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Taos’ history, allure linked to personalities who have called it home

Painted panels in a main altar screen in the San Francisco de Asís Church in Ranchos de Taos are thought to have come from Spain. Local folk artists and santeros created the altar surrounds and icon carvings. (Journal)
Painted panels in a main altar screen in the San Francisco de Asís Church in Ranchos de Taos are thought to have come from Spain. Local folk artists and santeros created the altar surrounds and icon carvings. (Journal)
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The town of Taos encourages people to “escape, rejuvenate and make a journey of self discovery.”

That’s precisely what many early Taos residents did as they made names for themselves in literature, art and social movements.

On a recent tour of Taos, Larry Torres, a historian and associate professor of languages and cultures at the University of New Mexico’s Taos campus, provided perspective and connections between characters and events that are forever bound together in the history and lore of Taos and northern New Mexico.

Mabel Dodge Luhan House

Mabel Dodge Luhan was a New York society maven and patron to artists and activists. She joined her third husband, painter Maurice Sterne, in Santa Fe in 1917. They soon divorced and she bought land the following year in Taos, where she began rebuilding a four-room adobe constructed in the early 1800s. She kept adding on to it through the 1930s and Tony Luhan, the Taos Pueblo native who supervised the ongoing project, would become husband No. 4.

During her life, the home, with its melding of pueblo, Spanish Colonial and Tuscan styles, was a mecca for artists, writers, intellectuals and activists, says Torres. Guests included writers Willa Cather, Aldous Huxley, Tom Wolfe and D.H. Lawrence; photographers Ansel Adams and Paul Strand; artists Nicolai Fechin and Georgia O’Keeffe; dancer Martha Graham; poet Robinson Jeffers, and many others.

Mabel Dodge Luhan, herself a writer, died in 1962. Today, the Mabel Dodge Luhan house is part of a bed and breakfast and conference center.

Taos Morada and O’Keeffe “Black Cross”

Looking southeast from the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, you can see La Morada de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Don Fernando de Taos, commonly called the Taos Morada. It was constructed in 1860 by the Taos-area Penitentes, Roman Catholics who in the absence of a priest or other church authority came together for prayer as well as spiritual and community support.

“The morada is basically a Penitente folk church, and the art and architecture of the morada is their own personal interpretation of what they imagined to be a sacred and holy space,” explains Torres.

The building is now maintained by the parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

In the morada’s courtyard stands a large cross, said to be the model for O’Keeffe’s 1929 painting, “Black Cross, New Mexico,” says Torres.

The interior of the morada is closed to the public, but the grounds are open. “It is a sacred site and people are expected to be respectful as they walk the premises,” reminds parish priest the Rev. Larry Brito.

D.H. Lawrence Ranch

British-born writer David Herbert Lawrence was an on-andoff resident of Taos from 1922 through 1925, but his presence still looms large.

Lawrence married Frieda von Richthofen, a cousin of Germany’s ace pilot “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen, at a time when England and Germany fought on the battlefields of World War I, says Torres.

In 1922, Lawrence and his wife came to Taos at the invitation of Mabel Dodge Luhan. As an incentive for them to stay, Luhan offered them 160 acres of land on a mountain slope, Torres says. In exchange she received the original handwritten manuscript to Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers,” now in the archives of the University of Texas, Austin.

The property had two small cabins and the Lawrences moved into the larger of them while British painter Lady Dorothy Brett lived in the smaller one.

A tall pine tree in front of the Lawrence cabin captivated frequent guest O’Keeffe, who spent hours lying under it, looking up at the sky through the branches. In 1929 she painted “The Lawrence Tree.” A plaque at the site identifies the tree.

On the opposite side of the Lawrence home is the memorial containing the author’s remains. Lawrence, who suffered from tuberculosis since childhood, died in France in 1930. In 1935, his widow had his body exhumed and cremated. The ashes were sent to New Mexico, where they were mixed with mortar and cement and are part of the memorial stone inside the covered monument, Torres says.

D.H. Lawrence’s “Forbidden Art”

After leaving Taos, Lawrence wound up in Italy, where he began a series of paintings with sexually explicit themes.

Painting under the name Lorenzo, his works were displayed to an Italian audience “with no problem,” Torres says. But when they became part of an exhibition at the Warren Gallery in London in 1929, they caused a scandal. Scotland Yard confiscated them. Lawrence could retrieve the pieces only by promising to remove them from English soil and never display them there again.

The paintings were shipped to Taos and became part of the Lawrence estate. After Lawrence’s widow died in 1956, her then husband sold them for an undisclosed amount to Saki Karavas, owner of Hotel La Fonda de Taos. Nine of the original paintings are on display in the hotel’s Karavas Conference Room.

San Francisco de Asís Church and “Shadow of the Cross” painting

Constructed in the late 1700s, this is among the oldest surviving examples of Franciscan missionary style churches, says Torres. “It is cruciform, so when you look at it from above it looks exactly like a crucifix.”

O’Keeffe used it as a model in 1930, painting it from the angle of the rear buttress. The church is adorned with French, Gothic and Romanesque elements. Painted panels in a main altar screen are thought to have come from Spain, Torres says.

Local folk artists and santeros created the altar surrounds and icon carvings.

Tucked in a cubby inside the adjacent Parish Hall hangs “The Shadow of the Cross,” an 1896 painting by French-Canadian artist Henri Ault.

The image depicts Christ standing at the Sea of Galilee.

When the lights are turned off, the shadow of a cross appears over Christ’s left shoulder, the keel of a boat appears adjacent to his right knee, and the sky and water around Christ glow a light blue to green.

The painting was a sensation at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

Ault always denied he was responsible for the painting’s enigmatic effect, Torres says.

Taos Art Museum, Fechin House

Located in the historic Nicolai Fechin house, the museum includes works by the Taos Society of Artists, Taos moderns and Fechin, who is represented by paintings and more.

By the time Fechin emigrated from Russia to the U.S. in 1923 he was an established artist.

He moved to Taos in 1927 with his wife and daughter. After a brief and contentious stay with Luhan, he built his own studios and home, adorning it with Russian, Spanish and Southwestern flourishes.

Torres grew up in Taos and as a child was tutored in Russian by Fechin’s wife. “To me, it is a sacred and formative place that affected my subsequent career as a linguist. It’s also sacred because it brings two distinct cultures, Russian and Spanish, together in harmony.”

Around Taos

Mabel Dodge Luhan House

240 Morada Lane 800-846-2235, www. mabeldodgeluhan.com

Taos Morada and O’Keeffe “Black Cross”

Penitente Road, just west of Las Cruces Road www.taossacredplaces.com/ places

D.H. Lawrence Ranch

Highway 522 north of Taos, follow signs to San Cristobal 575-776-2245

D.H. Lawrence’s “Forbidden Art”

Hotel La Fonda de Taos 108 South Plaza 575-758-2211 www.lafondataos.com Admission fee.

San Francisco de Asís Church and “Shadow of the Cross” painting.

60 St. Francis Plaza, Ranchos de Taos 575-758-2754  Fee for picture viewing

Taos Art Museum, Fechin House

227 Paseo del Pueblo Norte 575-758-2690 www.taosartmuseum.org

Taos Pueblo

120A Veterans Highway 575-758-1028 www.taospueblo.com  Admission fee.

Gov. Bent House and Museum

117 Bent St. 575-758-2376, www.laplaza.org/art/ museums_bent.php3 Admission fee.

Kit Carson Home and Museum

228 Kit Carson Road 575-751-0369 kitcarsonhomeandmuseum.com  Admission fee.

Harwood Museum of Art

238 Ledoux St. 575-758-9826 harwoodmuseum.com Admission fee.

Millicent Rogers Museum

1504 Millicent Rogers Road 575-758-2462 www.millicentrogers.org Admission fee.

Ernest Blumenschein Home and Museum

222 Ledoux St. 575-758-0505, www. taoshistoricmuseums.org Admission fee.

La Hacienda de los Martinez

708 Hacienda Way 575-758-1000, www. taoshistoricmuseums.org

The dining room of the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos contains vigas painted with earth pigments to resemble a Navajo rug.

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