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Santa Fe is both parody and real thing

N.M. city has gone from cowboy town to artists' enclave

I woke up in an old adobe inn where at various times Ansel Adams, D.H. Lawrence and Edna St. Vincent Millay had slept. They'd probably stared at the same ceiling of ancient pine logs anchored in red mud and had no doubt been charmed, too.

From the historic pictures displayed at the Inn of the Turquoise Bear, not much had changed since the building was owned by Witter Bynner, friend of some of America's finest artists and writers. Then as now, beautiful wool rugs and eclectic art from all over the world adorned the walls.

After breakfast, I walked down the Old Santa Fe Trail toward the plaza. New Mexico's beauty is not subtle. It hits you over the head like a hammer. The sky was a shade of blue so deep and luminous that it seemed to pull my soul to the surface of my skin. At an altitude of 7,000 feet, the sunlight is utterly unhindered by humidity, providing a clarity and sharpness to everything. The trees throw shadows on the ground that are as black as ink.

A block from the plaza, I came across a white Dodge van with a uniquely Santa Fean load. The roof rack bore two-dozen freshly bleached cow skulls, and the trailer behind was loaded with as many newly minted pueblo ladders. Nice little Georgia O'Keeffe touches for any new home, which according to the building code have to look like adobe, even if they aren't.

I had my doubts about returning to Santa Fe. I was there for the first time when I was 6 years old, in 1969. My uncle had married the daughter of a local rancher. It was a formative travel experience. I heard Spanish spoken for the first time, rode my first horse and reveled in flavors from exotic foods such as green chili and cinnamon-sugared sopapillas.

Then, Santa Fe was a cowboy town where Hispanic surnames were most common. It had been discovered by a handful of hippies, artists and seekers of native spirituality; it was not an A-list destination. Since then, I feared, it had become a magnificent, overpriced parody of itself.

I spent nearly a week a year ago September reacquainting myself with the city. I decided I was right. In some ways, Santa Fe is a magnificent, overpriced parody of itself. In other ways, it's as real as the red dirt walls of its old adobe buildings.

And the walls aren't a bad place to start.

"Santa Fe, or Holy Faith, was founded in 1610, same year that wall you're leaning on was built, 10 years before the landing at Plymouth Rock," said Jerry Nelson, a docent at the Governor's Palace, Santa Fe's oldest building. He was speaking to a group of tourists, sitting along an adobe wall under a shady arcade, just off the plaza, the heart of Santa Fe.

Nelson led us on a walk through Santa Fe's past. We saw America's oldest European church, its oldest European house and the New Mexico State Capitol, which is built to look like a kiva, the circular ceremonial structure of the Pueblo Indians. "They call it the Roundhouse," Nelson said. "You can chase your legislator around all day without catching him."

Nelson told us about the Spaniards' efforts to subjugate the Indians of the surrounding pueblos (Spanish for "village"), and the Pueblo Indians' successful revolt in 1680, when the Indian communities banded together, killed 400 Spaniards and drove the rest of them south into Mexico. The Indians burned all the buildings except the Governor's Palace.

The Santa Fe Fiesta was in its second day, and the plaza was set up with food booths, craft vendors and a stage. Nelson said the fiesta was a living reminder of those times. It celebrates the peaceful re-occupation of the city by the Spaniards in 1692. It's America's oldest continuous civic celebration, dating to 1712.

I made a circuit of the plaza, stopping in stores along the way. There were tourists, but most of the crowd seemed to be locals with their kids, and fiesta royalty dressed up as conquistadors, complete with metal helmets and wool capes.

The stores around the plaza reflect what Santa Fe has become; it's not central to locals' lives anymore — in a utilitarian fashion, anyway. The Governor's Palace is a museum. There are jewelry stores, art and souvenir shops. At Onorato, a high-end bed-and-bath shop, I picked up some shaving soap from Florence, Italy, and chatted with the manager, one of the few native Santa Feans I met during my time there.

"Santa Fe has changed a lot," said Laura Gallegos as she packed up my purchase. "But it's nice that we've been able to maintain the feel of the place. And fiesta is a great time. We locals get to reclaim the plaza for a little while."

I left the plaza to the locals and began exploring Santa Fe's art galleries.

I started with the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. If any one person is to blame for making Santa Fe into an internationally known brand, it's her.

The exhibit on hand was fascinating. It paired O'Keeffe paintings of New Mexican landscapes with photos of those same places. When you see an O'Keeffe, her bold colors and surreal shapes can strike you as the product of a fertile imagination. In context, you see that's not so; O'Keeffe did not stray far from her source material.

Take the painting "Part of the Cliffs," for example. Blue sky, silver peak, bright yellow stripe in the middle, orange-red flanks, all rising from a scrubby stand of silver-green Russian olive trees. The colors and forms seemed too intoxicatingly vivid to be real. Right next to it, however, a photo of the same scene showed the exact same perspective, tones, luminescence and deep saturation of color. In case after case the comparison showed O'Keeffe celebrating reality, not distorting it.

Even O'Keeffe feared the changes that her ravishing paintings might inspire. In 1977, she said of New Mexico, "As soon as I saw it, that was my country. . . . The sky is different, the wind is different. I shouldn't say too much about it because other people will get interested and I don't want other people interested."

That sentiment was too late even in 1977, when the population of Santa Fe was approaching 90,000. Now it's home to nearly twice that number. And a lot of them are artists.

On my walk up Canyon Road, Santa Fe's museum mile, these are some of the things I saw: Life-size bronze of curious grizzly encountering pixie-ish pixieish Indian boy. Giant iron cactus painted in gaudy colors. Lots of winged naked women stretching. Navajo rugs. Amazing Pueblo pottery. Fairies in various poses (often topless). Giant turquoise bear. Giant cute rabbit. A gloomy Kafkaesque video about persecution by an Iranian woman. Splashes of icy-blue acrylic paint on Lucite panels. Works by an Indian artist whose oeuvre is photos of white tourists taking pictures of Indians at powwows.

There are more than 100 private galleries in Santa Fe, most of them on Canyon Road. The art-and-culture industry in town generates one out of every six jobs and $1 billion annually, according to a report in the Santa Fe New Mexican. Nationally, Santa Fe ranks second in art sales to New York.

"There is no industry here. Art is it," said Janine Stern, director of Tadu Contemporary Art and an artist. "That's why you find artists waiting tables, pumping gas and working in galleries."

While it's difficult to sort out what is art and what is artificial in Santa Fe's gallery scene, there are places where the city tends to its local rhythms without much regard for appearances or outsiders.

One of the best places to see that is at the Santa Fe Farmers Market, where producers sell their fruits and vegetables out of the back of pickups or at card tables by the rail yard.

I bought a homemade burrito stuffed with scrambled eggs, fresh roasted peppers, tomatoes and beans — all locally grown. I ate it as I admired the peaches, peppers, honey and many other delicacies for sale.

Don Bustos, a stout, bearded fellow, sweated as he turned a wire cage full of chiles over a roaring propane torch.

"We're roasting Big Jim peppers, getting the skin off, so you can refrigerate or freeze them," he said.

Bustos, president of the Santa Fe Farmers Market board, said all the produce at the market has to be grown within 15 counties of Northern New Mexico. "Not only that, to sell it here, you have to be the one who grew it," Bustos said.

The Santa Fe Fiesta also works to preserve its local flavor. The royalty tends to come from the older, Spanish families, some of whom can trace their roots back further than the wannabes whose ancestors landed in the Mayflower. Fiesta events — like the children's pet parade — are designed to celebrate locals, not entertain tourists. (Although the pet parade was very entertaining.)

The pinnacle of the festival is the burning of a giant effigy called Zozobra, which means "gloom" in Spanish. The event used to be on Saturday night, but too many people from Albuquerque came, so the city moved it to Thursday night to reclaim a lower-key, more local flavor, said Jerry Nelson, the tour guide.

"Zozobra was the invention of a local artist named Will Shuster," Nelson said. He was inspired by seeing a Yaqui Indian ceremony in which an effigy of Judas was blown up with firecrackers. He burned the first Zozobra in 1924, for family and friends, as a way to protest what he considered the commercial nature of the fiesta.

The first Zozobra was only 6 feet tall. Over the years, he grew. The model I saw at the Fort Marcy softball fields was about 50 feet tall, an elaborate puppet with a sour expression and glowering eyes.

The party starts in the late afternoon. There are food stands, rock bands and a ritual special to Santa Fe. Tables are set up with scraps of paper for "Gloom Boxes." Anyone can record a dark chapter in their life from the previous year — any regret, anger or grief — and have it loaded into the effigy.

At about 9 p.m., after much loud groaning, flailing of arms and flapping of his giant chin, Zozobra was consumed in flames, and so were all those grievances, annoyances and fears. Some 20,000 Santa Feans sent up a mighty cheer.