The high desert community is now embarking on a yearlong celebration called “Remarkable Women of Taos” to recognize those who helped build the town into a mecca that has attracted internationally known artists like painter Georgia O’Keeffe, novelist Willa Cather and others. It’s also bringing attention to today’s unsung women — the pueblo mothers, descendants of Spanish settlers and more recent transplants who are working behind the scenes to hold the community together.
The celebration, which takes place as New Mexico marks its centennial, includes everything from exhibitions and lectures to film screenings, self-guided tours and outdoor excursions.
“It’s an inspiring place because of its great beauty, because of the pueblo. That has drawn people here for many years,” said Susan Longhenry, director of the Harwood Museum of Art, itself the product of one woman’s vision. “And when you look at all of these remarkable women, I think that it continues to be an inspiring place.”
Many of the women included in the project were not artists themselves, but helped create a community where artists — both male and female — could thrive. Salon hostess Mabel Dodge Luhan, for example, brought Cather, O’Keeffe and others to Taos, including writer D.H. Lawrence, painter John Marin and photographer Ansel Adams.
“Mabel sent invitations to people she hardly knew to invite them to stay with her. She created an intellectual community and we’re seeing residuals of that today,” said Jina Brenneman, the Harwood’s curator.
After a stay in Dodge Luhan’s sprawling adobe, most visitors left with their social ideals, their art and their souls revitalized, said Liz Cunningham, who has profiled more than six dozen women as part of the “Remarkable Women” project.
The project also recognizes Helen Martin, who ran the historic Taos Inn. It was Taos’ only hotel when Martin opened it, and its pink neon sign continues to draw travelers today.
Married to the county’s first and only physician, Martin funded the inn by collecting on her husband’s debts after his death in the 1930s. Those who didn’t have cash paid with labor. The inn was a social hub for decades and is now listed on both national and state historic registries.
“She was a super entrepreneur,” Jamie Tedesco, the inn’s marketing director, said of Martin.
Just blocks away is the Harwood Museum, once the home of artist Lucy Harwood and her husband. Taos’ first library was housed here, along with space for small exhibitions. After the death of her husband, Harwood became an even greater powerhouse in the arts and literary community with the establishment of the museum.
Other women whose stories are being highlighted as part of “Remarkable Women” include Helene Wurlitzer, who nurtured young artists while staying out of the limelight herself, and Rhoda Blake, who built Taos Ski Valley with her husband.
For Standard Oil heiress Millicent Rogers, the tranquility and natural beauty of Taos along with its American Indian culture inspired her abstract jewelry designs. Rogers, who was often photographed in a classic velvet blouse and broomstick skirt, helped bring the richness of the native culture to mainstream fashion devotees.
In a letter to her son before her death in 1953, Rogers wrote poetically of her connection to nature: “Suddenly passing Taos Mountain I felt that I was part of the earth, so that I felt the sun on my surface and the rain. I felt the stars and the growth of the moon; under me, rivers ran.”
Museums and galleries are featuring the work of artists such as Agnes Martin, famous for her contemporary grid paintings, and other early artists of Taos who were often the wives, sisters and daughters of their more famous male counterparts.
Producer Peter Walker helped put together a 30-minute film on Taos’ modern-day remarkable women, and school children are contributing to a community notebook of artwork, essays and poems about their female heroes.
One question the project asks is whether Taos attracts independent, creative women, or whether the natural beauty and mix of Western, Spanish and Pueblo heritage helps unlock their creativity.
“I don’t think reticent women choose Taos,” said Cathy Connelly, a town spokeswoman who helped foster the “Remarkable Women” project. “I think you have to have a core that says ‘I know what I’m about.’ You have to be resourceful to live here. I think it challenges all of us. I think the word is it ‘inspires’ us.”
Cunningham added: “Taos is already transformative, but if we look at our community through a celebration of what we have, the courage of these women, their tenacity and this being a place of alchemy, we’ll have something great.”
If You Go…
REMARKABLE WOMEN OF TAOS: Yearlong celebration of notable women in Taos’ arts community includes museum exhibits, films, self-guided tours and historic sites. Events and details at http://www.taos.org/women