The art of making art (apologies to Sondheim)
Sunday in the Park
Park Record columnist
Whatever understandings I absorbed first about how to present the arts came from Georgia O’Keeffe and Santa Fe, New Mexico. In the late ‘90s, about a decade after her death at 98, I attended a weeklong workshop at St John’s College in Santa Fe presented by Americans for the Arts or some version thereof.
Presenters from all over the country were selected and gathered —experienced presenters along with a handful of us newbies — and thrown into the dorms with guest lecturers to learn how to run nonprofit organizations that showcased known and emerging performers. My romance with a city and a way of life began then and each time I return another story/another adventure/another meal/another ghost appears and I fall in love all over again.
You are aware of the history before you understand any of it. You smell the ancient scents of juniper and cedar and piñon pine. Smoke curls from adobe chimneys with wooden roofs and rolled log ceilings. The red earth is the color of the walls and the brightest turquoise sky is a jewel saved for sunset. Around The Square — in the town built more than 400 years ago that predates any other city in the states — you sense the influences of the Spanish and French and native peoples who shaped the commerce and the culture long before the Mexicans and the Americans came and found the spiritual people living simply from the land.
The Cathedral Basilica built by French Bishop Lamy (see Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the ArchBishop) was built on the edge of The Square in 1886 on the site of a former church. A wooden statue of the Virgin, known as Our Lady of Peace, had been stolen and then returned and became the cornerstone of the spiritual home.
The low slung roof that stretches for an entire long block on The Square still shields the native people who have come to lay out their creations on blankets. They must be card holding members of locals tribes to display there and must be the actual artisans themselves. You listen to them explain how they pound the silver for the bracelet, carve the stone for the earrings and shape the pottery with their hands, and time stands still. And if you sit for a spell there on the long adobe benches and soften your focus, you can see the ghosts of all their ancestors weaving in and out of the shadows.
I was introduced to The Square and the church by a young man who was opening a new performing arts center in Tennessee. By Day Two of our weeklong program, we decided to spring ourselves from the dorm food and dull gatherings and run into town. He showed me Canyon Road filled with vibrant art galleries and restaurant dives and we went to Mass because he was a believer and I was curious. As the week progressed, we gathered others from the group and ventured off campus and cut classes and explored the city filled with art and color and performances around every corner.
When the week was over I booked an extra night up the road at The Bishops Lodge — the real place Cather’s fictional book had been based — and I imagined the empire that once existed under The Bishop’s command. Then I learned of a tour that happened only a few times a year for less than a dozen people to see Georgia O’Keefe’s home up the road about an hour in Abiquiu.
I was able to walk in her rooms and see what she saw from her bedroom window and look down the hill from her home at the long winding road and the long, winding Chama River. The simplicity and the rugged beauty made all her paintings take on new texture and context. I returned home ready to open our performing arts shared community/school space, wanting to present performers, sure, but somehow wanting to infuse beauty into the process.
Over the past two decades, I have been fortunate to return many times to Santa Fe. Sometimes related to my job. Sometimes with friends. Sometimes, like this time, mostly to run away but also to renew. I take long walks and so very many photographs, and when I am very lucky, like this trip, the weather is warm and sunny, severely clear and bright.
I have some friends here. Some who live here part time; Others who work in the community. Last night I had a long laughing dinner with two men who found each other in Santa Fe but grew up 12 miles apart in Wyoming (Green River and Rock Springs) and never once met then. This afternoon they have promised an adventure ala Georgia. Cody is the senior curator at the Georgia O’Keeffe museum here and he has stories that fit between and behind the stories of her life that are well known. We will travel to her homes in both Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch. We will watch the sun set and full moon rise, and we will toast to tough broads and spectacular beauty. And I will try to remember art demands us to be uncomfortable at times, and respectful of the past and willing and poised to dance with spirits. Sometimes healing needs to take place on Sundays outside of the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.