Adventures in Taos Art
For 20 years, Parks Gallery has benefited from and contributed to the art life of this legendary place.
Nearly four decades ago I packed a young family in a Volkswagen van and crossed the Hudson, headed West. You could still do that in those days -- leave an unsatisfying job in the corporate world and a home in the suburbs and strike out in search of adventure. As I remember, I had $800 in my pocket. We were headed for northern California, but after some weeks of camping in Colorado detoured down New Mexico way (there didn’t seem to be much hurry) and arrived in Taos on San Geronimo Day, 1973. The Indians were dancing at the Pueblo, the sunset kept going and going. . . We soon met hippies, Hispanos, independent and free-spirited individuals of all stripes, many of them, of course, artists.
“Let’s hang out a while,” I thought, “see if we can make something happen here.” I soon learned that making a living in Taos required considerable determination and imagination, and the first years were a struggle that tested my love of the place. I planted trees a few seasons for the old Lilac Shoppe, tended Sally Howell’s garden, and one brutally cold winter made “Indian” jewelry, stringing silver hishi for 35 cents a strand.
Then I met Jim Wagner who was tending bar at La Cocina, the popular restaurant/bar on the plaza where everyone hung out (it’s now a western wear shop). Jim wanted to quit and devote himself to art and offered to train me. From behind that bar I met the town’s movers and shakers, including the leading artists, young and old, who congregated at La Cocina. The great Andrew Dasburg, then in his mid-80s, lunched almost every day, accompanied by a series of comely women 50 years his junior. R.C. Gorman was usually in and out several times a day. Bill Gersh, Tom Noble, Chuck Stewart, Ralph Suazo, Wagner, of course, and a dozen others were regulars. My first art purchase was a Wagner, a wonderful colored drawing that is still among my favorite possessions. As I remember, I paid him $20 a month for four months.
With a background in journalism during a former lifetime on the East Coast, I started writing about the artists and publishing articles in local and regional publications including High Country Profile, which later turned into this magazine. In 1980 I teamed up with graphic designers Nancy Pantaleoni and Janet Webb and launched ARTlines, a black-and-white tabloid devoted to the art of northern New Mexico. ARTlines was a hit in every way except financially (a sampling is online at artlinesarchive.blogspot.com) and through it I gained invaluable access to the heart of the Taos art community. It led to my writing books on Gorman and Wagner and editorial positions at Taos Magazine and Southwest Profile. It was rewarding work but marginal income.
For the second time, an artist rode to my rescue – Melissa Zink. Years earlier I’d written a review of Zink’s first Taos exhibition (a rave) and we’d become friends. She quickly rose to considerable fame with extraordinary shows in prominent Santa Fe galleries of her ceramic sculpture. One day she casually mentioned to my wife, Joni Tickel, and I, “If you guys would like to go into the gallery business, I’ll give you some inventory.” A month later, August, 1993, we opened with a small group of singular artists – Zink, Wagner, Douglas Johnson and Willi Wood. Other established figures soon joined us, such as Susan Contreras, Marsha Skinner and Teresa Swayne, and we discovered a number of young, exceptionally talented but unknown artists who were destined to become starts -- Mical Aloni and her nearly unbelievable embroideries; Marc Baseman with his tiny, surreal pencil drawings; Erin Currier’s politically charged paper trash and paint portraits of everyday folk and heroes of human rights movements around the world.
Parks Gallery, I’m proud to say, soared. We mounted scores of major exhibitions for these artists and others. The shows were packed, the red dots proliferated. It was a wonderful run. Then a few years ago Joni took ill and retired. Melissa Zink passed away. It was time to scale back. I moved to a smaller location and added “art consultant” to my resume. I still have work on the walls and access to artists’ studios, but the big shows have been handed off to others. I’m doing some independent curating and writing, spending more time in the woods, musing on the excitement and vitality I’ve witnessed in Taos over the last 40 years, a period I define as Chapter Three in the history of art in Taos.
The first artists to discover this gorgeous, unruly place were the Founders – Sharp, Phillips, Blumenschein, Higgins, et al., wonderful, fairly conservative painters enthralled with the mix of ancient cultures and magnificent landscape. They were followed by the Modernists who, from the 1930s to the ‘60s, brought to the valley such modern modes as cubism and abstraction – Benrimo, Ribak, Mandelman, Stroh among them. For 70 years Taos had been a great place to make art but it had few galleries and artists were reliant on art markets on major metropolitan areas
That changed suddenly in the early 1970s. A new generation of young artists had moved to Taos, drawn by the history and aura of the place, certainly, but also by the low cost of living. As I’d discovered, one could squeak by with part-time jobs and have plenty of time to pursue passions. Gallery opened to showcase the art being created, led by passionate and professional dealers -- Tally Richards, Maggie Kress, Julia Black, Thom Andriola and the most famous and successful of them all, R. C. Gorman, who was as good a promoter and salesman as he was artist. These were the ones who spear-headed Chapter Three, created the environment in which Parks Gallery grew and prospered, made its contribution to the long, exciting, unpredictable and even mystical trail of Taos Art History.
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