Road Trip, March 28, 2012
I’m on the road to Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico, wind in my hair, my friend, Mariah, at the wheel.
In a snap decision it was deemed that there’d be no better time to see if I could dig up evidence of Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s time in Taos—apparently a complete mystery to Taoseños (what the residents call themselves) who are otherwise pretty stoked about the tiny town’s technicolor history. And now we’re on our way.
Just a few weeks back, somebody in Helsinki taught me what a ‘road dog’ is. That’s the friend you can call and say: ‘Road trip. You in or you out?’ And he or she’ll do level best to make it happen.
That’s Mariah, Ri for short.
Left Boulder, Colorado (my home town) late afternoon and we’re getting the long dazzle of the smoke-fueled sunset over the Rockies—the only evidence we’ve seen of the terrible fire that’s claimed some 5000 acres west of here as of this morning.
It’s seven hours or so to Santa Fe where I’ve booked us into La Fonda, a grand but quirky old place where AKG probably stayed in 1924 when he was hanging out down here.
The scenery’s getting more and more dramatic to me and towns fewer and farther between as we cross into New Mexico.
We’re losing light now…
Yep, we’ve arrived and I must say I LOVE this hotel. It’s monumental but down to earth and comfortable. Soaked in history and color. The bar is rocking but our room with its quaint hand-painted furniture is quiet and the linens luxurious.
Here are my photos of the place. I had visions of poring over ancient guest registers from 1924 but I’ll just imagine AKG enjoying the flavor of this place as much as I am.
Hotel la Fonda
Dulces sueños and sweet dreams…
Road Trip, March 29, 2012
Ri and I got a quick jog in around downtown Santa Fe, quite nippy in the early morning but truly beautiful. The adobe architecture is unbelievably tactile. You just want to run your hands over those curved corners.
Town’s been around since the 1600’s and has kept the old feeling but still seems vital and thriving. Awesome window shopping but today we are devoting to Georgia O’Keeffe.
Much as I’ve been a fan of her work all of my life, I’d never made the pilgrimage to see the museum and her home in Abiquiύ . With the Georgia O’Keeffe show opening June 7 at the Helsinki Art Museum, I felt drawn to know her better.
She is, after all, the most famous and beloved American woman artist in history.
I did confirm that her first trip down here was 1929 so even though she and Akseli shared many of the same friends, she missed him by about four years.
The GOK Museum is small but lovely and the research facility and collections have a hushed reverence that is very cool. Now we are driving to her home in Abiquiύ where I hope to get special permission to take photos for your sake, dear Reader.
Okay, I completely get it now. You can’t take photos because it’s not about what you see—no matter how exquisite.
A strange feeling descended over me as I walked through the two houses of Georgia.
It was a feeling of enough. It was a feeling of peace. It was a dawning conviction that it is enough to be alive and fully present.
I found and find myself moving more slowly. To hurry in any way seemed suddenly—and somehow forever—such a waste.
No photos, except for this shot of where we ate our lunch—excellent sandwiches from Bode’s General Store on this sawed log table and chairs.
I must say that you should visit this place—these places for yourself.
Now we’re driving to Taos—about an hour from Santa Fe—a drive that both AGK and GOK made and were surely deeply affected by.
I’m just going to have to say it: driving this particular country—this part of the Great Desert Southwest—well, it’s a spiritual experience.
Or, at least, it can be. Feels like what the whole American Dream is about –a tank of gas (dirt darn cheap by European standards) and the open road through staggeringly austere, lonely, and beautiful landscapes.
Akseli and Georgia both felt it and needed to paint it. Hell, I want to paint it and I don’t have a CLUE about painting.
Sunset makes the colors strike you dumb. Mariah and I both can’t stop thinking about how GOK lived—with so little. But this big, big country.
We hit Taos in time to have a really remarkable meal at the Love Apple—recommended by Taoseños. Located in an old chapel, small and white, lit mostly by candles, a team of women—chefs and waiters—prepared and served the most delicious local organic food. It was really nurturing.
It was quite late and moonlessly dark by the time we reached the Mabel Dodge Luhan House. Both Akseli and Georgia stayed at this rambling old adobe house, along with literally countless other artists, writers, poets and musicians. Here’s the welcoming front door:
We climbed a tiny narrow painted staircase to Mabel’s own bedroom with its massive bed where she romped with her beloved Taos Indian lover and husband, Tony Lujan (note the original spelling which she anglicized to much chagrin)—and perhaps with D. H. Lawrence and others. The American actor, Dennis Hopper, owned the house for a while. When he sold it, he took all the original furnishings with him except for this bed. It had been made in the room and couldn’t be taken out through the doors or windows.
Somehow pretty suggestive, isn’t it?
So here I’ll hit the hay as tomorrow we will surely find evidence of Akseli here…
Road Trip, March 30, 2012
Another cool spring morning although it’s getting quite hot during the day. We headed out into the sagebrush for a walk and explored an abandoned church site that looked like it could have been painted by either Akseli or Georgia with its plain black wooden cross.
When we returned to the house, the innkeeper was making ‘the last fire of the season’ in the cozy living room:
And we poked around and found the bathroom that D. H. Lawrence painted (probably for privacy!) in 1929, the same year that Georgia O’Keeffe first visited:
The breakfast buffet at the Luhan House is legendary. We were just finishing up our spicy cheesy eggs with jalapeños when David Witt joined us.
David is a Taos expert whom I met through my explorations with Anna Maria vonBonsdorff at the Ateneum when I convinced her that the Taos Art Colony ought to be included in the Finnish National Gallery’s bi-annual conference, originally titled ‘European Revivals.’
We walked to the Couse-Sharp Historic Home and Studio which is not normally open at this time of the year for a private tour with Carl Jones of the Couse Foundation.
So here’s the story. AKG was friends with an artist named Ernest Blumenschein when they studied together at the Academie Julien in Paris. When AKG came to America after the war to try to recover his paintings that had been on exhibition in San Francisco, Blumenschein had been among a group of artists who had founded the Taos Art Colony. They had discovered there a landscape so raw and startling that it was continually inspiring. In the Taos Indians, they found endless subjects for painting humanity in somehow a purer form—more authentic.
Akseli, too, was in search of ‘natural man’. Ever the seeker, when the artist Victor Higgins joined Blumenschein to invite him to Taos, he decided to make the journey.
E. I. Couse was another founder of the Taos Art Colony. Although Akseli’s time in Taos was notably pretty contemplative and somewhat isolated, he surely must have at some point hung out in this wonderful home and studio where so many ideas and creative methods were discussed and shared — probably around this very table:
Two points I’ll make here. Georgia O’Keeffe was also quite solitary and never mingled much with the Taos artists. However, she did spend much of her first visits to the area with Mabel Dodge.
The second point is that this is not a particularly beautiful time of year to see the gardens of the area. A note to my Finnish friends, the weather felt deliciously warm with chilly nights—lots of sun—but the gardens will definitely be better later.
So check the website for pretty pictures of the Couse Home and Studio. The ‘Mother Garden of Taos’, planted by Virginia Walker Couse who had also studied in Paris, would be worth seeing in season. This remarkable woman, an artist in her own right, turned to handcrafts once she married—in the tradition of women artists of the day—and shared cuttings from her garden all over town, hence the name.
In the meantime, Mariah and I posed with Carl Jones and David Witt in the same vine-covered space where the legendary painters posed:
And here is David Witt in the fabulous old studio with its north-facing shadowless light. David will be coming to speak at the Ateneum about Taos on October 13!
We strolled through little Taos, passing Ernest Blumenschein’s home and studio (which was a leaf I sadly left unturned), to the Harwood Museum, an utterly charming place where David had once served as curator. The archivist had reportedly found a slim file on AKG.
The collection of works by Taos artists was lovely but imagine our surprise when we found that David himself had opened the file with a 1985 letter from Finnish art teacher, Merja Lähteenaho-Leppelmeier, and an offering of this Taos painting by AKG from Connaught Brown, an art gallery in London:
Lunch was pretty doggone tasty at the Taos Inn where Akseli and his family surely dined in 1924 and 1925. He probably would have joined me in recommending the Rattlesnake and Rabbit Sausage (today served with Cherry Sauce). Georgia O’Keeffe would have eaten here, too—look how great this old place is (www.taosinn.com):
After lunch we headed back to the Mabel Dodge Luhan House where the lovely innkeeper, Karen Young, had acquired permission for us to walk onto Taos Pueblo Indian land in order to see the ‘Tony House’ that Akseli painted over and over again. Here Akseli lived with his wife, Mary, and daughter, Kirsti, who were mentioned in the Taos News of the day (according to the file!) as giving piano and cello concerts.
The author of a biography of Mabel argued with me that Tony Lujan would never have rented this house which he built for himself as a retreat from Mabel’s hyperactive hospitality. There’ve been changes over the years and the house is in great disrepair but it sure looks like one and the same to me with its distinctive arch and the Taos Mountains in the background:
An elderly Taos Pueblo Indian couple live here now with a fairly friendly but edgy guard dog so I just took this shot of David Witt and Karen Young in front of the arch from the other direction in AKG’s painting of it:
We walked back past the house that Mabel gave to D. H. Lawrence who hit it off very well with AKG, according to letters in the book Akseli Amerikassa. The two houses were very close to each other so I am sure that evenings with the great Finnish artist and the great British writer took place in both. Oh to have been a fly on the wall!
Back at Mabel’s House, we hunkered down in the Rainbow Room where Karen and David swapped stories about the creative exploits and sexual shenanigans of the famous and infamous friends of Tony and Mabel’s.
The photos on the wall are of Mabel and Tony whom she liked to pose in his romantic noble native dress. The ceiling, lovingly painted sometime along the way, is what gives this comfortable room its name:
Because of the stories, we headed out to the Millicent Rogers Museum. Millicent was a legendary beauty, heiress and jewelry maker who caught Tony Lujan in her spell and left a wonderful collection of treasures to her children who founded this extraordinary museum.
The Taos Pueblo is the greatest destination for travelers. Certainly AKG and GOK visited and painted it often. It was closed to outsiders for the month but by all accounts is an amazing experience, particularly for the Deer Dance on Christmas Day, according to Taoseños.
It is another glorious sunset as Mariah and I head back toward Colorado through the Sangre de Christo Mountains. I think we solved the mystery of why Akseli Gallen-Kallela was not better known in this tiny town. I also feel I better understand Georgia O’Keeffe.
The country is simply so desolate and awe-inspiring that I feel quite small here. The experience seems not to be so much about individual human achievement as it is about the land and the big blood-red sun that sears it even in this cool season. Artists, writers and socialites have come and gone here but the land which inspired and inspires them remains.
It is a land that deserves and surpasses all its depictions, fragile and rugged at the same time. It is a land that merits pilgrimage—and perhaps it is a pilgrimage into ourselves and all that could connect us. Whether it connects us or not, it is surely a land that will survive us.
Cody Douglas Oreck
March 30, 2012
U. S. Embassy Helsinki