by Karen Misuraca
Early every morning before the shops and art galleries open around the grassy main Plaza in Santa Fe, sixty or so Native American artisans and tradespeople lay out their vibrantly colored rugs beneath the massive, hand-hewn beams of the portola arcade of the Palace of the Governors, the oldest public building in the United States. Gleaming, hand-hammered silver and turquoise rings, bracelets and necklaces are lined up with concha belts, fringed leather pouches and beadwork.
The dark eyes and the faces of the vendors reflect a 400-year-old, blended Hispanic, Native American, Anglo and Mexican heritage of art, history and spirit that is Santa Fe, a town like no other, the "City Different". A slow walk along a mile-square network of narrow, winding streets and alleyways is a swim in the ocean of time, a glimpse into ancient and modern ways of life in the Southwest, from Indian pueblos to Spanish colonization to today's lively artist's colony. A weekend of easy walks and a museum visit or two turn up hidden treasures.
No place looks like Santa Fe. At an altitude of nearly 7,000 feet in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains under a dome of crystalline blue sky, softly rounded adobe houses in muted ochres, rusts and pinks are thick-walled and dramatic in their simplicity. Behind rustic juniper branch fences, their earth tones are warm against pale gray-green, fragrant sage bushes and silvery, lacy cottonwood trees.
The bright blue-green wooden window and door frames seen all over town derive from Spanish colonists, who began arriving here on horseback in 1540 to establish the northernmost outpost of New Spain. They decorated their houses with blue paint, the better to ward off evil spiritsa custom influenced by the Moors in 14th century southern Spain. Lovers of gardens, water features and fancy architectural trim, the conquistadors also favored filigreed iron balconies and light sconces; archways, porticos and pergolas; and courtyards full of flowers, shade trees and bubbling fountains, all of which contributes to the appealing look of Santa Fe.
The Spanish laid out the main plaza in 1610 and built the "casas reales", a fortified presidio which is now a museum, the Palace of the Governors, where artisans sell their wares as they have for centuries. Major excavations behind the museum will be underway for the next few years. The museum remains open to the public, and visitors can watch the fascinating daily progress on the archeological "dig"
Up the street from the Plaza on Palace Avenue is the Pueblo/Spanish Revival-style Museum of Fine Arts, housing a large collection of Southwestern art. Lifelike murals of early Indians and religious history are highlights here. From the museum on most days, docents lead walking tours of the surrounding streets, stopping at such attractions as the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, the only museum in the world dedicated to a woman artist.
On East Palace Avenue since 1945, The Rainbow Man gallery is owned by Bob Kapoun, who has traded with the Indians for more than thirty years. He sells pre-1940 pawn jewelry, early pottery and weavings, and original images by the master photographer, Edward S. Curtis, who chronicled Indian life of the 1800s.
Just off Palace Avenue, a popular tourist attraction is the Romanesque-style St. Francis Cathedral, which shelters a 375-year-old statue of the Virgin, the city's patroness. A block or so away on Old Santa Fe Trail, the Loretto Chapel is an elegant Gothic Revival chapel famous for a miraculous double helix staircase constructed without nails and with no visible support by a mysterious carpenter believed by the Sisters of Loretto nuns to be St. Joseph.
A the next corner, the Santa Fe River trickles alongside Alameda Avenue, which is lined by a paved walking trail where picnic tables and benches are shady stops beneath overhanging aspens, willows, olive trees and cottonwoods.
A few steps east, the entrance to Canyon Road is the beginning of a pilgrimage made by many an art lover. Once a dusty footpath and trade route between northern and southern pueblos in the 13th century, Canyon Road runs out of pinon-covered foothills down through the lush Santa Fe River valley. In the late 1800s, the railroad brought tourists to this part of the Wild West, and soon after, East Coast artists began to settle in rundown houses in the canyon. The unique quality of the light and the drama of the mountains and the desert landscape drew artists to this place, even in those early days, infusing their impressionist-style paintings with a freshness and luminosity comparable to the artists working at the same time period in southern France. Five impoverished painters, dubbed the "Cinco Pintures", led a flamboyant cadre of innovators whose exotic, abstract scenes of the Southwest established Santa Fe as an artist's haven. Today, visitors browse more than 250 art galleries in town and make slow strolls to the dozens of Canyon Road galleries specializing in contemporary Native American art and artifacts; fine American folk and Western art, and contemporary art.
At the foot of the road, a new annex of the Medicine Man Gallery exhibits the Taos school of painting, antique Indian art, and works by the noted Southwestern painter Maynard Dixon. The gallery also showcases the highly polished, incised black pottery made by the late Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso Pueblo. She originally exhibited at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904 and presented her pieces at the White House to President Theodore Roosevelt.
Nearby, Morning Star Gallery is the country's largest gallery of antique Indian art, from beadwork, rugs and textiles to basketry and Kachina figures.
About half-way up the road, tuckered art hounds duck into the secret garden of El Zaguan, an unassuming little Victorian-era, Territorial-style house and museum. Rocking chairs on the porch and benches beneath two big chestnut trees among the flowerbeds make this a welcome hideaway.
Another way to beat mid-summer heat on Canyon Road is to attend the regular Friday night "Artwalk", when most galleries schedule receptions and art openings, and many of the artists are on hand to hobnob with visitors.
The astonishing amount of outdoor art in Santa Fe is one of the joys of a ramble around town. A stunning array of sculpture al fresco is found on the grounds of the State Capitol, which is right downtown. Standing in a dense glade of aspens, olive trees and willows are Glenna Goodacre’s bronze "Waterbearers" and Estella Loretto's ethereal, headdressed "Earth Mother", among others. Allan Hauser's monumental black metal representation of an Indian dancer guards the entrance to the capitol, built as a roundhouse in the shape of a Zia sun symbol. The building is open free-of-charge to visitors to wander the spiraling levels around a large atrium, making discoveries in the huge collection of contemporary New Mexican art, folk art, photography and traditional Navajo rugs. Marble walls and specially commissioned benches create a cool, restful environment.
Across the street, the rear courtyard of Nedra Matteucci's Fenn Galleries is a quiet sculpture garden where life-sized bronzes and stone figures inhabit a forest of whispering poplars and aspens. In the fall, leaves fall like golden coins into lily ponds reflecting the works of Glenna Goodacre, who designed the Women's Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., and those of other sculptors. Shown in the large gallery are rare paintings by the Cinco Pintures and by early Taos artists such as Victor Higgins.
Some of the widest variety and best buys in art and souvenirs are found in the museum shopsand, in Santa Fe, there are several major museums downtown, and a cluster of four on Museum Hill, accessed by the colorfully-decorated "M Line" bus, a two-mile, fifty-cent ride from the town plaza to the hill.
A silhouette against the sky in the new sculpture garden on Museum Hill is a spectacular, larger than life metal sculpture of a costumed Indian dancer, named "Apache Mountain Spirit", by Craig Dan Goseyn. Up here in the pinon-dotted hills above the town, the sky is constantly in flux, with clouds piling into gargantuan, puffy towers in the afternoons. This is the catbird's seat for heart-pounding thunderstorms that can come and go in all months of the year.
The largest museum of its kind, the Museum of International Folk Art is loaded with whimsical miniatures, toys and religious art from around the world. Day of the Dead displays feature skeletons with big sombreros playing guitars and horns. Fearsome masks stare back at visitors, while platoons of clay figures parade to market in fanciful costumes. Fortunately for the young children who favor this museum, there are sofas and banquettes on which to lounge.
The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture is chocked full of the most priceless pottery, clothing, baskets and jewelry ever created by Native Americans. Unique items include an extraordinary 151-foot-long hunting net made of human hair, created in AD 1200; Anasazi ceramics and Apache hunting horns and bags.
Newly opened on the hill is the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in a circa-1930 hacienda designed by John Gaw Meem, the originator of what is known today as the "Santa Fe Style" of architecturea combination of Spanish Colonial and Pueblo Revival styles. The old home's thick, white plaster walls, kiva fireplaces, rugged beams, and pressed tin and painted ceilings create an intimate backdrop for Spanish and Latin America artifacts from 1492-1850.
Another new addition to Museum Hill is the Museum Hill Café, where healthy fare is enjoyed by diners on a patio and at large windows overlooking the town. As the sun sets over the hazy blue mountain ranges in the distance, the intrepid sightseer hops on the M Line bus for the return trip to the Plaza. Sundown cocktails are enjoyed by locals and tourists, alike, in the Bell Tower Bar on the rooftop of the La Fonda Hotel on San Francisco Street, at the end of the Old Santa Fe Trail.
Accommodations in Santa Fe:
El Dorado Hotel
Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort and Spa
Inn on the Alameda