Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Taos Society of Artists

Taos Mountain

"Mabel's Gate" 9x12 Oil
From the last painting retreat I held in Taos

Several weeks ago, we received a recall notice for our Subaru Outback.  It turned out we were one of 42 million cars being recalled for defective Takata airbags.  We'd been driving the car for five years, carefree, and this new knowledge that we might be showered at any moment by sharp metal fragments flying at high velocity was cause for concern.  We booked an appointment with a dealer in Santa Fe to have the airbag replaced.  But, we decided, why not make a fun trip out of it?  We hadn't been to Taos since the last painting retreat we hosted there, and it was only 90 minutes from Santa Fe.  So, Taos it was. 

I first heard of Taos back in the late 70s.  I was working as a sandwich cook in a college bar in Vermont at the time.  A friend of mine, another lost soul, said he was leaving Vermont for Taos.  "How do you spell that?" I asked, it being the first time I'd heard of it.  Since then, I've had a full and satisfying life, but a small part of me wishes that I, too, had packed up and gone to Taos.  Back then, Taos was a creative stew of hippies, artists and ski bums, and living was cheap.  Today, it's more gentrified, having been discovered by the likes of Julia Roberts and the late Dennis Hopper.  I'm not sure I could afford a house there now.

Ernest Blumenschein Studio

Taos is a small town—the population is about 5700—nestled in a flat area between the deep, blue-walled gorge of the Rio Grande and the juniper-dotted foothills of the Taos mountains.  The name Taos, in the language of the inhabitants of the nearby Indian pueblo, means "place of the red willows."  Spanish, Anglos and native TaoseƱos have shared the land for hundreds of years, ranching, farming and trading.  Old adobe haciendas, some in better repair than others, and smaller adobe homes still stand, occupied by the old families, in certain parts of town.  It can be a quiet, calm place for a creative person.  And for the plein air painter, well, the scenery is hard to beat.  I especially love it in the fall, when the cottonwoods turn yellow along the pastures below the mountains, which are themselves garbed in golden aspens.

"Buck" Denton Studio
While waiting to have our car worked on, we spent two days in Taos, one of which included Easter Sunday.   Unfortunately, the museums (the Millicent Rogers Museum and the Nicolai Fechin house, among others) were closed that day, and just a few galleries were open.  However, we were armed with a walking tour map, so we entertained ourselves by visiting the studios of members of the Taos Society of Artists.   I'd seen an exhibit on this group at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe last fall.   It reminded me that it had been an active, vibrant group, so we were excited to rediscover these mostly humble studios.  I'd seen some of them on previous visits, but one new to me was the studio of Victor Higgins, which is currently occupied by Parsons Gallery of the West.  I know Parsons—it's one of the best galleries in New Mexico—but didn't know its history.  I've included here a few photos of the studio exteriors.

E.I. Couse Studio

Closeup of Couse's Studio Door


The story of the Taos Society of Artists begins with Joseph Henry Sharp, who visited in 1893 and became enchanted by both the land and the culture.  Later, while studying in Paris with Ernest Blumenschein, he urged Blumenschein to visit it some day.  Finally, in 1898, Blumenschein and fellow painter Bert Phillips, spurred on by Sharp's tales of the American West, headed west, first going by rail to Denver.  Upon reaching Denver, they bought a wagon with a team of horses and drove down to New Mexico.  But their goal was not Taos but Santa Fe, where they'd heard that other artists were starting to settle.  Along the way, an elderly gentleman suggested they visit Taos, so remembering how Sharp had talked about the town, they decided to take a detour.  But twenty miles outside of Taos, the left rear wheel of their wagon broke, stranding them.  Blumenschein won the lottery to carry the wheel on ahead to Taos for repair, leaving Phillips behind on the roadside with the wagon.  On his return with the fixed wheel to fetch Phillips, he told Phillips he liked Taos so much that they should stay there rather than go on to Santa Fe.

Joseph Henry Sharp Studio
(actually attached to the Couse studio)

And so they did.  Phillips ended up making Taos his home, and Blumenschein returned every summer to paint, also finally settling there in 1912.  They encouraged other artists to join them, and in 1915, they founded the Taos Society of Artists, the primary goal of which was to sell their art through traveling exhibitions.  (There were no galleries in Taos in those days.)  From the original founders—Phillips, Blumenschein, Sharp, E.I. Couse, Oscar Berninghaus and W. Herbert "Buck" Denton—it grew to include Victor Higgins, E. Martin Hennings and Walter Ufer.  Other creative types, not part of the Society, also flocked to Taos, such as artist Nicolai Fechin, the socialite heiress Mabel Dodge and writer D.H. Lawrence.

Walter Ufer Studio - and a Haunted House!

Victor Higgins Studio
(Currently occupied by Parsons Gallery of the West)

Someone once said that working with artists is like herding cats, and that truth, along with infighting, caused the Society to disband in 1927.  However, its reputation had been established, and today paintings by its members are in museums throughout the country.

When you view the paintings of the Taos artists, you can feel the energy they drew from that new, strange place.  It's a pleasure to visit the galleries and museums and to suddenly come across one of their paintings.  For me, it's like seeing Taos for the first time.  (You can see more paintings by members of the Taos Society of Artists on the New Mexico Museum of Art site. )

By the way, I'll be hosting a painting retreat again in Taos in October 2020.  My painting retreats are small, just a handful of participants, and we all live together to really immerse ourselves in the week.  I give past students priority booking for these, so if you are interested but haven't taken a workshop with me yet, you'll want to do othat.  And do let me know if you would like to be notified when I have more information about this retreat.

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