New Mexico: Wonderland of art, artists

Georgia O’Keeffe never tired of painting variations of this view from the Ghost Ranch.
Georgia O’Keeffe never tired of painting variations of this view from the Ghost Ranch. (Craig Davis/
Georgia O’Keeffe never tired of painting variations of this view from the Ghost Ranch. (Craig Davis/

By Craig Davis,

The images in the surroundings leave an indelible impression like a masterpiece on a wall.

That may be why New Mexico is the land of artists. Because art is everywhere in the land.

Land of Enchantment? It has that effect.

Georgia O’Keeffe came to Taos on vacation and never really left the state of mind. Scan the vistas and stroll the grounds of her long-time home at Ghost Ranch and it is easy to understand how someone could spend years painting the same scenes and never run dry of inspiration.

“When I got to New Mexico, that was mine. I’d never seen anything like it before,” O’Keeffe wrote in 1977. “It’s something that’s in the air – it’s different. The sky is different, the wind is different.”

Like O’Keeffe, artists come from all over to capture that special quality and be inspired by it.

Five days of wandering in northern New Mexico found evidence of their efforts everywhere, from the urban gallery districts to a solitary easel at the side of a quiet country road.

Art can be found everywhere in New Mexico, including the side of the road. This mural conveys the philosophy of the region. (Craig Davis/
Art can be found everywhere in New Mexico, including the side of the road. This mural conveys the philosophy of the region. (Craig Davis/

It would be easy to spend all available time for a New Mexico art quest in Santa Fe, which has more galleries per capita (300 in a population of 62,000) than anywhere in the West. It was ranked the most artistic city in America by the Atlantic Cities based on the concentration of artists relative to the population.

The Canyon Road district has more than 100 galleries and boutiques packed into perhaps the most concentrated half mile of creativity anywhere.

But some of the most satisfying finds are in the crossroad towns and roadside surprises along the Turquoise Trail between Albuquerque and Sante Fe, and continuing north to Taos on what is known as the High Road, route of an annual art tour.

Truchas, midway on the latter, features an other-worldly mural on an adobe building bearing the message, “Make art not bombs.” Truchas is so remote and untamed that we encountered several horses running free on the adjacent main road.

The old Spanish settlement, founded in the eighteenth century, has been a magnet for artists since the 1970s. Across the street from the mural is a co-op that is home to more than 70 artists. A former church is now an art studio, and there is a cluster of galleries where the narrow road dead-ends.

Some other serendipitous highlights:

Let it be – music on wood

The most charming stop on the High Road isn’t even on the art tour map. We would have missed Theresa’s Gallery and the serendipity of seeing Richard Montoya’s Beatles retablos if a small sign along Route 76 near Chimayo hadn’t caught our attention.

The gallery is a room in the Montoyas’ home at the bottom of a steep driveway. It didn’t appear anyone was home, but our knocks summoned Theresa, and our persistence was rewarded.

Theresa Montoya shows off one of husband Richard's retablos depicting Beatles songs, "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite." (Craig Davis/
Theresa Montoya shows off one of husband Richard’s retablos depicting Beatles songs, “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” (Craig Davis/

This is about living life on your own terms. Theresa quit her job as a medical assistant to open the gallery in 1987 to showcase her oil paintings of the southwest and her husband’s retablos.

Richard Montoya, a medical social worker and part-time artist, learned to create the retablos of Christian saints on pine slabs in the Hispanic style from his grandfather. Theresa’s claims the largest collection in New Mexico with a patron saint represented for most needs, interests avocations imaginable. I found mine in Saint Francis de Sales, patron of editors, writers, journalists and against deafness.

There is another foursome of patrons represented at Theresa’s that can’t be obtained anywhere else: Apostle Paul and Saints John, George and Ringo.

“My husband is a huge Beatles fan,” Theresa says with a smile.

Richard Montoya has produced retablos depicting about 55 Beatles songs in the Hispanic tradition, each bearing the Fab Four along with images pertinent to the content of the song. It is easy to spot the one For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.

Theresa has over the years expanded the gallery into a conduit to promote numerous artists and craftsman from the region, who produce fine pottery and woodcarvings in the Spanish and Native American tradition. Theresa is a wealth of information about the history and the processes, and a captivating storyteller as eager to promote the works of neighboring artists as her own family’s.

“It’s not a big shop, but we have a lot of famous artists,” Theresa says.

Notably, the Ortega family of woodcarvers from nearby Cordova, has been giving life to the wood in the form of the saints, angels and animals they create from cottonwood, aspen and driftwood. Frances Naranjo Salazar is nationally known for producing the distinctive Santa Clara black pottery for 60 years. Tony Sandoval, a Native American from Cuba, N.M., is a self-taught artist who portrays his heritage and culture in oil paintings and pencil sketches.

Science yields to art

The most memorable aspect of visiting the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe was that it led to the discovery of Justin Robert Galleries a block away on Johnson Street.

The O’Keeffe Museum was worthwhile, even if it doesn’t showcase the best work of its famous namesake. The Justin Robert Galleries, in a cozy adobe building that is easy to overlook, will teach you about art for the love of it.

Robert Shropshire has gone from nuclear scientist to labor of love as owner of a Santa Fe art gallery.
Robert Shropshire has gone from nuclear scientist to labor of love as owner of a Santa Fe art gallery. (Craig Davis/

“The gallery is not work, the gallery is my passion,” says owner Robert Shropshire. “My wife, she is very jealous.”

The desire to promote the special talents of Czech artist Tomas Hrivnac led Shropshire to abandon a successful career as a nuclear physicist.

He enjoys relating the tale of the spur-of-the-moment impulse that led him to a more spiritually rewarding life. A colleague tipped him off that the space was becoming available. Shropshire located the for-rent sign, phoned the owner, and within weeks opened the gallery in late 2003.

Its focus, on the nude, figurative female form, couldn’t be farther from his previous endeavors in the civilian nuclear-power industry. But art was always in Shropshire’s heart even as his work in science took him all over the world. Those travels did provide the opportunity to explore museums and galleries throughout Asia and Europe.

It was in Prague that he met Hrivnac and became infatuated with his depiction of women. Most of the prints are produced by the Dry Point technique, from the images he etches into copper plates. Ink is applied to the plates, then removed from the smooth surfaces.

“It’s magic,” Shropshire says of the intricate detail that emerges when the plate is pressed against paper.

Other artists featured at Justin Robert Galleries include renowned scupltors Edward Fleming and Pierre Toutain-Dorbec.

Of finding satisfaction as a gallery owner, Shropshire said, “It should be about art, not economics.”


Artists of the Pueblo

The sense of history is palpable at Taos Pueblo. Ansel Adams felt it in 1929 when he photographed the home of the Taos Indians and helped spread awareness of one of the longest continually inhabited communities in the United States, dating back more than 1,000 years.

Christopher Lujan fashions drums in the manner of his forefathers at Taos Pueblo.
Christopher Lujan fashions drums in the manner of his forefathers at Taos Pueblo. (Craig Davis/

Guided tours tell some of the history and culture of the pueblo, just north of Taos. A better way to gain an appreciations for the historic village that has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark is to venture inside the adobe shops and talk to some of the talented artists and crafts people.

Have to laugh at some of the criticism on TripAdvisor, such as “come for the sights, but don’t expect culture.” Hello! Culture is people, and people still live in the village and create in the traditional ways of their ancestors.

Christopher Lujan fashions drums in the manner of his forefathers. He selects wood with interesting shapes from fallen cottonwoods or aspen and covers them with animal skins, leaving the hair on “to preserve the uniqueness.” Large drums are adorned with elk horns.

“I enjoy putting character in the drums. Each one has its own heartbeat,” Lujan says.

Lujan also makes silver jewelry and sells mica pottery made by other members of his family, but says, “I developed a passion to make the drums. I like the sound and the expression people make when they play them.”

Taos Pueblo has others just as passionate about their art. The most accomplished is two-time Grammy winning musician Robert Mirabal.

A composer, songwriter, or performer, Mirabal has a dozen albums of traditional music, rock and roll, and spoken word present a contemporary view of American Indian life. He tours extensively, but his heart remains at Taos Pueblo, where he started as a maker of Native American flutes.

It was the flute that launched his success, and the source of his magic, according to his mother.

“He learned to make a flute. The flute opened doors for him,” she said at the Mirabal shop in the Pueblo village.

“He is very gifted. He heals people with his music. A woman from Chicago came here and she was crying. She said his music healed her, and she’s never met him.”

Sculpture garden on artist road

They call it the Magical Half Mile. A short walk from the center of Santa Fe, an old residential area is now home of a remarkable array of art on winding Canyon Road.

It is easy to get lost for the day exploring the more than 100 galleries, jewelers and boutiques in restored adobe and territorial-style homes.

Don’t see what appeals to you in one haven, move onto the next because there is something for everyone on the winding street.

Mark White calls his creations kinetic sculptures. They move in enchanting and hypnotic ways. (Craig Davis/
Mark White calls his creations kinetic sculptures. They move in enchanting and hypnotic ways. (Craig Davis/

Contemporary, traditional, Native American? It’s all there: paintings, sculpture, glass, jewelry, clothing, accessories, home furnishings, gifts, antiques, rugs, folk art, crafts.

Most enjoyable is discussing the art with the artists. One of the standouts is Mark White’s eye-catching sculpture garden at 414 Canyon Road.

White calls his creations kinetic sculptures. They appear as otherworldly tributes to artistic gods, or modern energy-generating sources.

Designed to withstand wind up to 100 mph, they move in enchanting and hypnotic ways. They are sold with the puckish disclaimer: Extended viewing may cause extreme relaxation and bouts of pleasant daydreaming.

They do make you smile.

White explains: “My creation process is serendipitous, following a certain line of experimentation without clinging to a known hypothesis. This process guides my art in many directions, including work with engraved patina paintings as well as wind-and-water driven kinetic sculptures. I strive to fill all my work with real and implied movement. I love learning and am always exploring my artistic boundaries, searching for the path less traveled.”

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About craigslegz 108 Articles
Travel is about discovery, and I learn most about a place when I explore it on foot. Craigslegz Travels is about favorite places and people, and advice to aid fellow travelers. My emphasis is on venturing off well-worn paths. - Craig Davis

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