Seeking Santa Fe
Published: April 2009
By Joan Juliet Buck
Ages old and New Age, rich in art and artsy in attitude, deeply charming and more than a little eccentric, New Mexico’s magnetic colonial city draws all kinds of pilgrims.
In famously beautiful places, character is destiny, scenery is collateral, and big business is kept well down the road.
Santa Fe’s skies are so wide, its adobe so pervasive, its badlands so alien, and its altitude so giddy that visitors don’t know whether they have been beamed up to heaven, pulled into the frontier past, or inducted into a gated community on Mars.
The first Christmas I spent in Santa Fe, I felt I was trespassing on another era. Every street appeared to be a winding lane, every hotel a thick-walled inn emphatic with blazing fires, every store a trove of American history. Once I moved there, I realized that all this décor wasn’t seasonal disguise but protective camouflage. A town has to eat. If its sole advantage is the way it looks, so be it. Great beauty has the power to suggest the potential for a higher grade of happiness. Santa Fe’s mission is to keep alive the thrill of trespass, the otherness. Hence the cringe-inducing moniker, the City Different, in the state known as the Land of Enchantment. Curiously, the overused tropes of Santa Fe style have not yet eroded its power to charm and disorient.
The photographer Caterine Milinaire, who discovered Santa Fe in her hippie days, and whose mother and stepfather moved there after she left, used to describe the three cultures as a layer cake: first the Pueblos, in situ for over a thousand years, the only Indians who ever rose up against the conquistadors and ejected them (in 1680, for a scant 12 years); then the Hispanics, descendants of said conquistadors, who have been here for four centuries, and still run the town; and last, the icing: the Anglos, neither Indian nor Hispanic, and thus WASP’s, East Indians, Russians, French, refugees from communes or oppressive dynasties, early retirees with compact nest eggs or cyber fortunes, or adventurers who subsist on a patchwork of small, weird jobs. Whether they are scraping by or dawdling in their second or third homes, all the Anglos have felt the call of the crouched house under the big sky, and each of them has a secret gift, a talent they want to explore, a family they want to avoid, a thirst for endless time. Which in the case of Santa Fe often extends back to previous lives.
"Northern New Mexico is the place I’ve been looking for all my life, and now I’m here," says Shirley MacLaine. She’s the new legend, the movie star turned galactic explorer and author of New Age tales, superseding Georgia O’Keeffe, the painter who forsook Stieglitz and New York glitz to go into the desert alone and discover the secret of flowers. There are spontaneous conversions here, blinding rays of light, a sudden sense of peace. Healers will tell you that the Indians never actually lived on the land that is Santa Fe, because it is built on a giant crystal with emanations too powerful to be borne on a daily basis. A breakfast waitress at La Posada told me she’d come to Santa Fe to go through her menopause because "it’s got the right energy." I forget if it was masculine or feminine.
La Posada itself is haunted by the ghost of Mrs. Staab, who lived there with her bad trader husband. She lurks in Room 101 and wreaks havoc on Mother’s Day. Relations between Jews and Catholics have always been cordial in Santa Fe: Bishop Lamy raised the money to finish his Saint Francis Cathedral from the pioneer merchant Seligman family. It’s widely believed that he thanked them by inserting the Hebrew name of God in the arch above its door, violating certain Jewish rules about the name of God.
On the temporal side, there’s Godfrey Reggio, who came as a teaching monk, showed his charges movies, left the church, and became America’s foremost maker of abstract films—the prizewinning trilogy of Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi.
The tales of illumination mix with tales of real estate. There’s the Himalayan prince who sells houses, and prodigal son Tom Ford, whose planned hilltop house spawned a fever of egalitarian rage in the neighborhood. You also hear about the art dealer who downsized right into a double-wide trailer.
I confess I first saw Santa Fe from the back of a Winnebago with Marjoe Gortner, a child evangelist who denounced the Pentecostal movement’s scams in a 1972 documentary and became an actor. He was starring in a western called Bobbie Joe and the Outlaw. I drank my first margarita and bought my first turquoise and my first Navajo rug in the hope that they were passes to a deeper truth. This touching belief endured from my youth to the day I decided to buy a house here, which would, I assumed, make me more real than I felt. I didn’t know what small town meant, and had no idea what life would be like in a small town where everyone has a hotline to their own idea of God.
Who takes many shapes. At Indian Market a few years ago, I watched a heavy young Anglo lean in to one of the Indian exhibitors and ask, "Is there a sweat lodge I can get into around here?" The Indian, who came from South Dakota, grazed him with his eyes as he looked way, way past him. There are strange cairns on the sides of trails on Atalaya Hill, left by the Indian trail builders, or by the hippie trail designers, or by pilgrims making their own stupas in supplication or thanks.
Sometimes I think everyone is stoned: the girl in the post office who twice counts out four sheets of stamps as "two, four, six, eight" and then looks up, confounded to see only four sheets in front of her. One day, someone helping me with chores was suddenly in a cloud of weed. "Can you work when you’re high?" I asked as gently as I could. The answer: "Are you kidding me?" You’re at a counter and you say to the guy behind it, "Hi." "Wish I was," he says back. You try to buy some moccasins: "Excuse me, moccasins?You know, the shoes you’re selling here?Are there …sizes?" It’s not always funny: last fall, a missing flash drive from a classified computer at Los Alamos Laboratories, 35 miles north of Santa Fe, was found in a methamphetamine lab in a trailer home. At Los Alamos, where they still make bombs, the University of California management has turned into a consortium that includes Bechtel and BWX Technologies, the "premier manager of complex, high-consequence nuclear and national security operations." Checkpoints have been installed.
Santa Fe’s main staple is not the taco, the tortilla, or the vegan veggie wrap. It’s cappuccino. In a place where time is free, taking a break breaks up the idleness. There’s Ecco, on Marcy Street, which makes its own gelati, and Meridian, across the street from the Inn at Loretto. At Downtown Subscription, on Acequia Madre in the old East Side, racks of magazines allow you to take a break from the break you’re taking by looking at Pequod, US Weekly, or a 10-day-old London Sunday Times. Next to you there will be a couple planning a new incarnation with their architect, unrolling plans over the tiny plastic table, talking window treatments, Jacuzzis, and Historic Design Review Board stipulations. No swimming pools: water is a problem. There will be twentysomethings journalizing on the orders of their rehab counselors, older screenwriters huddling over grievances, divorcées who’ve just blown off yoga class. I’ve heard one man reassure another about a past-life regression: "I’m sure your death wasn’t that bad." I’ve heard women discussing the men in this town. Appalled: "Why do they all have ponytails...and white hair?" Optimistic: "He’s such a hot Sufi."
Some say it’s the only town in the world where Mercury is always in retrograde. Visitors in Santa Fe wonder what the locals do. Unless they are the Nobel Prize winners (such as Murray Gell-Man, the father of quarks), corralled at the Santa Fe Institute, they write novels, plays, operas, oratorios, they paint, sculpt, take photographs, all of which they might, in a regrettable but absolutely sincere moment, describe as exploring their creative side.
Bill Richardson runs the state from the capitol, a round building with an old adobe compound tucked behind it on a street that has no name. Legislators, mostly men with fine old Hispanic names, do their business; everyone else is in retail, hospitality, or on a permanent vacation from their lives. And to relieve the tedium of facing up to their demons and setting off on their true path, they do exactly what the visitors do: they go shopping.
For visitors, some object must be found to stand in for the magic place long after one has left. For locals, there’s always something new to gaze at, sit on, eat from, or just nail to the wall. For retail shops, it’s payday. At Pak Mail, on Montezuma Avenue, they know just how to wrap anything for shipping: the pesky turkey feathers on a kachina; a temple figure from the ancient Orient; a $500 screen from the resale shop that needs a $900 restoration job, in Oregon.
Shopping in Santa Fe falls into two seasons: Indian Market and the rest of the year. To start with the rest of the year, and go by the layers: at the historic base, you find Indians in folding chairs under the portal of the Palace of the Governors in the Plaza, selling their handmade jewelry in the same spots where their ancestors in 1851 sold "fine venison, wild turkeys, and now and then the carcass of a very large bear," according to a contemporary observer. Jonette Sam, from Picuris Pueblo, does sell delicious cuts of buffalo at the farmers’ market in the summer, but airlines don’t like you traveling with raw meat. The jewelry is easier. Made according to traditional norms in neighboring Zuni and Hopi pueblos or on Navajo land over in the Four Corners, it’s displayed on acrylic blankets on the ground. Tourists gaze on the sellers with reverence, kneel to peer at bracelets, necklaces, earrings, barrettes, and little silver bookmarks. Some days, if I’m not doing it myself, the kneeling strikes me as an apology.
Packard’s and Ortega’s, on opposite sides of the Plaza, sell the best contemporary Indian jewelry, and at Nathalie, on Canyon Road, a former accessories editor of Paris Vogue, Nathalie Kent, has imposed cut and proportion on everything from horsehair belts to fringed suede skirts. She sells remarkable cowboy boots that lace up, broom skirts, fur toques, and bracelets by Marcus Amerman, who will reproduce a photo in beads.
Next layer: the Hispanic influence. The Museum of Spanish Colonial Art has an astonishing collection of santos and conquistador furniture, which may have inspired the new décor in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park Hotel: velvets, chunky armrests, and nailhead studs. In an old Chevrolet showroom renamed the Design Center, on Cerrillos Road in town, Gloria List sells 17th-century statues of saints from South America along with resplendores, the sterling silver halos that go above their heads. A woman of exceptional taste, she’s used to seeing one look on the faces of people who come into her shop: "Awe." An expression also seen on the faces of shoppers at Gary Coles-Christensen’s store on San Francisco Street. The world-class dealer sells rugs from Tibet and Nepal that he commissions on his trips there.
In a town where everyone is a gourmet cook, white truffle oil is a staple, lifestyle is sport, and the quest for furniture is like the search for shoes in New York City, except cheaper. Until the Mexican Connection closed last spring, once a month a man called Dale would call a select few and announce the arrival of a truck. At 8 a.m. a few days after one such call, on a bumpy bit of tarmac opposite a tire shop, around the corner from a shoe-repair place that sells great smoked-chile powder, an 18-wheeler from Mexico backed up to the single, narrow door of the Mexican Connection. A small group of mature, well-dressed, motionless people stood rapt, united in a clear focus. One woman clasped gold adhesive tags printed with her name, while another held a sheaf of big blank sticky labels on which she quickly scrawled hers. As men unloaded the truck, she darted about, slapping a label on one antique door, another antique door, another and another... An older man with deep chestnut skin stood back, eyes narrowed, sucking on his pipe. He was dressed like a rancher but his Stetson was perfect and his shearling was new. A decorator. Gauging.
I watched the dealers race forward. This one wanted tables and this one was after trasteros, the thick cupboards that can validate a dining room in no time flat. Irma, who ran the Mexican Connection, entered the fray, in an attempt to separate the movers from the dealers, but the dealers swarmed the store in a rapture of authenticity, putting labels on everything they could reach. Each item was neatly tagged in Mexico with price, material, provenance, and date, and the new things were clearly marked "modern." At least temporarily. There were chunky sideboards from the 1940’s painted turquoise or bright red, vast desks, counters, tables, chairs, metal-topped tables advertising Coca-Cola, dressers, sabino-wood trunks, cupboards painted acid green. Within an hour, most pieces were claimed, and by the next day they were gone, leaving behind only chests of drawers with porcelain handles, very large pots, and a few Coca-Cola tables. The drift of Santa Fe style toward a more generic Mexican effect may have been due to Irma. The Mexican Connection is now gone—vanished overnight like so many other businesses in town. Thank God for its brief tenure. It was partly because of Irma that I sold my house in a week.
My house looked a little like a suburban Japanese inn. It was in town, a solar house built to economize on energy, devoid of any Santa Fe details. When it came time to sell it, I asked a resourceful realtor named Kristina Lindstrom what I needed to do. Experienced in marketing the idea of Santa Fe, she said two words: "Burnt Almond." Soon a painter had covered the double-height living-room wall with Burnt Almond, a color that suggests adobe without pushing it. Kristina dragged two unloved Navajo rugs out of a closet, arranged them in a featured pose on the furniture, and made a Santa Fe Home. I bought a huge old Mexican desk at Irma’s for less than a pair of Louboutins. The house seduced a buyer in no time. I kept the desk.
The final layer, Anglo products, can be found in the galleries on Canyon Road and at Site Santa Fe, where a biennial exhibition (curated by, variously, Dave Hickey from Las Vegas or Rob Storr from New York, and next year by Lance Fung, also from New York) brings cutting-edge aesthetics to the rail yard. Across the street, James Kelly Contemporary does the same all year round in a newly refurbished warehouse. On the other side of the warehouse, at Victoria Price, Cassina’s molded wenge chairs give a new context to Navajo rugs and beaten silver ewers. Georgia O’Keeffe has her own, remarkable, museum. For some reason, a great many artists work in steel, making large heavy things for the hotels and small intense things for themselves. They are called fabricators. Tom Joyce, described as more of a blacksmith, received a MacArthur. Henry Noestheden imposes precise engineering on huge sheets of steel; he showed minimalist panels at a Second Street gallery called Phil Space, and was stunned when one of them was whisked off to Art Basel Miami Beach. Larry Swann, a monkish man who only recently left the commune where he had lived for over 20 years, makes adventurous steel furniture that would be a wow in Milan, if he believed in wow, if he believed in Milan.
And then there’s the third weekend in August. Since 1922, artists from North American tribes have gathered in Santa Fe for the three days of Indian Market. The Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) gives prizes on Friday night, from Best in Show to subsets like Most Innovative Use of Traditional Technique and Materials in Beadwork and Quill. I like to get to the plaza before morning, in the black privacy of night. The people who collect Indian art are driven. They’ll wait all night in front of the white tents in the plaza, huddled on folding chairs, clutching thermoses and blankets, for the prize object from their favorite artist. Before dawn on Saturday, as the sleepy artists slide out of vans—license plates: Arizona’s cactus, Oklahoma’s tomahawk—to set up their booths, the collectors dart, ripe with cash. The transactions happen in a quick hush long before the Plaza Café opens at five. The collectors leave at once with their trophies, often by private plane.
Diego Romero isn’t there at dawn. The potter is the hot art-star of the market, a postmodern prankster who appropriates Greek figures and sometimes uses the gold-glaze technique of Sèvres. He decorates his pots with cartoon characters, a badass pair he calls the Chongo Brothers, whose antics transform pots and bowls in the Mimbres style into acid social commentary. The Robert Nichols Gallery shows him, and he’s internationally known. The son of a Cochiti Pueblo painter, he grew up with his Anglo mother in Berkeley, studied at the IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts) in Santa Fe, has an MFA from UCLA, and collects comic books and action figures. By the time Diego Romero gets to his booth, a collector has been waiting for a long time. Wearing a western shirt and a huge turquoise bolo, he’s a dealer in comic books, and he knows his man. Before anyone can intervene, a huge bowl depicting the Chongo Brothers sitting in a garbage dump has gone to him, in exchange for a small sum of money and a large amount of old comic books.
Indian Market is like all outdoor markets: you make a first pass, absorb nothing, get coffee, register what you like the most, and begin to dart and race at things. You find yourself standing behind a mass of women trying to get a look at Clarence Lee’s bracelets incised with scenes of Pueblo life. His brooch of a coyote on a Harley looks like the bikers who swarm through the Southwest in the early fall. By the time you have been there a few hours, you know that the tents along San Francisco Street are mainly pottery: tiny precise graphic pieces from Acoma Pueblo, big shiny orange micaceous-clay or incised black ones from Santa Clara. You know that the Cree couple are charging $900 this year for their beaded boxes, and that Martine Lovato’s inlaid bracelets are $5,000; and you do what I do, which is head for the kachinas.
These dolls represent the deities embodied by dancers in Pueblo and Hopi ceremonies, and are ritually given to children during the dances. In Hopi land you can buy them at Joe Day’s gallery, near Shungopavi. At Indian Market, the Hopi dolls and rattles stand out, neither embroidered nor fired nor incised, just painted wood for the kachina dolls, and painted gourds for the rattles. Manfred Susunkewa is in a booth facing the bandstand on Palace Avenue; his kachinas are subtler and artier than those you find at Shungopavi. They go fast.
Stacy and Elsie Talahytewa’s rattles are in a booth that faces the Plaza Café: imperious bird gourds, mud-men dolls, rattles with rain symbols on them, or bird tracks. My favorite is the squash gourd painted to look like a squash, a perfect signifier signifying itself.
Over toward the Inn of the Anasazi, Emma Hope’s big broom skirts are tied down and hung like sausages until someone opens them out to bloom in infinite pleats. I stopped shopping at Mrs. Hope’s when I realized I had 14 skirts, but a German friend has taken up the slack.
Other artists have fun with the old techniques: Les Berryhill from Oklahoma sells mirrors and wooden spoons around whose handles he has strung beads. Austere but merry, they’re Shaker on holiday. On Lincoln Avenue, Mary Tafoya, an original and talented jeweler from Santo Domingo Pueblo, works with inlaid stones, and her exuberant pieces in turquoise and jet and mother-of-pearl are already widely copied.
By eleven, you need food; on the way to brunch at Baleen, at the Inn at Loretto, my head full of wonder at all the patterns I have seen, I stop in the garden of the Loretto Chapel, where a Peruvian named Cirillo Hurtado is selling round yellow gourds engraved with scenes of Peruvian life that unfold like tiny movies: a worker in the fields takes ill, a curandero is found, applies a fat rodent to the man’s chest, slices the rodent open, boils up something (the rodent?), makes the patient drink the brew. The patient, cured, sits up, and the villagers rejoice. A man asks for a woman’s hand in marriage, gets into a fight with her father at the feast, reconciliation follows. By the time I sit down to eat huevos rancheros with my friends, all of us bleary from the predawn rendezvous in the plaza, I have a sea of plastic bags around my feet: rattles, dolls, and a pair of storytelling gourds. No turquoise this year: I am about to move away. Turquoise is the introduction, not the farewell.
Joan Juliet Buck is a critic, novelist, and former editor-in-chief of Paris Vogue. Her last report from the Southwest was "Under the Tucson Sun" in T+L’s February 2004 issue.
When to Go
Santa Fe has year-round attractions: in July, sudden showers are followed by twin rainbows; and in August, the famous Indian Market comes to town. Visit in winter for the smell of piñon smoke from kiva fireplaces and the Colonial and Indian Christmas. In April and May, the flowers start blooming.
How to Get There
United and Frontier offer connecting service from Denver to the Santa Fe airport. Continental runs a nonstop flight from Newark to Santa Fe during July and the winter. The main airport in Albuquerque is an hour’s drive away.
Where to Stay
La Fonda on the Plaza
There’s been an inn at this site since 1607. La Fonda was decorated in 1924 by Mary Colter in a style that remains untouched: tin panels, adobe, bright paint. 100 E. San Francisco St.; 800/523-5002 or 505/982-5511; lafondasantafe.com; doubles from $399.
Inn of the Anasazi
Once a juvenile correction facility, it’s now a chic little hotel managed by the Rosewood group. 113 Washington Ave.; 505/ 988-3030; innoftheanasazi.com; doubles from $275.
Rancho de San Juan
The only Relais & Châteaux property in the Southwest, so secluded that even Santa Feans come here to hide. 34020 Hwy. 25, Ojo Caliente; 505/753-6818; rancho desanjuan.com; doubles from $275.
Where to Eat
Brian Knox’s small, three-year-old restaurant offering simple, seasonal cuisine is a gathering place for locals. 451 W. Alameda St.; 505/982-6297; dinner for two $130.
Delicious dishes at night. They’re good at Santa Fe’s main meal too: breakfast. 211 Old Santa Fe Trail; 505/984-7915; brunch for two $50.
Café Ecco Espresso & Gelato
105 E. Marcy St.; 505/986-9778; lunch for two $20.
Mexican chairs and paper cutout flags, plus exquisite food, such as Niman ranch beef or mangoes sprinkled with hot chili powder, by Katharine Kagel, "the Luddite chef." Great for breakfast, too. 121 Don Gaspar Ave.; 505/983-9340; dinner for two $90.
376 Garcia St.; 505/983-3085.
228 Old Santa Fe Trail; 505/989-9252.
54 Lincoln Ave.; 505/982-1664; lunch for two $20.
The most popular chili and taco joint in town. By the rail yard. 500 S. Guadalupe St.; 505/983-5721; lunch for two $30.
Excellent Northern Italian cuisine in the Southwest. Try to sit on the front porch. 304 Johnson St.; 505/983-3800; dinner for two $170.
Where to Shop
Double Take at the Ranch
Consignment shop with boots and more. 321 S. Guadelupe St.; 505/820-7775.
Garcia Street Books
Edward and Eva Borins carry the latest titles, and the fullest selection of remaindered titles west of the Strand, in New York City. 376 Garcia St.; 505/986-0151.
G. Coles-Christensen Rug Merchants
125 W. San Francisco St.; 505/986-6089.
Gloria List Gallery
418 Cerrillos Rd.; 505/988-4002 or 505/982-5622.
503 Canyon Rd.; 505/982-1021.
Ortega’s on the Plaza
101 W. San Francisco St.; 505/988-1866.
Packard’s on the Plaza
61 Old Santa Fe Trail; 505/883-9241.
For shipping your goods home. 369 Montezuma Ave.; 505/989-7380.
Galleries and Studios
Henry Noestheden Design
1704 Lena St.; 505/988-5032.
James Kelly Contemporary
1601 Paseo de Peralta; 505/989-1601.
1515 Third St.; 505/920-5444.
1410 Second St.; 505/983-7945.
Robert Nichols Gallery
419 Canyon Rd.; 505/982-2145.
Second Street Galleries
1807 Second St.
Site Santa Fe
1606 Paseo de Peralta; 505/989-1199.
Victoria Price Contemporary Art & Design
Rail yard, 550 S. Guadalupe; 505/982-8632.
What to Do
This 1940 church by John Gaw Meem is the finest example of the Pueblo style around. 1120 Canyon Rd.; 505/983-8528
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
217 Johnson St.; 505/946-1000; okeeffemuseum.org.
Museum of International Folk Art
The only comprehensive museum of folk art in the world. Unique and delightful. 706 Camino Lejo; 505/476-1200; internationalfolkart.org.
Museum of Spanish Colonial Art
750 Camino Lejo; 505/982-2226; spanishcolonial.org.
Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival
Performances take place at the St. Francis Auditorium and the renovated Lensic Performing Arts Center. July 15–August 20. 888/221-9836; sfcmf.org.
Santa Fe Indian Market: Southwestern Association for Indian Arts
August 17–19. The Plaza; 505/983-5220; swaia.org.
Santa Fe Opera Music Festival
Astonishing premieres, avant-garde operas, great singers—a real destination. June 29– August 25. 800/280-4654; santafeopera.org.
Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian
A small showcase of Indian art. 704 Camino Lejo; 505/982-4636; wheelwright.org.