In the recurring series Souvenir Stories, Emily Spivack asks accomplished storytellers about memorable objects they've brought home from their travels. Here, Salon 94's Swiss-born curator Fabienne Stephan—the woman behind group shows such as "For the Kids" and "Transition Game"—recalls how she chanced upon a small vessel in Taos that's since inspired her work.
Last summer, my best friend Natasha and I organized a trip to follow the path of Georgia O’Keeffe around the Southwest. We went to Santa Fe, took a tour of her house, traveled to Bandelier National Park, hiked, and rode horses at Ghost Ranch. We were also given a tour by this cowboy. He would point to the landscape and say, “This was in this painting and that was in that painting.” He would talk so vividly about O’Keeffe and her work. At the end of the tour we learned that he’d never seen an actual Georgia O’Keeffe painting. He’d just read a lot about her and spent a lot of time in her landscape. You could tell he understood what she loved about the place.
We got a little bored where we were staying, so we decided to drive to Marfa and stop in Taos for a few hours along the way. That’s where I got this cup. I was walking around the pueblo and I met an artist who makes his living selling the pieces he and his friends make—like this cup. I have a collection of little drinking cups and another collection of small animals from all over the world, so this fit into both. He told me that these cups used to be huge because they were used as containers, but today, to cater to the tourists, they’re very small, small enough to easily fit inside a suitcase.
Looking at the cup reminds me of what it felt like to be in the Southwest, in that landscape. The cup shimmers from the mica, which is found in the hills outside of Taos. As we’d hike around, we’d see it shimmering. The color of the clay reminds me of the earth there. Not far from where Georgia O’Keeffe lived is The Black Place, which is all dark stones. She painted it a lot. Today it’s been almost completely destroyed by fracking. Another area close by is called The White Place, which is all white stones and rock formations that look like they’re from another planet. The colors of this cup are similar, and they remind me of those places where Georgia O’Keeffe would paint.
I don’t know what it is about that landscape. There’s something that happens visually. It’s the starkness. The sky is so huge and clear with these really strong lines of the mesa. I adore the calming effect of this extremely minimal view. It’s like washing off your visual palette—it’s meditative.
With my job, I have to come up with ideas all the time for shows and art fair booths. I’m working on a project now where I’m including Native American art with abstract paintings. Just living with this cup for the past year has very directly been an inspiration. And it reminds me that life exists outside of New York City, that another way of living is possible and that we don’t necessarily have to live in this rat race all the time. I also appreciate that the artist made this cup from materials found outside her house. It’s really refreshing considering the way most artists make work today, with no connection to the materials. It’s not that I’m overly nostalgic for it, but it’s something I value.
As a European, I know I’m coming to this with a little bit of naiveté, some exoticism. I was absolutely fascinated by Native Americans and the Wild West as a child. I’ve been back to the Southwest twice since my first trip last summer and with each visit, I’ve been thinking more and more about ways of sharing one culture with another. I appreciate that there are certain things Native Americans make specifically for visitors—there are parts of their culture they’ll let you have, but others that they will not. I feel like they are saying, we’ll give you trinkets, but you can’t own our culture.