The Art of Being Santa Fe

I CAN’T remember how or why it came to be dawn when I first saw Santa Fe from a bus window. It was my first time in New Mexico, the fulfillment of a long-held dream: to visit the land that had inflamed my imagination when as a teenager I’d read D. H. Lawrence’s paeans to the state.
Santa Fe, N.M. The desert slowly emerged out of a velvet blackness, became a watery blue, almost the blue of a swimming pool. Then just as we got to the top of the long climb of La Bajada Hill and the Sangre de Cristo mountains sprang into view, the wing of darkness over the earth withdrew, and the true daytime colors began to show, rusty-brown as a cougar’s hide. Ahead, the gaunt lump of the mountains, receiving the first red blush on their faces. At their feet, the mingling of the lights of town with stars of sunlight winking from distant windows.

It’s still one of those approaches, those arrivals, that seems mythical, impossibly grand. The highway reaches away, straight at the mountains, like a long drawbridge into a castle.

Countless people have followed that archetypal ramp into a new life. Santa Fe still holds out a promise of renewal, of exactly what Lawrence was looking for when he came to this area: a place that could change not only one’s external life but also one’s inner, spiritual life. “Touch the country,” he said of New Mexico, “and you will never be the same again.”

What is Santa Fe? A place of healing, since the tuberculosis sufferers started coming over a century ago. A spiritual mini-mecca for a semi-godless age. A sumptuous adobe haven for a few super-rich. A land of hope for thousands of illegal immigrants. A hothouse of talent and IQ, with an extraordinary concentration of Ph.D.’s, and more artists than any American city its size. (According to one report, 39 percent of the city’s economy is generated by the arts and culture.) On and on the list goes. It’s a city of trade and exchange, of markets, built at the crossroads of the old Camino Real and the Santa Fe Trail. Wealthy people fly here from New York to buy their Asian rugs, and opera lovers flock here in summer for the justifiably world-famous open-air productions at the Santa Fe Opera.

But perhaps the greatest draw is still the promise of a spiritual homeland. There are no fewer than four Zen centers, several Tibetan shrines, any number of New Age “institutes,” innumerable churches of all denominations, yoga centers, gurus, teachers, seers, prophets, Sufis, Sikhs, literally thousands of therapists — body, mind, spirit and everything-in-between therapists. This is a city where the wounded come for healing, and seekers come to find.

I’ve been coming to Santa Fe since 1991, and have lived there for the last five years. I’ve developed some predictable preconceptions — there’s the famous tricultural diversity, the celebrated adobe look, and so on. But I still don’t really know it, even though it’s not a big place. A city, like everything on this earth, is constantly changing. Gov. Bill Richardson recently said in an interview that today there’s a new Santa Fe. Many would agree. But how do you measure such a thing? How do you find it?

As Santa Fe celebrates its 400th year of existence, a milestone that will be marked by a year’s worth of events, I decided to let myself be led along a chain of links, and see where it ended up: a kind of treasure hunt, one clue leading to the next. Perhaps as I followed it, I’d even figure out how a British poet like myself ever wound up here.

I FIRST saw the tree a few weeks ago. If I hadn’t been tipped off, I would have driven right past it. It’s no more than 10 feet tall, and you could easily miss the fact that its leaves are made of green plastic bottles cut up to resemble bushy, brilliant foliage, and that its trunk is old tire treads laid out in long, somehow elegant strips. Not only that, it’s in the form of a slender woman, fine and aquiline of feature, standing with her arms outstretched, like a cross between Mother Mary, a supermodel and the crucifix high above Rio.

Three guys happened to be climbing into an old pickup nearby. Did they know anything about what the beautiful recycled tree was doing here, outside a community center in semi-central Santa Fe?

One of the men, with a Stetson and bushy gray mustache, eyed me a second, then said: “Some Brazilian guys from the Institute made it.” He glanced up with a smile. “Sure is pretty what they can do with a tire.”

“The Institute?”

“The Art Institute.”

The day I visited the Santa Fe Art Institute to learn more about the tire tree, a troupe of Native American dancers from around the country, Dancing Earth, had gathered for three weeks of rehearsal. Dressed in elegant evening wear, looking like classical ballerinas at a cocktail party, they were mingling with well-wishers. They use dance to provide a bridge, Rulan Tangen, their leader explained, from the sacred native world of dance to the wider world.

Diane Karp, the Institute’s director, clearly loves the flow of all kinds of creativity that passes through her doors, such doors as there are. The main studios — enormous, beautiful white chambers — flow into one another, creating maximum opportunities for creative exchange. It was she who found two Brazilian street artists and managed to get them here. One of their projects was the tire tree. “Isn’t it great?” Ms. Karp said. “We brought these guys in from São Paulo. They’ve done murals there in the favelas telling the history of the shanties. They were keen to come, so they’re busy working around town, creating graffiti art and recycled art.”

Guerrilla artists?

“Pretty much. We don’t want to turn our kids off art, by trying to bring our ideas to them. It works better the other way round.”

Kevin Moloney for The New York Times

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