes. Mabel Dodge Sterne had threatened to take them, so Frieda is rumored to have said, “Let her try now!” as she poured them into the altar’s wet concrete. A framed certificate revealed Lawrence’s body had been shipped from Europe—as if we too might question the ashes’ whereabouts. A book also revealed signatures from visitors worldwide and we added ours too.
Art in Santa Fe
No one told me how beautiful Museum Hill is in Santa Fe: The spectacular location features three museums, respectively devoted to international folk, Spanish colonial and Indian arts.
I visited the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, an intriguing journey in the Plains Indians’ art, culture and spirituality.
Canyon Road was another discovery—a winding residential road with dozens of galleries. I enjoyed the “Once There Was, Once There Wasn't: Fairy Tales Retold” exhibit at Eight Modern, which featured drawings from Jim Dine’s Pinocchio series and harrowing images of the Furies by Fay Ku, and works by David Hockney, Peregrine Honig, Elizabeth "Grandma" Layton, Adela Leibowitz, David Levinthal, Paula Rego, Kiki Smith, and Richard Tuttle.
Patty Rosenthal, Jillian Conrad and I also took in the opening of Judy Tuwaletstiwa’s “Traces” at Linda Durham Contemporary Art on Paseo de Peralta where I spied actor Judge Reinhold (Beverly Hills Cop, Stripes, Fast Times at Ridgemont High).
We attended a performance outside of one gallery to celebrate the opening of a pottery exhibit. It featured a young Asian woman performing a tea ceremony within a chalk circle, while another woman read a poetic narrative, and the potter himself, draped under a sheet, crawled slowly toward the gallery. Patty or Jillian, do you recall the artist’s or gallery’s name? Anyway, it was well-crafted poetry and a thought-provoking experience. Amidst our tour, two young Hasidic men blew a shofar to welcome in the year 5768. Surrounded by all that art, and the sun hitting Canyon Road’s adobe-colored walls, it felt like the year ahead would be wonderful.
Art as action
The Santa Fe Art Institute (SFAI) views art as the most powerful force for change on the planet today. And SFAI is doing its part: In response to 9/11, Executive Director Diane Karp initiated Emergency Relief Residencies. To date, more than 130 artists from Lower Manhattan and the New Orleans area have been given time and space at SFAI to recover their lives and work from the effects of 9/ll and Katrina.
In this spirit, SFAI hosted “Fallujah,” an installation by architect and sculptor Siah Armajani—artwork declined by US museums for its controversial subject matter. The piece, a huge glass rectangle, tilts perilously backward, revealing crushed mattresses and a child’s rocking horse. The work is witness against war and, in particular, the bombing of Fallujah.
“Fallujah: Revealing War,” an SFAI-sponsored panel discussion, also featured journalists Dahr Jamail and Jeremy Scahill, and artist Siah Armajani. The next evening, SFAI residents also enjoyed the artist’s private slide-lecture of his work—including well-known space such as Battery Park in Lower Manhattan. Armajani, who often integrates poetry into his work, called upon good friend John Ashbery for help with the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge (Minneapolis, 1988). To top this off, Diane Karp took the sculptor and residents to dinner so we could get to know him.
My amateur-astronomer husband, Michael, joined me in the last week of the residency. His first night there, we drove to the top of the Santa Fe Ski Basin, almost 10,000 feet above sea level, to see the Milky Way arcing from one horizon to another. On the way up, we saw a male elk and a coyote. Another night, we enjoyed a tour of the night sky at a private ranch given by a local astronomer. On a daylight adventure, we drove to Los Alamos and savored the highway scenery.
People not only associate Santa Fe with art, but food. And there’s good reason: I discovered delicacies such as watermelon drink and Mexican wedding cookies—fat butter cookies with chopped nuts rolled in confectioners’ sugar. At Ecco near the Plaza, I tasted strawberry habañero—strawberry gelato with a chile kick. Everything was prepared with fresh vegetables from local farms or agricultural states in Mexico—so avocado in a salad at the Buddhist Cloud Cliff Bakery truly was a religious experience, as were steak-sized cinnamon rolls at Counter Culture. Michael and I, on a tip from a local, went to Los Potrillos for mind-altering chile relenos and home-made tortillas, an experience that will forever ruin our primitive concept of Mexican food back home.
I appreciate everyone’s good wishes, suggestions and prayers that made this trip so memorable. Thanks also to SFAI Director Diane Karp, and her dog, Bea,
who both made SFAI seem like home; to the Barretts for hosting a lovely cocktail party that made us feel a valued part of the Santa Fe arts community. For their kindness and hard work,
I salute SFAI Residency Director Gabe Gomez, Administrative Director Michele LaFlamme-Childs, Assistant Residency Director Peter Willig, and staff members Jennie, Joanna and Ammo.
And to answer the burning question: Did you write? Yes, I did. Poetry, I discovered, takes more time and needs to sit on the psyche’s back-burner. But being in Santa Fe added to my vocabulary of imagery, and in my work I expect to see its ancient cultures, beautiful colors and savory aromas erupt.
¡Que viva la fiesta!