Sunday in the Park
Spending a full week in one place is not usually the way I vacation. I like driving and stopping and not having a plan. This trip was a little different. I flew, rented a car and had a base-camp condo for seven complete days. And though I had visited Santa Fe before, it was always in the context of a conference or other business.
In 2010, Santa Fe will celebrate 400 years of being a capital city. That predates all those East Coast towns. It is, in fact, the oldest capital city in America. Long before puffed-up men in powdered white wigs were talking about issues of fairness, and issues of God, people in these parts were living it.
A good primer to understand the area is Willa Cather’s classic, "Death Comes to the Archbishop," the beautifully written story of Jean Baptiste Lamy, the Santa Fe-based archbishop of the wild area that included Colorado and Nevada and Arizona. Eventually he built a cathedral patterned after those he left in his homeland of France but with all the sensibility of being in the middle of a desert – a desert full of people who had been worshiping in powerful but non-Christian ways for hundreds of years. He was a man who loved music and art, good food and wine, and his god, who he found in the simplest of deeds and people.
His story matters because his influence set the tone for a town where, today, art and culture, cuisine and powerful spirituality merge to make Santa Fe (Holy Faith) a city like no other. The constant convergence of Spanish and Mexican and French influences are everywhere. From Café Pasqual’s to Geronimo’s, fine dining is located in the humblest of old small historic buildings, mostly adobe but with the occasional white clapboard that came with the American settlers in the early 1900s.
The center plaza anchored by the cathedral has remained unchanged for centuries. And yes, fancy stores selling high-end clothing and jewelry occupy some of the storefronts, but in many more are galleries filled with original art from local and regional artists. Artists whose work is immediately identifiable – think the giant Indian sculpture that sits in the rushing stream at Sundance resort. And right there in the square is a sculpture park of Allan Houser’s work – larger than life and pulsating with messages.
Upstairs on the plaza above some retail store I found a dealer who sold Edward Curtis original photographs. You know his work – those sepia-toned large images. He was the first to record indigenous ceremonies and proud profiles. A very small photograph, perhaps a five by seven, hung on the wall in an old frame with no protection around it. The photo was for sale for $30,000. And just for a moment I realized I could sell my house and own a photograph.
And in front of the Place of the Governors, there on the plaza, Indians who now have government-issued cards to show their authenticity, display their wares on blankets as they have for hundreds of years. Jewelry, to be certain – piles of turquoise and silver and coral in earrings and necklaces and bracelets and more. But also the black-on-black Santa Clara pottery that comes directly from the pueblo just a few miles up in the mountains that the missionaries named Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ). The artists on their blankets are very the picture of making a community sustainable.
Just minutes away from the plaza is the old Bishop’s Lodge, where Lamy built an oasis with amazing gardens and an inventive watering system. Now a historic hotel with fine dining and a spa, Lamy’s chapel is still on the property, maintained, of course, but just as it was for the archbishop. And up the road from there, just an hour or so, is the Abiquiu Valley where Georgia O’Keefe settled – first at the Ghost Ranch and then in a home of her own in the tiny town of Abiquiu. I don’t know who owns all the land around there – I suspect and I hope it is some conservation group – but as far as the eye can see around Ghost Ranch (now owned by Presbyterians as a retreat center) there is nothing but undeveloped mountains and rivers and valleys. When I mention to a young woman who works in a restaurant in Santa Fe that I will be driving to Abiquiu in the morning, she sighs and says, "I went there once. It was just what I thought heaven would look like."
If you are even vaguely aware of Georgia O’Keefe’s work, you know the landscape. Wide riverbeds (the Chama, mostly) and green trees — pinon pines, cottonwoods, oaks, with otherworldly hills becoming mountains made up of red, pink, coral and cream-colored rocks. O’Keefe used to blanch when critics described her work as impressionistic. "I am a realist," she would say, "if only you could see the real things I paint." And it was a strange juxtaposition of life imitating art imitating life as I kept stopping the car and snapping photos of picturesque scenes I had seen painted so many times.
And I don’t know if it was the off time of year or the remoteness of the location or just the luck of the draw, but there was no one around anywhere. No one in the tiny plaza on dirt roads in Abiquiu. No one in the church when I entered there. No one at the mountaintop devotion space where crosses looked out over that spot where O’Keefe painted the river flowing through the desert so many times. No one at the gate when I stopped at Ghost Ranch to photograph the iconic O’Keefe cattle skull with horns, made in metal, that adorns the entrance.
By the time I drove back into town that last night, the sky was doing the spectacular southwestern performance for free. Pinks and corals and lavender and blues illuminated long expanses of clouds that backlit the cathedral and the plaza. I returned to the little kiva fireplace in my room and lit a fire and looked at the treasures I had picked up during my week.
There were books of course, cookbooks and picture books and writings relevant to the area. There was a pair of earrings, maybe two, from the sellers on the blankets and there were angels and monks and tin crosses. And a poster, from the Georgia O’Keefe museum, of Georgia herself. Not as you so often saw her, laden in Southwest attire, severe white hair pulled back, wearing black. No, this photo, shot by her husband, renowned New York photographer Arthur Stieglitz, shows a different Georgia that her friends say was the real woman. She is in the middle of the desert riding on the back of an old dirt bike. She is wearing a leather cap helmet and she is laughing and smiling. I asked the woman at the museum how old O’Keefe was in the shot and she tells me fifty seven. I smile and know that next year I may finally be old enough to understand that smile.
It was a week of adventures and much-needed reconnecting to the larger questions and the open sky. I will keep those warm images with me as I look forward to the next season spent here, at home, each Sunday in the Park
Teri Orr is the director of the Park City Performing Arts Foundation that provides programming for the George S. and Delores Dore Eccles Center for the Performing Arts and the Big Stars Bright Nights Summer Concert Series at Deer Valley. Orr is also a former editor at The Park Record.
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