Saturday, April 18, 2009

Take a Walk in Santa Fe

This week I am working on a painting of the Abbey of Senanque in Provence, France. After copying some of the masterworks of Provencal artists in my college days - this represents my first return to painting Provence in a very long time. It's been a joy to work at the root-source of my idols, namely Quilici and Van Gogh. It reminds me of the quote that my friend and mentor Jean-Claude Quilici made about my work, when he said "it's too bad that Provence is so far from where Neil lives!" In all honesty, Provence is the real origin of the kind of expressionist work that I and Jean-Claude do, so it seems natural that I should come back to it at some point.

Several times this week, as my wife and I have been talking about our trips around the Southwest, the subject of Santa Fe has come up. Invariably, we start talking about how many beautiful days and evenings we've had on trips to this wonderful city. Honestly, if circumstances didn't have me based in Southern Arizona, my immediate 2nd choice for a place to live would be Santa Fe, New Mexico. We first saw the town briefly in 2003, and have made trips back there as frequently as we could manage.

There is some kind of unique confluence in Santa Fe - a kind of nexus of art, history, cross culture influences of native American, Hispanic, and Anglo American traditions. And the fact that Santa Fe is one of our oldest cities - also containing the oldest church in America, the San Miguel Mission which was built between 1610-1628. I painted the mission in 2004, and still have the painting. Santa Fe itself dates from 1610. The old churches and history are just one aspect - what seems so interesting is that the quaintness and the age of the town has been so well preserved. What is unfortunately true about America is a near obsessive need to bulldoze the old buildings and structures - but this hasn't gotten its way entirely in Santa Fe. Even the new buildings around town are built in the adobe style that was so well known to much of New Mexico and Arizona. Many of the homes around areas like Canyon Road also preserve this style. The end result is that Santa Fe still feels small, intimate, and it looks beautiful.

One obvious plus to spending time in Santa Fe is that you can walk around it. Most of the artsy parts of town, the main square, Canyon Road - these all have good sidewalks and are a reasonable distance apart. When I visit Santa Fe I find myself thinking of the terrible epidemic of obesity in America - and it occurs to me that some small responsibility for this should be placed on city planners. For example, there are many highly developed areas around Tucson (where we live) that have NO sidewalks at all. School kids get off the bus and walk home in the dirt beside the paved road. It seems to me that if you'd like to encourage your population to take an afternoon or morning stroll - or walk somewhere in lieu of driving, they need that basic convenience of a sidewalk. Even most small towns in North Carolina where I grew up had them - and it is another great aspect of visiting Santa Fe. Just park your car and walk around it. You'll find all sorts of nooks in town, with galleries, shops, restaurants, etc - places you'd have missed if you were zooming by in a car.

In 2007 I saw a special exhibit at the Palace of the Governors where the original scroll for the Jack Kerouac book "On the Road" was unrolled and put on display in a long, clear display case. Kerouac wrote the book in a frenzy of work in 1951 - and his style of writing was executed so fast that he didn't use conventional pages - he used a long scroll that could be unwound as he went. It's display was part of a special travelling exhibit taking the scroll around America. Always having been a fan of the beat generation and their new visions of life and writing - it was a special privilege to see this important piece of history on display in one of Santa Fe's most historic spots.

Another aspect of Santa Fe which I find interesting is it's inherent value as an artistic subject. Frequently on trips my wife and I wander along the back alleys of the downtown and the roads and driveways around Canyon Road - and from the photographs we took in these areas have come some of my best works, like "Spring Sunshine, Canyon Road", "Fence Shadows, Santa Fe" and "Pink Tree, Santa Fe." Visually, what is at work in Santa Fe - as you see the sunlight filtering off the adobe structures - is the same thing that is at work when you visit Taos Pueblo. Ochre and Sienna Earth colors in solid shapes, with light and shadow projected on them. Thus the homes around Canyon Road strike me artistically the same way the native American Pueblos do. And that's a great source for wonderful paintings.
When I travel, and then I think about it afterwards, I have to say that I don't remember things in a perfect stream of consciousness - but rather in individual scenes, or images. Like arriving in Santa Fe in 2007 while a soft springtime snow was falling on the town. My wife and I checked into our hotel and then walked over to a cafe with a terrace, where we watched the snow falling on some recently blooming flowers. Till all the adobe buildings were coated with white, and the town slowed down to a hush as the snow accumulated. Or I remember a gorgeous sunny morning during our trip to Santa Fe last year, where we bought muffins for breakfast and took them out to a bench on the square - sharing crumbs with the birds and watching vendors set up for the day. Travel is full of those kinds of moments, and for those of you who may be thinking about it - take it from me, those moments are very, very easy to find in a place like Santa Fe. Stay there a few days, and make a few memories of your own.

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