me a long weekend and a rent car and that means one thing:
| I'm heading out West. Doesn't matter wheredown
Route 66, up Going to the Sun Road, or on any stretch of the Devil's
Highway in Four Corners country.
Put me behind the wheel, and I have no compunction about enlivening
these sojourns by eating, writing, reading, talking on the phone,
talking to myself, or talking to the stars while driving. I've even
forayed into the death-defying stunt category, for instance, the
time I executed a perfect 360 on a patch of black ice coming down
Vail Pass one Christmas Eve. Or the sunny afternoon I hydroplaned
off a one-lane blacktop road into a snow bank at the speed of sound.
Falling asleep at 70 mph may sound like an unforgettable experience,
but, as any state trooper will tell you, the only memorable aspect
each of the two times I did so was the simple fact that I lived
to tell the tale.
But on all these adventures across all those states, I never once stopped
in the northern New Mexico town of Tres Piedras. No doubt I had plenty
of opportunities. The pokey little town sits half an hour west of Taos
where Highway 64, one of the most breathtaking routes in that beautiful
state, meets Highway 285, one of my favorite passages between Colorado
and Texas. But I never saw fit to slow down
until Kent Barker told
Kent and I go back to our Dallas days. A photographer, Kent's studio was
in the Knox-Henderson section of town, and I was editor of a Western lifestyle
magazine with the catchy name of Cowboys & Indians.
Kent had done some great shoots for us. One, in particular, out at Cibolo
Creek Ranch in the Big Bend country of Far West Texas, stands out in my
mind. Cibolo Creek has it all. Greasy flats. Tall cottonwoods. Full bar.
Kent brought in this PRCA cowboy by the name of Craig Branham to rope
and ride and model for the shoot. Like any cowboy worth his salt, Craig's
persona was two parts ability, one part modesty. The minute Kent set up
his camera, however, Craig's humble pie routine went out the window. The
resulting series of sepia portraits were among the popular the magazine
ever commissioned. J.B. Hill, the El Paso boot maker, liked one so much
that they've been using it in their print ads ever since.
Knox-Henderson, site of Kent's studio, is one of Dallas's better destinations.
Scads of restaurants. Plenty of quirky shops plus the usual Crate-and-Barrel
sort of places. And some of the best people-watching in Big D. During
the work week, this compelling combination lacked one thingmewhich
is why meetings with Kent were almost always at his studio. We'd grabbed
a quick lunch and talked through some ideas. I was about to bolt when
Kent disappeared. When he returned he had retrieved a folder full of transparencies.
They were from a shoot years ago. He had been on assignment for House
& Garden, I believe, and had come across an
amazing gallery outside of Taos that was located in an old schoolhouse.
Right then and there I knew that the next time I found myself in northern
New Mexico I would drive to, not through, Tres Piedras.
over a decade Ken Nelson has lived in a most atypical abode, an old concrete
and stone schoolhouse set at the far western edge of Taos County only
a few hundred yards from the Carson National Forest. Even though it's
his principal residence, Nelson's living quarters occupy only a portion
of a single room. He has opted instead to convert the rest of that classroom,
all of a second classroom, and just about every available inch of a full-court
gymnasium for use as his gallery.
And by gallery don't confuse yourself with ideas or notions of some well-lit
commercial nook, complete with black-clad attendants and a wheezing espresso
machine. Try instead a shockingly gorgeous, magnificently enticing manifestation
of art in countless mediums festooned from floor to ceiling in a manner
that would set Soho or Les Halles on its ear. (That is, of course, assuming
anyone from New York or Paris would forsake the bright lights of the big
city to journey to northern New Mexico and seek out this remote cluster
of three or four structures and a few families grouped in the foothills
of the Kit Carson National Forest.)
It's officially listed as Tres Piedras (a Spanish term meaning "three
rocks"), but locals have a much simpler name for the tiny community
nestled around the isolated intersection of highways 64 and 285: "TP."
By car it's only about a half an hour west of Taos, across the Rio Grande
Gorge Bridge to where sage and scrub begin to blend with piñon
and ponderosa at more than 8,000 feet above sea level.
story of how this self-described "Minnesota farm boy" migrated
to this stunning setting is also the secret to understanding the genesis
of his amazing gallery.
Nelson had never seen "the Mesa," as he calls the country west
of Taos, until he decided to return to the United States after living
in Mexico for more than 20 years. He had spent most of his Mexican sojourn
in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, working as the general manager
of Na Bolom, a research center founded in 1951 by Danish archaeologist
Frans Blom and his Swiss-born wife, photographer Gertrude Duby Blom. Still
extant, Na Bolom serves as a nexus for cultural exchange in one of the
most primitive areas in the Americas, and it offered Nelson a rare opportunity
to immerse himself in the peoples and traditions of this unique region.
At Na Bolom he not only developed an appreciation for the artistic tradition
of the Mayan tribes of the Lacandon rain forest and highlands, but he
began collecting Mixtecan art from the Oaxacan highlands and works by
ladinos, the urban Indians who combine indigenous religions with a patina
of Roman Catholicism. During this period, from 1970 to 1986, ancient Spanish
art and Mexican antiquities still existed in situ, not yet pillaged for
sale at markets across North America.
Bolom provided Nelson with one final artistic avenueartists
themselves. Through the artist-in-residence program, which he established,
he developed both personal and professional ties with artists like Layla
"Flora" Edwards and photographer/printer Barry Norris and his
wife, Joan Darby Norris.
When Nelson decided it was time for life's path to take him out of Mexico,
his wide-ranging collection included Spanish antiquities, indigenous art,
assorted paintings, and photographic prints. He set out from Chiapas intent
on finding a place that not only suited his soul but could also accommodate
his substantial collection of art.
He says he found it "beneath the Mother," an ancient volcanic
mountain that stands like a stone sentinel at the very northern edge of
New Mexico, guarding the entrance to Colorado's San Luis Valley and the
headwaters of the Rio Grande.
Despite his many forays between Mexico and Minnesota it was Nelson's first
visit to TP. At the time the old schoolhouse, TP's largest structure,
was being used as a mill. Nelson found it surprisingly sturdy, and he
decided to buy it even though the roof needed some work.
some holes were patched and the ceiling replaced with brightly-colored
tapestries, Nelson installed his art. He opened the Old Pink Schoolhouse
Gallery in 1988.
Though his collection still includes many items he acquired in Mexico,
he has since augmented it with the works of a diverse group of local artists,
including painters like Pascal D'Aigremont, Rulon Hacking, Sam Taylor,
Sandra Bray, and Roger Montoya, woodcarvers Duane O'Hagan and Zachery
Powell, and specialized artists like Jaime Valdez, who works hot wax and
oil to produce his encaustics. An acerbic series of collages are also
displayed. Nelson's, of course.
Anyone willing to trek to the sacred land beneath the Mother will find
the proprietor and his many dogs, 11 at last count, welcoming hosts. During
a late afternoon visit, Nelson's prowess as an artist and a collector
and a gallery owner are clearly self-evident. But as I drive away from
TP what stands out in my mind (as well as my rearview mirror) is the brilliance
of his vivid pink schoolhouse, set among the pale browns and dusty greens
of the Taos Mesa.
I wrote this piece years ago. Subsequently, I left
Cowboys and Kent Barker abandoned Dallasfor
Taos. Not long ago I gave him a call to ask him if I could use his photos
for my website. He got a laugh out of that. It turns out that nowadays
there are plenty of good photos of Ken Nelsons gallery. Thats
because students in a popular Taos photography seminar have been shooting
it regularly. The seminar leader is, of course, Kent. Ken Nelsons
gallery still thrives on the Mesa beneath the Mother.
P.S. One caveat. Given its isolated locale, appointments are recommended
for those wishing to visit the gallery. Call 505-758-7826 in order to
make arrangements. EOK