Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Ray Renfroe wanted to create a place that can elicit happiness for whoever drops by.
But how the little village he’s put together does that, exactly, is difficult for him to put into words.
Still, surrounded by his jumbled 10-acre art installation in Angel Fire, he said there’s something that’s calming in the way it provides contrast between simplicity and “craziness.”
“There’s just something there,” he said. “It just speaks … it does what it does.”
Renfroe, 63-year-old artist and tiny home builder, has been working on Whatville for the past year and a half. He purchased the plot of land two years ago. When finished – what “finished” means in this case may be hard to define – he hopes to turn his vision into an economic driver for Angel Fire as a venue for commerce and entertainment.
“I just want to see people have fun … . That’s my feeling,” said the Texas native and former home builder who moved to Angel Fire in 1990. “I want to see families. That’s what I want. That smile is worth more than a million bucks. It just is.”
Whatville, made up largely of colorful wooden structures, collected objects and art pieces made by Renfroe, is set in the imaginary “Shadow National Forest.” That names refers to his heavy use of dead aspen sticks with the roots and pitchwood that was burned in forest fires.
“… Stuff like that only creates a shadow, anyway,” he said. “Not shade, a shadow.”
The work-in-progress doesn’t adhere to one artistic story line. But some parts of it were designed with vague religious themes. As Renfroe put it, it’s his own version of “His story.”
“Without getting into the whole B.S. of that,” he clarified.
He pointed out a wooden teepee at Whatville’s entrance that has an old typewriter (where a story might be created, get it?) at the bottom. Eventually, there will be a finger coming out of the ground pointing toward the typewriter.
On a nearby wall, there’s his take on the Cain and Abel story using two ceramic chickens. To depict Cain as self-righteous, one of Renfroe’s chickens is surrounded by a large white frame.
Several feet above that abstract scene is an allusion to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”: a white staircase leading to the sky with two different high heel shoes positioned as if they are stepping upward.
On another large wall, he’s constructed the word “love” in white letters. Next to “love,” he’s attached a fire extinguisher that symbolically points down to the word “hate.”
“Just kind of little thoughts,” he said. “Stuff that ties in how He talks to us now, and how He may talk to us then.”
But other parts of his creation, Renfroe says, are simply pieces that he either made or found and put together.
He gathered his thousands of sticks from the nearby Valley of the Utes to make teepee structures and other design elements. His “electric teepees” are the ones made from sticks that he’s painted bright shades of orange, purple, lime green, teal and other colors. Some of those teepees also light up at night, making his creation even more noticeable to those driving into Angel Fire on Mountain View Boulevard.
He used plywood to make most of his design accents, including black-and-white striped or multicolored beams, large arrows and other small, vibrant cutouts made to look like cars, horses and stars. Dozens of collected deer antlers protrude from walls and come out of old cars.
Random items – a bathtub, several old bicycles, a stuffed animal mouse and an antique lawnmower, to name a few – are placed throughout the installation. Renfroe either had or found these things at thrift shops or they were on their way to the local trash dump. But he invested in some large pieces, including several old trucks that he purchased in Española.
A personal haven
The installation is something of a personal haven for Renfroe. Part of his inspiration for creating it, he said, was the death of his son, Cody Blue, in 2001.
“When you got a boy here, a son here buried, you’re not going to leave,” the father of four explained. “I was almost going to leave two or three years ago. So, I guess the way things work (is) this came about and, oh man, this could make me not want to leave.”
He said it was important to make a place that is visually exciting and can constantly change. “When you’re gone, you don’t see any more, do you?” he added.
As a nod to the area’s history, Renfroe pointed out the shell of a 1940s-era Dodge logging truck, mounted several feet off the ground near Whatville’s entrance, that he bought from a man in Guadalupita, to the south in rural Mora County.
The Whatville site used to belong to a family of loggers and possible farmers believed to have settled in the valley in the late 19th century around the time of the Homestead Act, according to Judy Piper, a fourth-generation Angel Fire resident and an unofficial town historian. She added that the acreage had long sat abandoned before Renfroe came along.
Decadesold structures still standing on the property, a small home and worn-down barn, became part of the installation. Renfroe is also building a new barn, which he hopes to complete by winter, envisioning it as a “cool, open-air” place for retail vendors.
“We’re losing that really early hippie kind of the deal that New Mexico was known (for), with all this modern (B.S.), I feel,” said Renfroe. He used to visit the Angel Fire area often because his father owned a cabin here, he said, as he spoke near the side of the barn where he’s made large letters that spell out “Stay Lost.”
“When we came out in the ’70s, you’d see (expletive) like this all over,” he said.
When he looks out at Whatville, Renfroe sees a potential hub for local commerce and entertainment that could attract tourism to Angel Fire, beyond the appeal of its popular ski resort, and give a younger locals an opportunity to stay and work in town. He thinks a business stationed in a funky spot like his would help attract customers.
Admission will be free, but he has dreams of building a concert stage, bringing in food trucks, allowing space for tiny home owners and opening up rentable spaces for vendors. On his own, he plans to create stations where families can participate in the installation by paying a few dollars to paint sticks or buy Whatville T-shirts.
“I see myself (as) a palm,” he said. “And if we can get some good damn fingers, we’re going to have a good place that is going to bring good.”
Now, he says he’s focused on finding a partner to invest and help him complete the project. Renfroe hopes to get most of the work done by the time snow falls this year.
Whatville could be a positive addition to the local art scene and overall community, said Jo Mixon, president of Angel Fire’s Chamber of Commerce and of Art Up Northern New Mexico.
Whatville will be part of her arts organization’s annual studio tour later this month and the group has spoken with Renfroe about the possibility of applying for grants.
“It’s a great little place,” she said. “And he’s so (a) New Mexico artist. Everything he does is with vision and creativity. He believes in wanting to bring economic value to this area, and I think he can do it.”
In an email statement, mayor Barbara Cottam also praised the project.
“Our goal is to let people know about the beauty, and all there is to do and see here in the beautiful Village of Angel Fire,” the statement reads. “New Mexico offers some of the most memorable and eclectic art in the county, and we believe Whatville is now something that folks will want to drive up and check out for themselves.”
Renfro acknowledged that his installation is large and the vision is a bit out there. He hopes any local skeptics will be able to see its benefit when its up and running.
Asked if he had a favorite part of Whatville, Renfroe could not choose. To him, it still all feels so unfinished.
“It’ll come,” he said. “Is it as quick as I want? I don’t know. So I’ll keep chugging.”