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New Mexico: Down to a fine art

From the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe to exquisite Native American ceramics and some striking lowrider tributes, New Mexico’s art scene is vibrant and surprising

New Mexico: Down to a fine art
Benino Martinez, by Meridel Rubenstein. Image: Meridel Rubenstein and Exhibition 3 Con Carino

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In the desert home of Georgia O’Keeffe in Abiquiu, northern New Mexico, I gaze through the glass walls of her bedroom at the snaking line of US Route 84 below. It linked her, she said, to “Española, Santa Fe and the world”.

Ever since she died, in 1986, the world has been travelling this road to pay homage to one of the great Modernist painters, whose house at Abiquiu, 50 miles north west of Santa Fe, is now a museum. Indeed, she’s the principal reason I’ve come to Santa Fe and the shimmering badlands that surround it. But when I get here, I discover that O’Keeffe — a native of Wisconsin — was just one of many who found artistic inspiration in this remote corner of the American Southwest.

The New Mexico Museum of Art, in Santa Fe, has a fine collection of work by artists who predated her such as Gerald Cassidy and Henry Balink, and those, like Agnes Martin, who overlapped. And in an adjacent gallery is a reminder that it’s not just white incomers who’ve made their creative mark. An exhibition entitled Con Cariño: Artists Inspired by Lowriders — and a complementary one at the New Mexico History Museum next door — celebrate the Hispanic lowrider culture, whose epicentre in New Mexico is the small town of Española, near O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu home.

Lowriders are classic US cars from the 1950s and ’60s that have been customised into works of art with the addition of hydraulics, chrome, pin-striping, murals, velvet and religious symbols, known as santos. Artworks on display in the gallery include Luis Tapia’s carved and painted wooden dashboards and windscreens, which capture the spirit evoked in the exhibition’s textual commentary: “The lowrider car is a personal utopia and to enter it is to leave the everyday world behind and to become extraordinary for a while.”

My breakfast companion the following morning is the Native American ceramicist Dominique Toya whose life also hovers between the everyday and the extraordinary. Before eating her burrito she takes a little piece of everything on the plate — eggs, sausage, chile (that’s how they spell it here), black beans — and puts it on the plate rim, explaining that this is an offering “for the spirits”.

Dominique, from Jemez Pueblo, 70 miles west of Santa Fe, represents another powerful artistic tradition that tends to get overshadowed by O’Keeffe. She’s keeping a family pottery tradition alive that stretches back five generations and her exquisite hand-coiled pots sell for thousands of dollars.

The major showcase for her work — and for the work of more than a thousand artists from New Mexico’s 19 pueblos and its share of the vast Navajo Nation stretching into Utah and Arizona — is the annual Santa Fe Indian Market, which has been taking place in August since 1922. “And even before that my great-great-grandfather used to come to the plaza to sell his drums and gourds,” says Dominique.

Georgia O’Keeffe, it seems, was a Jenny-come-lately to this inspirational part of the world. Dominique tells me she’s not very familiar with O’Keeffe’s life and work. “But the way you’ve been talking about her, I’m thinking, my God, I must go up there [to Abiquiu] to check her out.”