Driving to Taos, you get a wonderful sense of why the town attracts artists. This part of New Mexico is 7,000 feet high, part of the Colorado Plateau. It’s high desert and mostly flat.
But out of the plains, the Sangre do Cristo mountain range rises up, to over 13,000 feet at Wheeler Peak. And the landscape, the backbone of mountain, shapes the town and the people who have lived here for centuries.
Taos isn’t as rustic as it seems at first. It has nice restaurants, lots of art galleries, several museums, distinctive B & Bs, and upscale shops. There’s even a bit of an art colony and a world-class ski resort is 15 miles north of town. For a small town, Taos is enormously appealing.
As a photographer and writer, I couldn’t help notice the stuff that’s made the town an artist destination. Go to the Taos and Santa Fe museums and you see that the Taos landscape and the Taos Pueblo inspired some of the great artists of the time. Georgia O’Keefe, photographers Ansel Adams and Alfred Steiglitz, the writer and painter D. H. Lawrence, the list goes on.
Ansel Adams made the Pueblo a central focus of one of his early portfolios. Unlike his famous Yosemite photographs, Adams immerses himself in the almost Cubist nature of that architecture — the 700 year old town (and San Francisco de Asis Church south of Taos) are an essential part of Adams’ oeuvre.
The Taos Pueblo was also a huge inspiration for these artists. The reservation is just a few miles out of town and it’s distinctive pueblo structures are a visual and architectural marvel. The pueblo town and its people are the perfect embodiment of America’s ancient roots.
You can see why the pueblo and town architecture inspired some of O’Keefe’s best work. She loved the primal colors of the area and the flowing, almost feminine shapes of the adobe houses.
A Broken Wagon
Sometimes the river of history takes a serious right turn. And for Taos, one such moment happened in 1898 when Bert Phillips and Ernest Blumenshein’s wagon broke down a few miles outside. The two New York-based artists were on a painting tour of the Southwest. By the time their wagon was fixed, the coin had dropped, and they knew they’d found a life-long inspiration.
New York was The Art Scene for America. A new breed of painters and photographers were looking to move beyond their European influences. And at that moment in time, Phillips and Blumenshein began to tell their friends about New Mexico. For some of these New York artists, Taos was just what they needed. After all, the right subject is as important for a painter or photographer as it is for an actor.
A few years later, the wealthy heiress, Mabel Dodge Luhan moved out to Taos with her painter husband. Mabel had entertained notable artists at her New York salon for years, her Florence home was popular with Gertrude Stein and Andre Gide.
Before long, she discovered Tony Lujan, a leader of the Taos Pueblo. He set up outside her house, playing on a native drum, inviting her to come out and frolic. And she came out.
The two became very public lovers, shocking the traditional folks of the pueblo. Her husband bought a shotgun but wasn’t able to use it. Mabel continued with her wicked artsy ways, her husband continued to go crazy. And for months, the quiet Taos nights were anything but quiet.
Finally, Mabel dumped art-hubby and married Tony. The two built an elegant house and she invited O’Keefe, Steiglitz, Adams, etc., out. Her place at Taos became like a San Simeon for the art community. Soon high desert New Mexico and the Pueblo community became popular subjects in the art world. Taos was a creative destination.