Daffodils and crocus bursting into sunlight mark the arrival of spring as Santa Fe's Canyon Road begins to stir from a long, cold winter. Gardens are cleared of debris, heaping piles of snow are shoveled into the sunlight, and a glowing warmth emanates from nearly every shop window at the prospect of another tourist season. But it is always spring, in some sense, on Canyon Road. A wild profusion of artwork blooms along the street and up the alleyways, no matter the season. The real bread and butter of many Canyon Road businesses is the relationships built over many years between gallery owners and art collectors, who visit most often in early fall. Day to day, some of the galleries are busy working with interior designers, but it is the throngs of summertime tourists who bring this narrow road to life. Their pilgrimage underlines the special qualities of a destination unlike any other.
Canyon Road, one of Santa Fe's eight historic neighborhoods, was the first Residential Arts and Crafts district in the nation, recognized in 1962. Since then, its successful marriage of historic preservation, architectural design, and fine art has inspired new ways of approaching urban design. New Mexico's Main Street program, among others nationwide, has used Canyon Road as a model for preserving significant historic structures while allowing them to be used in a vital and sustainable way, as live-work spaces for local artists - the engines of urban renewal. Such an approach has created the not-insignificant result of feeding the tourism coffer, which has been the most visible catalyst for the success of Canyon Road.
Originally a trail used by indigenous people to cross the mountains from Pecos Pueblo, Canyon Road became the first farming area outside the city center after Spanish settlement in the 1600s. Home to modest family farms, it also had bodegas, dance halls, and general stores selling everything from hardware to hay. As families expanded, rooms were added, creating vast compounds. Painter Gerald Cassidy, who arrived in 1914, would be the first artist to settle in the neighborhood permanently, at 1000 Canyon Road. Many others followed in search of healing at the nearby Sunmount Sanitorium. In 1919, young Fremont Ellis moved to Santa Fe to experience the "interesting and important artists" assembling there, along with four other new a.•Tivals: Josef Bakos, Walter Mruk, Willard Nash, and Will Shuster. In 1920 they formed the famed Cinco Pintores (Five Painters), the heart of which was in the artists' homes on Canyon Road.
As Santa Fe expanded and taxes rose with property values, many of the early family compounds were sold off, disassembled, and reconfigured for a new caste of artists who lived, worked and showed their work in their front rooms. Today, few vestiges of the neighborhood's Hispanic roots remain, while some of those who came seeking relief from tuberculosis and other ailments in the early 20th century boast multi-generational presences. Artists who have remained since the 1950s make up a segment of the community, a magnet for younger artists and gallery owners who have started their own establishments. Finally, there is the odd arrival who was brought in search of a dream, as in the case of Mary Bonney, who brought the William and Joseph Gallery to Santa Fe after Hurricane Katrina.
Thus Canyon Road is at once ancient, established, traditional and modern, unconventional, and bold. Its galleries are not anonymous structures that could be dropped into the urban fabric of Seattle, Dallas, or Atlanta. They are old buildings with a rich history, some of them still artists' homes. Visitors take in the paintings and sculpture set in cozy home settings that reflect the tastes of gallery owners themselves. The ubiquitous fireplaces and courtyard fountains echo the energy, warmth, and movement of human creativity, setting the stage for unexpected intimacy and magical conversation. Every so often a dirt drive reconnects new to old, where a sign reading "PRIVATE RESIDENCE" serves as a reminder of the neighborhood's growing families.
As cool mornings give way to warm spring days, tourists clutching maps and art guides head up the road from Paseo de Peralta to try to find their way through the milieu. With nearly 80 galleries, Canyon Road represents almost every artistic leaning, from Taos Society and Native American to international contemporary, fantasy, and even "junk" art. Visiting every interesting spot on this mile-long stretch of road packed with galleries and stores makes for an exhausting prospect, and is best spread out over several leisurely days. Most visits begin at the "low" end, closest to town, at a gallery called the Edge. This Santa Fe-modern structure makes an enticing introduction to the vast range of contemporary art represented in Canyon Road galleries. Angelic sculptures by William Catling dance around the outside, as if invoking the genius loci - the Roman "spirit of place." Around the curve, the first alleys and courtyards unfurl from the road with a growing parade of sculptures.
After the commercial frenzy of the Santa Fe Plaza, the Adobe Gallery offers a soothingly large and beautifully arranged space that gives contemporary and antique Southwest pottery the honor of unhurried viewing. The collection of stores and galleries at 225 Canyon Road, sometimes called the Rodeo Drive of Santa Fe, offers a modern introduction to the neighborhood's history. Originally designed with a residential space above, most of these galleries have expanded their commercial space upstairs, giving the complex a boutique feel.
The offerings here begin with contemporary abstract art at Karan Ruhlen, including New Mexico modernist painting and sculpture. Pauline Ziegen, a native of the Midwest, is one of the favorites here. Her oil and gold-leaf landscape panels stir the senses with their simplicity and luminescence. Next door at Meyer Gallery, regional specialties speak to more conventional tastes: bronze and stone sculptures of Western figures, Native American images and playful children, as well as classically inspired realistic and impressionistic paintings by regional and national artists, including amusing animal portraits by Donald Wilson, bronzes by Tyson Snow, and Cary Henrie's eerily playful landscape collages.
Traditional painting and sculpture across a variety of subjects is also found at McLarry Fine Art, whose 24 artists include the compelling sculptors Tim Cherry, John Coleman, J. G. Moore, and Tim Nicola. Cheerful ceramic dinnerware, lamps, glass wall sculptures, and handmade sconces fill the popular La Mesa of Santa Fe, which overflows with home furnishings and artwork by more than 50 artists. At Karen Melfi Collection, clothing and jewelry reach the status of wearable art, with unique handmade textiles in Santa Fe style on one side of the store and chunky artisinal stones and precious metals on the other.
One of the most distinctive features of Canyon Road is the direct interaction with artists and owners themselves, some of whom have been on the street for 30 years or more. At McLarry Modern in the 225 complex, I was introduced to the artist Poteet Victory and spent nearly half an hour talking with him in his upstairs studio as he worked on a painting. This gallery feels much like a home, which makes it easy to linger here. Across the street, a little red schoolhouse (as it was once actually known) offers a total contrast in setting. Ventana Fine Art, like many galleries on the lower half of the road, sits up above it in a raised garden. Canyon Road is thus cut into the earth as it heads downhill, creating a sense of grounding that is well typified by this gallery that has been here for nearly three decades. Traditional and contemporary art hung precisely throughout the rooms elevates the schoolhouse setting to downtown cool. Sales manager Wolfgang Mabry notes that some of the gallery's 20 or so artists have been with them since the beginning.
A totally different environment prevails at the Hahn Ross gallery, an intimate space introduced by David Phelps's monumental trompe l'oeil metal figures. The clean display of the front rooms features luminous abstract bamboo paintings by Chris Richter that seem to pop off the white walls, opposite glass-enclosed nichos lighting bronze sculptures on the wall opposite. Owned and operated by children's book illustrator Tom Ross and surrealist painter Elizabeth Hahn, the gallery shows about 20 nontraditional artists. One of Canyon Road's oldest galleries is too easy to overlook, having none of the glamour and glitz of some of the newcomers. Former archaeologist Robert Nichols set up shop in the 1960s as a collector of Native pottery. As commercial frenzy began pushing Native potters toward increasingly elaborate designs to please the marketplace, Nichols decided to concentrate on a small number of iconoclastic potters. His rare collection of innovators includes Diego Romero, who paints "neo-Mimbres" pots with comic book imagery, and William Andrew Pacheco, of Santo Domingo Pueblo, whose black pots are swept with graceful dinosaurs in white. Both are graduates of the Institute of American Indian Arts, and thus represent the living evolution of tradition.
Nichols, meanwhile, clearly has stuck to his first love: art, rather than commerce, a hallmark of Canyon Road's old-timers. The carefully stabilized 18th-century residence and garden at 414 Canyon Road is now home to one of the area's newest artists, Mark White, with his impressive collection of mesmerizing kinetic sculpture designs, painted and patinated engravings, as well as bronze sculptural dancers created through a partnership with his son, Ethan, a professional dancer.
At Patricia Carlisle's gallery up the road, jazz plays in the background, and the sun-dappled rooms and burbling exterior fountains give the feel of a Sunday afternoon in wine country. A group of clients is, in fact, sipping white wine in the grassy courtyard while listening to a gallery talk. Carlisle explains to a visitor that her approach differs from that of most galleries on the street, in that her gallery represents only five or six artists at a time. The collection is thus strikingly coherent, and includes a large body of work by each artist. Slim bronze maidens by David Pearson, the only sculptor, mark the space inside and out like graceful sentinels. Carlisle's singular approach clearly works for her: She is marking her 14th year on Canyon Road.