Last night I dreamt I was leaving Santa Fe for the last time. We had packed the car, filling every available space. I awoke and felt as though I’d lost someone. In reality, I had lost a place that had been a significant part of my life for seven years.
A geographical location that one loves can create the feeling of a first time, of anticipation at a new prospect; it heightens reality and makes the world a new place. We can fall in love with a place just as we do with a person. Saying good-bye to a locale can be just as heart-wrenching as any good-bye.
In 2007, my ten-year daughter and I drove with my retired father from Minnesota to New Mexico. After searching for a rental for several months, Dad found a little adobe carriage house in a meandering lane that jutted off Canyon Road. Earth tones with turquoise trim. The little yard was bereft of a loving gardener, but it didn’t matter; he would make do with a few pots of flowering plants and a shingle over the door, Glen Smith Studio-Gallery; APPT___.
It was just as rustic inside as out, with a rough kitchen, but Dad made it a home. There was plenty of light and a whole section off the living room for an easel and book shelves for paint and canvas. It was an oasis, a dream space for a late-in-life Matisse. At night, you could fall asleep to a lone owl hooting and jolt awake to the high, quavering cry of coyotes. Their howls were primitive and savage, yet a song of the true West. There was a big desert out there trimmed by sage-and-pine mountains where just a century ago, pioneers traveled the dirt trails that cut through the wild land.
In the morning, you awoke to birdsong and azure skies. The famous art scene, on the wane from its glory days, was only a block away from the little pillared front porch. Picturesque galleries in refurbished stucco homes, surrounded by voluptuous flowers, stood guard over the narrow little street and throngs of tourists. Sculpture in wood and metal in eclectic shapes, towering or tiny, paintings in watercolors, pastel, oil; some left a lingering impression–a jarring portrait of a Native American, an arid landscape in golds and browns. An Elvis on velvet? All this was part and parcel of the dying scene being ruined by a clientele who demanded art to match the rooms in their homes. The soul of Canyon Road was being crushed. A painful reminder that every trend changes, especially in the art world.
Dad forged his way through trial and tribulation, meeting other artists, some with talent, some with health conditions, one who copied other artists’ style to sell. He found an artist critique group; he worked his way into a gallery or two. He sold prints of watercolors of the old Catholic Church downtown; he created little postcard-sized sketches of wildlife. He latched on to the endangered species theme–a layover from his earlier design days when he painted animals for Starbucks’ mugs.
A gorilla with soul, camels in the glaring sun, a tortoise in an indigo evening. He painted animals native to the Western plains and desert: birds, wolves, coyotes, buffalo.
He painted portraits of the dead (John Nelson, our roughneck great-great uncle who married twelve Indian women and toured with Buffalo Bill), of the living (his grandkids and friends’ grandkids). He painted pets—a dog riding in a bike basket, a cat playing a piano; he did a watercolor of an artist friend’s loopy, long-eared dog that almost jumped off the canvas he was so alive. The recipient of the dog portrait didn’t appreciate the work and returned the painting with a few ten spots. I felt so sorry for the big, rascally dog.
While Dad wrestled with his new lifestyle, my brother and I and our families visited again and again. We discovered a natural hot springs high in the hills and drove up late one day through the dusty sienna landscape. We immersed ourselves in warm minerals and mud while clutching the slippery rocks to keep from immersing our heads. At dusk, lightening danced in the navy sky to the baritone beat of thunder. We groped our way down to the car as a blanket of storm and darkness covered us; our cell phones lit the way.
We became one with the forgotten Anasazi Indians and climbed into their rock cave homes to listen. Could we hear the echoes of their lives? While engaged in deeply meaningful rumination over the lost civilization, Dad stayed below on a park bench and dozed. A large furry dog lumbered past and Dad smiled in his drowsy contentment. Soon, park rangers followed in a frantic chase and wondered which way the bear had gone?
After Dad’s big gallery opening several years after he landed in Santa Fe—his distant cousin happily purchased several paintings—we met en masse at Canyon Road’s low-flung bar in the El Farol cantina. We watched Flamenco dancers and ate tapas and the wine flowed. Dad was still holding a grudge against my brother and I for arriving late to his opening. One of my girlfriends showed up with a man fond of taking photos, and it had not been long into the night when Dad noticed him, well, he was rather earnest with the picture taking (and did he think that Dad was going to be famous)?
Dad turned to me, ‘Who the hell is that?’ Dick, I told him.
By the time the bill came, Dick and Dad were in a heated discussion over ‘creek’ vs. ‘river.’ He set Dick straight that here in this part of the world, it was river. Dad was a man of strong opinions, and he never quite got over Dick. I guess Dad was already disgusted with the plebeian mentality that was bringing this art world down. Poor Dick. He was flung aside just like the hapless dog in the portrait.
Two of Dad’s close friends passed away during his tenure there, and he fell in love with an Italian bombshell who grew up in Hollywood and would eventually convince Dad to take her home. He had toured the ranches; he had played extra roles in movies for not much money–don’t miss Observe and Report–he had shown in the galleries; he had seen screenwriters come from California to make it big and leave Santa Fe quickly to resume screenwriting. At $10,000 a month for gallery rent, it was enough to make anyone run away.
Dad is not sentimental. He had been there, done that.
He’s not as timid as I am to leave the ghosts behind. However, like me, he is still in search of duende—the Spanish word for inspiration, for an awakening to everything truly alive. This feeling of exhilaration is usually found in the tradition of song and dance. But I seemed to find it in remote historical backwaters. I was able to catch this inexplicable wave of emotion once before. When I was in Saint Augustine, Florida, walking through an ancient neighborhood with moss-covered trees—still as statutes—the heat of day abating, I thought I heard a whisper. I turned, a little afraid, but I was alone. Even though I spent a brief evening in this old city, I felt it had been a life; the connection was made. Driving home along the Atlantic coast, lightening flickering menacingly over the ocean, I felt the sort of sadness one feels at leaving a place one has lived forever.
I never really lived in Santa Fe, either, although I threatened it every time I visited. But the parting was as sorrowful as if I had made it my life. I will go back some day, I know I will, and maybe even return for good. When that time comes, the ghost of my Dad will walk with me in the high desert among the cacti and turquoise lizards scrambling in the noon sun, and I will think of our conversations about the creative process. …