If you’ve been to Santa Fe lately, you’ll know that art is seemingly at every turn. Native American artists sell their jewelry and crafts at the central Plaza, under the shady overhang of the four century-old Palace of the Governors. Galleries in three art districts feature works ranging from new media and contemporary sculptures, paintings and ceramics to the more traditional Western and Native American paintings and craftwork. The districts include Downtown, where gallery storefronts line the streets; Canyon Road, once a dirt trail leading into the mountains; and the Railyard area, where old warehouses now house upscale and spacious galleries.
“This is a town of historical significance, largely Spanish colonial, and Santa Fe has always been a mecca for artists, art dealers and art collectors,” says Denise Phetteplace with the Blue Rain Gallery downtown. “When you come to Santa Fe, you’re ingesting art wherever you go. It’s just part of the general feeling of the town and there’s public art everywhere. I think one out of five people you meet here is an artist, or has something to do with the art market.”
During my May visit, I was particularly impressed with an art venue just outside of town, the Allan Houser Studio and Sculpture Garden. Houser, a legendary 20th century Native American artist, created sculptures that now sit in his Sculpture Garden along the historic Turquoise Trail. Born in 1914, this month (June) is the 100th anniversary of his birth. Houser’s parents belonged to the Chiricahua Apache tribe at the time of Chief Geronimo’s surrender to U.S. government forces in 1886. His father was in fact a first cousin of Geronimo.
I tour the Sculpture Garden and see many of Allan Houser’s heavy bronze, steel and stone artworks, where replica castings now fill the halls of many museums around the country. Homeward Bound includes a woman and sheep crossing a short bridge. “It’s a depiction of a Navaho shepherdess, a very common theme piece. You can visit any of the local reservations and you might see a similar person walking in the field,” says Sculpture Garden guide Santanna Ortiz. “There you see her dressed in traditional Native American dress – the earrings down to the way the Navaho bun is wrapped in the back. She’s walking across the bridge with her sheep, carrying a lamb and a dog follows behind her.”
Another sculpture, Sacred Rain Arrow, portrays an Indian warrior about to shoot an arrow straight up. “The story is in times of drought, they’d choose a young man from the tribe based on purity of heart,” explains Ortiz. “They’d have a huge ceremony and he’d go the highest point on the mountain and shoot it off in hopes of rain.”
Meeting on the Trail depicts Apache women who were known to gather wood and carry water. “That’s a traditional Apache water basket at their feet – tightly woven baskets sealed with sap from the trees,” points out Ortiz. “They carried them by placing a long strap over their foreheads and resting their water baskets on their backside, so they could take their infants and small children with them when they gather water.”
“To me, it seems that Allan wanted everyone to understand that Native Americans were human beings and they should be viewed as such,” adds Ortiz of the artist who died at 80 years old in 1994. “He felt the depiction of the Apaches as warriors and cruel, aggressive people was wrong. And he wanted people to see that the native people are proud, religious and believe in doing good things, with their rules to live with honor and dignity and to respect the ways of their God.”