Crossing America, both the skies and highways afford views of mines of many kinds, massive holes in the ground, gigantic pits surrounded by bulldozers and dump trucks, the equipment of the modern mining operation.
Yet this is not the case within Turquoise Hill, the ancient Cerrillos mines near Santa Fe, New Mexico, where over millions of years water trickled downward through the jagged plates or perhaps upward from hot springs. The moisture transformed the copper and iron into the most beautiful blue, a ‘Tiffany blue,’ a rock and its land sought after more than one thousand years ago by the Anasazi Indians, then by the Spanish, by the American Turquoise Company (since 1880, with connections to Tiffany & Company), by music video and movie producers, and all along by the curious and the enchanted, unable to resist a color like no other, as well as the earth that created it.
- Dana Waldon, 2010
- Cerrillos Turquoise
Since 1988 artist-jeweler Douglas Magnus
owns and protects several of these mines. They sit on private property, accessible by his invitation and escort only until upon his death and according to his instruction, they pass to the Archeological Conservancy
, a non-profit organization “dedicated to acquiring and preserving the best of our nation’s remaining archaeological sites.” Visiting Santa Fe this week, my husband George and I enjoyed a tour deep within a mine, as well as across its covering terrain, hills that disguise the buried treasure so well that most locals remain unaware of its existence, despite the fact that the mines and their stones lie scattered in plain view.
We spent hours roaming these hills, occasionally reminding each other of the vista, forcing our gaze from the Tiffany blue rocks crunching beneath our boots.
According to Magnus, the scientists visiting this area know little of its origins. Interested in the exploration of oil and gas, most have but a general knowledge of the land’s geological formations, and they wonder in awe, no different than the rest of us, at the colored red, yellow, and blue rocks.
Unsurprisingly, this same veneration attracts Hollywood. Stephen Spielberg and Ron Howard both made movies on this hill, and the mines themselves serve as sets for dozens of actors, including Russell Crowe and Christian Bale for the movie 3:10 to Yuma, along with Tobey Maguire and Sam Shepard for Brothers.
- Dana Waldon, 2010
- Country music singer Ronnie Dunn makes a music video on Turquoise Hill for his first solo album
It was the Anasazi Indians, however, that first recognized the magic of Turquoise Hill. Without bulldozers or drills, they used their hand-made stone mauls, smashing the rock and forming deep mines. They wove the blue Cerrillos pebbles into animal hides and hair, creating ceremonial clothing, jewelry, and other heirlooms, items so important to their culture that to this day the mines hold special significance to their descendants, the Pueblo Indians. Sensitive to this heritage, Magnus opens the mines to the Santo Domingo tribe, the Kiua, who honor these hills as sacred.
Others too revere this area, outsiders who encounter it not just in person, but within their soul. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) first visited New Mexico in 1929 and, although not a native, made the land her own, a place that many now call ‘O’Keeffe Country.’ It was her paintings of this area that transformed her reputation in New York. She already grasped the increasingly popular abstract shapes of modern art, and she adapted these to the New Mexico high desert, painting the doorway of her adobe house or the shape of the sky as seen through the empty eye socket of a cow’s skull.
And yet she denied the abstraction. She painted what she saw using her inherent ability to understand the element of shapes. According to Hunter Drohojowska-Philp’s biography Full Bloom, as a student O’Keeffe grasped concepts and designs over fundamentals such as figure drawing. Perhaps this was a blessing. By her own account, O’Keeffe struggled with the specific renderings; however, from the beginning she saw the shapes and colors of New Mexico with clarity.
“I like it better here than anyplace I have ever been. I had such a wonderful walk up the arroyo bed of a wide valley lined on both sides with high pink hills — a sort of waving ripple along the tops — a few cedar and pinon trees — earth ranging from pink through red to deep purple with streaks of green in it. At the head of the arroyo, the very high cliffs — fantastic shapes — it is a beautiful world — There is something clean about a world like that — it is like walking across new snow.” -Georgia O’Keeffe
(Without judgment, I consider the opposite: Norman Rockwell, an artist who missed abstraction because he dealt with the exact reproduction of the scene before him. He filled up his canvas with people and objects rather than deal with the shapes left behind.)
We visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, as we have many times in the past. The current exhibition “O’Keeffiana: Art & Art Materials” focuses on her art supplies, as well as inspirational materials such as the rocks and bones she collected from the hills surrounding her homes at Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu, New Mexico.
For some, O’Keeffe is a hit or miss artist. In truth, I enjoy many of her paintings better as reproduced in a book as opposed to in person. Her cloud paintings, in particular, move me, and it is rare that I fly in a plane and not think of her large patterned compositions, so specific within a book and yet seemingly haphazard in person, as though she barely had time or material to cover the raw canvas and paint the (by definition) fleeting shapes.
Artist and restaurateur Rosalea Murphy (1912-2000) told me that Georgia O’Keeffe visited her bar, The Dragon Room, on occasion. The two were not close friends, holding different ideas about art, men, and food. Yet their rivalry was an interesting one, as they watched each other’s careers and shared a love for their adopted home.
- Rosalea Murphy in an ad for Falconhead Boots, the Dragon Room, Santa Fe
Born in San Antonio, Texas, Murphy moved with her family to New Orleans and discovered her passion for Creole cuisine. By the mid 1940s she settled full time in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she founded The Pink Adobe
restaurant and the adjacent Dragon Room Bar. She blended her knowledge of Creole cuisine with the Southwest and grew famous for her unique variations on hamburgers, gypsy stew, and apple pie, all served directly across the street from the San Miguel Mission, the oldest church in America.
- George Rodrigue, 2010
- San Miguel Mission, the oldest church in the United States, built between 1610 and 1626
Similar in its adobe architecture to the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi (b. 1772) in Ranchos de Taos, a structure reproduced numerous times by O’Keeffe in paintings, perhaps the church itself lured the famous artist to the bar, a room covered with Murphy’s paintings of roosters and dragons. Perhaps the church and the Dragon Room are sirens for these artists, no different than the Turquoise Hills for Doug Magnus and the Anasazi Indians, and no different than the complete and intoxicating artistic New Mexico (and similarly, New Orleans!) package for the rest of us.
- Touchdown, Saints! Santa Fe, NM, December 27, 2010
Dolores Pepper (a.k.a. Wendy Rodrigue)
For a related post visit “Rosalea Murphy, the Pink Adobe and Paintings of Evergreen Lake”