Traveling through the Southwest on family road trips as a kid, I didn’t get it. Everything was too dry and too dusty/dirty/raw for me. At the time, I liked all things Victorian, Japonisme, tropical houseplants, costumes, especially those with flowers and lace, art depicting women and flowers, also fairies. I liked lush. Horror vacui defined my decor and fashion preferences.
Southwestern things struck me as either barren or tacky. Big metal jewelry. Masculine cowboy ephemera. Open desert that merged into parking lots surrounded by razor wire. The colors of the things in shops were peach and teal or turquoise. Ugh: It was the early nineties. The sofa we had at home had ‘Southwestern’ colors, and an abstract splash mark pattern in textured wool, which predisposed me to reject anything reminiscent.
This short Thanksgiving trip was a completely new aesthetic experience. Perhaps my palette has matured. Of course I have a greater context in which to understand what I saw.
I fell in love with the minimalism of the gardens, the adobe walled yards and coyote fences. I’m attracted to it not because I want that for myself or my garden, but because it’s so different than what I’m used to and I can now see the beauty and sense it makes. After two days in Santa Fe I was taking photos of every handsome gate I passed. The houses along the Ascequia Madre felt authentic, yet it was clear they are not relics: people here still forge fanciful iron gates and carve wooden lintels. They paint things turquoise and the desert sun and wind quickly distresses them.
I have more respect and patience for a landscape when I have some way to read it. This trip I was lucky to have two excellent interpreters in tow: one who is working on a project for the New Mexico museum, the Palace of Governors, the other who is a professor of Landscape Architecture at UNM.
I’m reminded of something my mom told me when she was about the age I am now. She hadn’t ever really been fond of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work, until she learned more about her life and inspirations from some exhibit or book she’d seen. When she understood more about the background she began to be interested in and really appreciate the work.
Another thing about the Southwest: it adds to my continual state of wonder at the way light and color change from region to region. I was so amazed the first time I went to England, at the color of the night sky: I was 17, it was practically purple. And the sky in winter in Portland at dusk, on those rare days when it isn’t overcast: it’s Pacific blue if you look to the west. The ocean’s not so far from here. And in Minnesota, it’s easy to visualize the chart of the atmosphere with all those layers, miles and miles of air up there. It’s so soft and clear.
In Santa Fe, even on these winter days, the daylight is so bright, it washes colors out. Sunglasses and a parka make sense. So does painting your gate really bright blue. So does building houses with small, deeply set windows.
For a blissful lunch: Visit the Teahouse on Canyon Road. Mmmm.