Taos’ Artistic Spirit

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on September 21, 2003

Long before its snowy slopes enticed skiers, the light, landscape, and sheer loveliness of Taos, attracted artists. They came to paint, to sculpt, to create in every medium, and found inspiration everywhere.

“Ten, 15 minutes, I’m in the wilderness. If I want a water scene, babbling brooks, I head up to Ski Valley. But most of the time, it’s just off the roadside,” says artist and gallery owner Richard Allen Nichols of the New Mexico town’s proximity to so much.

One of the oldest art colonies in the United States, Taos’ legendary reputation began in 1898, when artists Bert Phillips and Ernest Blumenschein were traveling to Mexico and stopped to have a broken wagon wheel repaired.

Enchanted by the place—what some call the “spirit of the mountain”—the two spread the word about the town’s beauty. By 1915, they and four others formed the Taos Society of Artists to promote artists’ work through organized traveling exhibitions. The society disbanded 12 years later, but not before the town’s reputation as an art colony was firmly established. Today, one of 10 residents in Taos (pop. 4,700) earns a living through art—whether in the creative or business end.

Located in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, Taos and art have journeyed hand-in-hand through centuries: Millenniums ago, nomadic hunter-gatherers left behind pictographs. The Tiwa Indians of Taos Pueblo—a World Heritage Site and thought to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited structures in the United States—have worked with clay, fiber, leather, wood, and stone for almost a thousand years. The Spanish settlers who arrived in the 1500s decorated their churches with carvings and painted religious images known as santos. Depression-era murals enliven the walls of the old Taos County Courthouse; hippies from the 1960s and 1970s left their mark on the modern cultural scene.

Art is everywhere in Taos—on the outside of buildings, insides of firewood sheds, climbing adobe walls, gracing gardens and churches, beautifying restaurants, homes, and inns. The subjects depicted are infinite: wildflowers, American Indians, a turquoise garden gate, panoramic mountain vistas, and the heavens.

“Even the sky has a design here,” artist Shelbee Mares says. “You can sit in the same place and do 12 different paintings.”

A popular subject is San Francisco de Asis, one of the most depicted churches in the country. It’s been photographed and painted by luminaries such as Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keefe. They and others came to town at the suggestion of socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan, who arrived in 1917 and married a Taos Indian, Tony Luhan. When English novelist D.H. Lawrence visited Luhan’s Taos home, which is now a historic inn, he painted the bare glass windows in her second floor bathroom. “You cannot come to Taos without feeling that here is one of the chosen spots on Earth,” Lawrence once said.

At 7,000 feet above sea level, humidity is low and the air crisp and clear, creating a light artists love in the desert, the plains, mountains, and lakes. “Taos lends itself to art,” says artist Ray Vinella. “The light is fantastic.”

Artists also enjoy the camaraderie of fellow professionals. “We all get along great here,” Vinella says.

Nearly a hundred galleries and Taos’ seven museums reflect the art of American Indian, Hispanic, and Anglo cultures. Displays include leather drums, pottery, silver jewelry, sculptures, and paintings by contemporary as well as early artists. The former home of Ernest Blumenschein, a 1797 adobe structure, houses a superb collection of his own and other artists’ works.

It not only commemorates the establishment of the Taos Society of Artists, it continues to inspire and introduce new generations to the beauty and enchantment of Taos.