Friday, June 29, 2007

Spending time in Santa Fe, NM

I have been in Santa Fe for the past month by means of the generosity of the Pollock-Krassner Foundation and the Santa Fe Art Institute where I am in the last week of my residency. I came here with no expectations of what my work would be because when I have attended other long-term residential workshops, seminars, etc. in the past, I invariably was moved to dump my plans and to work on some new idea stimulated by my environment. The environment here in New Mexico which eventually motivated me were the prehistoric Ancestral Pueblo Indian ruins.

I have visited many prehistoric sites in Europe and have been intrigued by the mystery of these silent civilizations which are NOT dead: you can feel a presence in these places if you become still and quiet, empty your mind, and enter a state of receptivity. There is an energy that pervades these sites which I  felt certain could be experienced  among the physical vestiges of the first people on the American continent. Because I have a need to connect to and to draw from this energy, I began to research and plan to visit Southwestern ruins, after I learned I would be going to New Mexico.

I continued this research after my wife, Mary  Jane, and I arrived at SFAI and settled in to our spacious, comfortable room and large, well-lit  studio where she commenced work on a series of encaustic paintings. SFAI provided all our creature needs (and much more), so we were free to work as we pleased, whenever we pleased. I bought some clay at a local supplier, thinking I would model some sculptures and have them fired. I had ideas, but none of them really excited me to the point of compelling me to work. I then tried drawing, something I do every day anyway, but, again, I was uninspired and drifted away from this activity after producing a few pieces. I was going through one of my "dry" periods, but the one interest which continued to fire my brain was Ancestral Pueblo culture. While Mary Jane worked on her paintings, I borrowed and read books from the College of Santa Fe Library (at which we had been given complimentary lending privileges) on this subject.

Eventually, we drove our rental car to Los Alamos, rented a room, and spent a couple of days exploring the nearby Bandelier National Monument, where humans have lived and passed through for 10,000 years. We hiked the Loop Trail where the ruins stand … and lay. This trail can be traversed in an hour or two. It passes two rows of canyon cliff dwellings and the largely leveled ancient Tyuonyi pueblo,which once stood two stories high and housed about 100 people. The dry heat and blazing sun were oppressive on the cliffsides, but the floor of the canyon, where the cool creek flows and the trees shade, was pleasant. The temperature in this area is very similar to that in New Orleans at this time of year, but the lack of humidity here makes the heat quite tolerable. I now understand why cowboys in those old Western movies seemed almost never to sweat: perspiration evaporates as soon as it emerges from your pores.

I learned at Bandelier  that this was one of hundreds of pueblos and other settlements that had radiated from the vast, sophisticated, and influential Chaco Canyon culture in the north, after the abandonment of that settlement in the 13th century. I decided to go there. I drove up there with Tim Best, who was also in residence at SFAI. Tim proved to be an excellent traveling companion: he is a man of action and thought, and therefore does not talk too much. He was also serious about Chaco and made interesting observations.

The Chaco park also has a loop trail, but you drive this one and park at the main sites, of which there were about half a dozen in the canyon area. Interestingly, most of these ruins were built roughly between 850 and 1200, which is also roughly the period of the early and Romanesque Middle Ages in Europe, also a time of furious building projects. Considering that this period in time was prehistoric (before written language) for the Ancestral Pueblos, their monumental and sophisticated architecture is  all the more amazing. In particular, their masonry systems --- supporting buildings sometimes four stories high and containing as many as 600 rooms --- rivaled those of then contemporary Europe.

Chaco was not primarily a residential community, but was the administrative, economic, and ceremonial center of a loosely connected culture that extended for hundreds of miles in all directions. It was largely supported by outlying clans and tribes who made pilgrimages to Chaco to make offerings, pay tribute, and participate in religious ceremonies. Chaco was, and is, a sacred place. Essential  to Chacoan religion was the kiva, a circular, semi-subterranean structure which, according to its size and significance, could accommodate from a dozen to several dozen people. It was the equivalent of a  
mosque, church, or synagogue. Largely below-ground, there is an opening in the roof, access to the cosmos. In a kiva, one is connected to both the earth and to the outer universe, consistent with Native American spiritual beliefs, and it is here that one strengthens this connection with prayer, music, ritual, and offering. Kivas are scattered throughout Chaco Canyon, indoors, outdoors, of all sizes. Partly because they were so ubiquitously  in our view, Tim and I half-seriously began talking about constructing a 21st century version of a kiva, one that would address current needs and employ contemporary building materials.

My perceptions as I moved about Chaco Canyon were mainly of the sublime and ineffable sort, but I could not lose the tangible idea of the kiva. I began designing in my sketchbook. We'll see.

By the way, the Santa Fe Art Institute is still accepting applications from New Orleans artists. Their website,, describes the place very adequately, so I won't go into the matter here. I will only briefly say that the place is luxuriously comfortable, aesthetically exquisite, thoroughly conducive to artistic endeavors, and sensitive to the particular needs of the artist. The staff is amiable, personable, knowledgeable, and helpful in the extreme.  If anyone wants a few tips or an unabashedly  subjective "institute review", don't hesitate to email me:

Gary Oaks


Courtney said...

thanks Gary for a great post!
Concerning the residency, I wanted to mention that the Santa Fe Art Institute has only hosted one or two artists "of color" from New Orleans. The SFAI folks tell me it's because hardly any have applied.
Please help spread the word about this opportunity to those who haven't heard.

Anonymous said...

Great to hear that you and Mary Jane are doing well out west. One issue that your post brings up is why we have never had a serious art institute in our city. Such institutions have stimulated arts communities world wide. The Art Works complex is the perfect facility.
Enjoy the rest of your stay and thanks to the numerous foundations and individuals who have done so much for New Orleans.

c.e. said...

I think we need a kiva here Gary.
a kiva / camera obscura (like the one in San Fran)?,
on top of some building overlooking the river.