The Art of Being Different in Santa Fe, New Mexico
By Fyllis Hockman
Santa Fe, New Mexico, is more than a place. It is a spirit, an energy that enters your soul and takes residence in your worldview as well as your inner vision. It's a state of mind more than a city, a way of life more than a place to live. It's a lifestyle, not a destination -- all expressed in the poetry that is Santa Fe, a language not spoken anywhere else in the country. People live here not only because they want to but also because they cannot imagine living anywhere else.
Everyone knows Santa Fe is synonymous with art, whether Southwestern, Native American or contemporary. So it is no surprise that the city is the first in the country to be designated a UNESCO Creative City for Craft and Folk Art with 250-plus galleries. Rest assured, I'm not going to cover them all.
Let's first dispense with the museums. No disrespect intended. The SITE Santa Fe Museum of Contemporary Art, The Museum of International Folk Art, the New Mexico History Museum, New Mexico Museum of Art, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, the Georgia O'Keefe Museum plus so many others are indeed wonderful -- each one warranting a visit.
Every museum provides an immersive emotional connection to whatever and whoever it is celebrating. Not to mentions the hundreds of galleries proffering paintings and pottery, artworks and art wear and artifacts, jewelry, ceramics, sculpture, photography -- have I forgotten any form of artistic expression? And if by any stretch of the imagination you have not seen enough art, there are galleries on steroids and shopping opportunities galore at the Railyard Arts District, Canyon Road and, of course, all around the central plaza that forms the heart of the city.
At this point I am just longing for some other type of attraction, some sightseeing stereotype -- and fortunately, Santa Fe has those, as well. Each of the three very old structures sports its own history and appeal. The Loretto Chapel, built in 1873 as the first Gothic (as opposed to adobe) structure west of the Mississippi, is home to probably the most inspirational staircase anywhere. Here's the story: The architect building the church died before access to the choir loft could be constructed, and the chapel was too small to allow for a traditional staircase. So the nuns did what nuns do: They prayed to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, for nine days. Then a carpenter appeared without any of the tools needed to build a staircase, and yet a spiral staircase, taking up little floor space, was built. He disappeared without thanks or payment.
The Miraculous Staircase, as it's understandably known, was built with simple tools, wooden pegs and rare wood not native to the American Southwest. It has two complete 360 degree turns with no center pole for structural support. The entire weight of the staircase rests on the bottom stair. I'm not knowledgeable enough to recognize the feat of engineering this required, but I am discerning enough to delight in and be amazed by the story. Just the visual of the staircase itself is moving.
And then there is the Oldest House. And by old, I mean really old as its adobe foundation dates back to an ancient Indian pueblo circa 1200. The museum itself is relatively new, as recent as 1646. Two rooms with even newer household artifacts from the 1800s to1900s rest on part of the original foundation and convey a sense of the family life that thrived back then. Not surprisingly, a sheaf of dried red peppers so prevalent in modern-day Santa Fe also makes its appearance here.
The oldest church in the United States -- San Miguel Mission -- is still operating today. Santa Fe and the church were pretty much born in the same year -- 1610 -- and once again, the original foundation is still evident. A number of very old paintings flank the walls, but the most exciting feature is a large church bell sitting proudly behind the mission pews that dates back to 1356.
The chapel, the church and the house are all situated on the Santa Fe Trail -- itself a historic landmark -- which in 1821 connected Missouri and New Mexico, heralding a decades-long period of trade, adventure and Western mobility unheard of before in the new nation. The historic trail ends in the Santa Fe Plaza, which forms the soul of the city. Native Americans, whose culture permeates every facet of the city, gather here to sell their wares daily.