I’ve been wanting to write another piece about Mabel Dodge Luhan (see previous posts Day Trip, Retreat and Rebirth, Heading to Mabel’s and Saying Goodbye to Mabel) to coincide with an exhibit that recently opened at the Harwood Museum in Taos titled, Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns and the West. And I’ve recognized something that I think is true about the two of us, something we both hold in common.
Although Mabel was a wealthy New York heiress born in 1879, we do share this: We both came to New Mexico with rather cavalier attitudes about it. Neither of us did much, if any, research before we came, bought land, and started building a house. There was a great deal I (and I think she) hadn’t considered or understood about the place. And of all places, New Mexico is not one to come to unknowing. But the thing is, we THOUGHT we knew.
To be fair, I don’t think there is any “knowing” New Mexico without first living on her soil. And while I understand that can be said of anyplace, I think it’s especially true of New Mexico.
Mabel came here ostensibly to “save the Indians.” That’s not quite as bad as it sounds. She wanted to preserve their customs and their art before “progress” had a chance of destroying them forever. It’s true that many of the pueblos of New Mexico were in decline when Mabel first arrived. Nevertheless, she and her companions had simplified and romanticized notions about the Indians that would affect the character and direction of their lives. And the concept of the Spanish hadn’t even entered into it yet.
It was inevitable that the judgments of those who would become important patrons bled into the lives and culture of the very people whose customs they wanted to preserve. And without intending to the newcomers, at minimum, had influence over Native and Spanish arts and, at worst, shifted the trajectory of their northern New Mexican cultures.
By all accounts Mabel was a very strong-willed woman, pushy even (no similarities with me there:). She came from a privileged background and, likely in large part because of that, it didn’t occur to her that it wasn’t her place to “save” the Indians or that they might not want her kind of saving. Further, she was playing a part, if an unconscious one, in commodifying them.
I came here to pursue my artist’s dream, another New Mexico cliché, really. By then mine had been compacted into a small one: simply to earn a decent living as a painter. I’d been told and had believed that there was a decent living to be made in the state. But New Mexico and my life have taught me that nothing is easy. I’ve said it before: New Mexico can be a hard place; it’s complicated. But then, so is life.
As noted in Lois Rudnick’s article posted on elpalacio.org, And La Bruja Brought the Sunflowers, “… neither she [Mabel Dodge Luhan] nor any of her Anglo patron colleagues wrote or painted about the poverty or the racial and class tensions that were part of daily life in northern New Mexico and from which they benefited personally in terms of inexpensive day labor, domestic work, and models for their art.” No they didn’t.
When Mable first arrived in Taos in 1918, she would later write that, “My world broke in two right then, and I entered into the second half, a new world.” She fervently believed New Mexico to be an unspoiled, sacred place where she could make a new life for herself, far away from the industrialization and hustle of the east. Again we share commonality.
Further, she believed she’d found a sort of outpost in the west into which she could call the era’s great artists, thinkers and activists. Together she imagined they could create a better world for the rest of us. Again, Lois Rudnick: “Mabel was responsible for putting Taos on the map of modern art by bringing major writers, artists, and social reformers to northern New Mexico, who painted, photographed, and wrote about the beauty and power of its physical and cultural landscapes— Georgia O’Keeffe, Ansel Adams, and D. H. Lawrence among them,” creating what some would come to call a “Paris of the West” in the American Southwest. So Mabel succeeded, if only in part.
We each, Mabel and I, came to New Mexico with uninformed notions that were largely superficial, naïve and even, in some ways, condescending.
I knew nothing about the controversy of Native, Hispano, Anglo. Really, I didn’t. I wasn’t even fully aware that these three cultures fought wars with each other over the land on which I lived; that Truchas came into being in the 1750s (the 1750s!) because the King of Spain wanted to protect his colonies down along the Rio Grande from the marauding tribes coming over an easy pass at Truchas Peaks. So he gave away land that wasn’t his, to a small band of colonists who tamed and kept it.
I live among grudges that have lasted for generations.
I didn’t know the acequias running across my land were carved out of the dry, rocky earth with fire-hardened wooden tools hundreds of years ago. Or that the women of the village came together each spring to re-mud every building because adobe needs that to last. And these mud houses that protected them and their families have lasted, for centuries some of them.
I had no idea of the Penetentes whose church had abandoned them so thoroughly that they created a religion of their own.
The ancestors of these people are my neighbors today. And they were Mabel’s too.
And we didn’t know. And we should have.
It would be wonderful if, going forward together, we can remember the past by honoring the individual; that we celebrate tradition while venerating change; and that each and every one of us embraces the freedom to be who we were born to be, meeting our own hearts’ desire, if we can figure out what that is.
I can think of no better place in which to do that than in the culturally profound and historically rich land of New Mexico that I am coming to know more honestly with each passing day.
Love to you all,