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Famous Belenites work to bring art space to city

We are grateful to the community,” said Judy Chicago. “It’s just been wonderful to see all these people come together to help.” (Clara Garcia/News-Bulletin)

The future of art in Belen is near, and two famous Belenites – internationally known feminist artist Judy Chicago and her husband, photographer Donald Woodman – are attentively working to make the Through the Flower Art Space a reality.

What was initially thought could be a “museum,” the TTF Art Space at 107 Becker Ave., is scheduled to open in July – the weekend of Chicago’s 80th birthday. It’s the latest venture for the two famous artists, who have made the Hub City their home since purchasing the historic Belen Hotel in 1993.

“We believe you don’t have to live in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or even Santa Fe to have access to art,” Chicago said. “I think what’s really important to moving forward is the outpouring of community support. We’re going to need ongoing support from the community in order to sustain it and grow.”

A museum, Chicago and Woodman explained, has to be accredited by the National Association of Museums. For them, they have to meet certain requirements, and the TTF Art Space isn’t big enough to be called a museum.

The idea of a museum began when Belen Mayor Jerah Cordova and Councilor Ronnie Torres approached Chicago and Woodman about the idea around six months ago. They agreed, saying they wanted to give back and hoped to contribute to the economic development of the city and bring back some of that “neighborly feel” of the area.

After what Chicago characterizes as the “brouhaha” surrounding the controversy when a financial partnership was proposed to the city, they pulled the offer. But recognizing the community support for the project, the TTF board decided to go it alone, and set up a GoFundMe account, which to date, has raised more than $16,600, including Cordova’s yearlong salary of $10,000.

A space for local artists

The Through the Flower Art Space’s first year will be an exhibition on the Belen Hotel and about Chicago and Woodman’s life, art and work.

“After that, Paula Castillo will become the curator of the space and will organize exhibitions and programs for New Mexico artists,” Chicago said. “We want to introduce the community to what’s going to go on there, so we will have three introductory programs leading up to the grand opening.”

The first event will be a Through the Flower yard sale in March, where people can buy a variety of office furniture and equipment while supporters and staff discuss the plans for the Art Space. The second event, Friday Night Family Arts Gathering, will take place in April, when Castillo will lead a discussion and creative practice for teenagers and their parents. The third event, Displaying Thankfulness, will be held in May at Kelly Cross’s studio on Becker Avenue. This is a Mother’s Day workshop for children, who will paint a plate to commemorate the important women in their lives. “We’re providing all the materials and Kelly is providing the space,” Chicago said.

Internationally known feminist artist Judy Chicago and her husband, photographer Donald Woodman, who have lived in the Hub City since 1996, are moving forward with the Through the Flower Art Space. (Clara Garcia/News-Bulletin)

“It’s not about opening the Through the Flower Art Space; we don’t have to have everything here. We can partner with other venues where it can fit best. We’re wanting to share the programing at different places,” Woodman said.

The fundraising effort was also in full swing Saturday, when Cordova, Torres and Jaramillo Vineyards hosted A Night with Judy Chicago and Donald Woodman at Jaramillo Vineyard Tasting Room and Central Parlour.

Barb Jaramillo, owner of Jaramillo Vineyards, is more than willing to support the TTF Art Space, saying it’s a gift to the community.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Jaramillo said. “We just knew that if Belen wasn’t smart enough to take the deal, someone else would. That’s why we decided to support this and move this forward.

“Judy and Donald are well known enough to bring tourism to Belen,” she said. “We need to publicize it on billboards and throughout the state.”

Cordova said he’s thrilled to be able to help the Art Space, saying that about 25 to 30 people planned this weekend’s event.

Torres, a longtime friend of Chicago and Woodman, said it was Cordova’s idea for the fundraising event, which grew with community support.

“Jerah has spearheaded this and it’s grown and grown, and we’re very excited,” Torres said. “We want to show that we have someone of that caliber, someone who was recognized as Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, here in our community.”

Torres said when he and Cordova first approached Chicago about the idea of a museum, she was humbled, wondering if anyone would come see it.

“After she thought about it for a while, she came back and agreed,” Torres said.

“We are grateful to the community,” Chicago said. “It’s just been wonderful to see all these people come together to help.”

Labor of love

Before the Through the Flower Art Space can open, they have to replace the roof, renovate the interior to make way for exhibitions and programming, and construct a gift shop, where visitors can buy products, including T-shirts, posters, soaps, books and more.

The couple, who have been married 33 years, bought the Belen Hotel on Becker Avenue 26 years ago. They moved in after three years of renovation and restoration to the building that sits on the National Register of Historic Places.

Chicago and Woodman had been renting a house on Canyon Road in Santa Fe from a long-time friend and patron as Chicago was working on a project. While working and living there, the housing market boomed in The City Different and the friend wanted to sell.

It was then that Woodman suggested they buy a home, which Chicago never had, having rented her entire life.

“We had done a lot of work at the house in Santa Fe, and I was tired of building studios and darkrooms,” Woodman said. “Judy didn’t care, but I wanted a place of our own.”

“It was a typical New Mexico story,” Chicago said. “First I came for three weeks, then I stayed for three months, then I was living here but all my stuff was in California.”

As they looked for the perfect location, it had to be somewhat close to the airport because they travel around the world for their work. When they found the Belen Hotel, they fell in love with the building and the community.

“It was – it is a beautiful building, and it has what artists like – space,” Chicago said. “It also had this central staircase, which was divided as a his-and-her space. It was kind of perfect. But I told Donald, ‘I’m not moving in until (the renovation) was done.’ That was the smartest thing I ever did because he told me it would take year.”

Woodman went to every bank in the state seeking a loan to restore the building, and were able to get funding through the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Before starting work on the building, Chicago and Woodman invited the community in to see the landmark.

“That’s when we found out how much the building meant to people here,” Chicago said. “That was really nice.”

The project was long and arduous, having to replace a leaky roof, fixing the rotted floorboards and plaster walls, just to start. Woodman, along with a few locals, worked day in and day out on the building.

“It was a team effort,” Woodman said of the project. “It was me, Trinne Mascareña and Charlie Barela. Everyone told me Trinne was the best mason around and it took me six months to convince him to come and work with me.”

Unfortunately, Mascareña died in 1995, a year before the hotel was completed. Woodman successfully nominated Mascareña for a state preservation award, posthumously, honoring his work on the Belen Hotel.

Chicago and Woodman made an instant connection with their neighbors and the community, including the late Sugar and Eva Glidewell, owners of Sugar Bowl Lanes and Eva’s Grocery.

“Eva was great; she ruled life with an iron fist,” Chicago remembers. “When the bar got too noisy next door, Eva would go over and start yelling. I remember she was always trying to feed us.”

When the couple moved in, the area was a lot more active with thriving businesses and people coming and going. More times than not when Chicago and Woodman had company, they would walk down the street to get huevos rancheros from Femia’s restaurant.

“We’ve watched the neighborhood die out through the years,” Woodman said.

“It was really sad because it was very lively,” Chicago said. “We even had a Through the Flower bowling league.”

Giving back

In the years that followed, Chicago and Woodman have continued to support the community and art in Belen and Valencia County. When UNM-Valencia moved to Tomé, its library was empty. The couple, through the New Mexico Woman’s Cultural Corridor, a program of Through the Flower, has donated more than 2,100 books to the library by and about women and women’s achievements, including about Chicago’s “Dinner Party.” Contributions to the collection is ongoing.

Through the Flower also provided Chicago’s “Birth Project,” which is a variety of needle and textile techniques, to the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History.

“The New Mexico Woman’s Cultural Corridor ties together sites across New Mexico, and we’re going to resurrect that,” Chicago says.

Not only have Chicago and Woodman worked to preserve the Belen Hotel, they’ve invested in the community, held a variety of free programing and exhibitions at the Through the Flower building in Belen beginning about 15 years ago. Along with teaching local artists how to show their work professionally, they’ve also hired a number of local residents for a number of employment and internship opportunities.

“We’ve tried to be good citizens of Belen,” Chicago said.

Chicago’s efforts were also recognized in 2011 when then-Gov. Susanna Martinez awarded her with one of seven Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts for multidisciplinary arts.

Chicago’s Through the Flower, a non-profit arts organization established in 1978, is committed to countering the erasure of women’s achievements though art by providing educational resources and artistic opportunities.

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