This past Wednesday, I had an opportunity to travel south to Albuquerque, New Mexico to make a presentation to the Communication Artists of New Mexico. According to Maggie McNab, current President of the organization, this was a sell out crowd with 70+ signed registrants. I had actually forgotten about my initial offering to come and speak to their organization, having confused her offer with another speaking engagement. Later I ran into painter who lives in Santa Fe who reconnected with me with Maggie and some number of months off, we made the final reservation to commit to this talk (a copy of the overview brochure is in the 5th floor kitchen). I arrived on time, and made my way into the city with Maggie, armed with a G3 computer and Sony projection system. Driving into town, I observed a rather large number of gestures to “nuclear” industry, including the opening billboard entering the city, “Welcome to America’s #1 nuclear colony.” I inquired of Maggie as to this designation, and she proffered that this was a top nuclear dumpsite in the US, having the largest accumulation of radioactive contaminants buried within its boundaries. I felt an especial privilege to having been placed in this glowing enclave. I felt a certain tingling in the hairs on the back of my neck, a slight reddening of my skin tone, and, entering my room later, noted that I didn’t need to turn the lights on to check my appearance. Regrettably, these benefits dissipated upon my return…glowing in the dark, that is.
I made my way to the hotel, La Posada, a rather dilapidated structure, apparently dating from the latter part of the 19th century. Unfortunately, the earlier grandeur had vanished, and what was left was a cross between a Greyhound station and a rather forlorn Hilton acquisition. My setup was challenging. First, I noted that several of the outlets adjacent to the speaking podium were not functional, having been kicked in by an especially assertive guest. Placing a plug in one of the outlets, I noted some sparking response, and was hesitant to jiggle the plug to garner appropriate power. I inquired of the hotel serviceman for an alternative, which arrived 20 minutes later. This extension outlet was similarly distressed. The electrical outlet was attached to a small metal box, which had a series of outlets that were contained within a similarly shaky containment. By mixing plugs and outlets, I was able to come up with one arrangement in which I gathered power to the projector but not to the G3. The computer had apparently a diluted battery and as a result, was not firing up. Frequent re-setting, shutdowns and re-boots were unsuccessful, until approximately seven minutes before dinner began. Trying to maintain my usually calm demeanor was difficult, as no one in the audience had ever even seen a G3. This was indeed exciting.
I began the presentation by lighting incense and strolling through the crowd, talking about design, branding and communications, inquiring of the various participants as to their thinking. This was a complex undertaking. Many of the people were reticent to respond, and the open forum I had hoped to engender was rather taciturn. My companion suggested that I was speaking over people’s heads afterwards (or too vague and lengthy-whatever!). Still, my intention was to allow people to have a direct verbal intercourse with me as opposed to me, the speaker, “presenting” to an audience. Frequently, my experience has been this type of open engagement is more compelling than a simple “slide show” of work. After gathering basic design missions and fundamentals of communication from the audience, I showed the etymological presentation which some of you have seen previously (the precursor to the Mesopotamian/Oakley Sunglasses branding exercise). The presentation lasted about an hour-and-a-half, and ended with-“show us some more work.” I would imagine, in conclusion, that being philosophical about design within the radioactive milieu of Albuquerque is somewhat conflicted. Nonetheless, students, other designers and members of the advertising and communication community approached me afterwards to talk about what they had learned. The basic approach I was trying to establish was that design, beyond an exercise, had a philosophical foundation which one could incorporate into the tenets of one’s life, as opposed to simply being a “job.” Creating messages is a special and powerful activity, and some introspection about the value and personal benefit and evolution of this process seemed uppermost in my mind.
Later, we left the hotel for a wandering. This meander led me to a couple of homeless people who indicated that the direction in which we were heading was “you’ll probably get shot-you see how the police don’t even drive over in that section.” Changing my direction, I found similar pathways and possible endangerments in each of the quadrants I explored, and returned to the hotel. I left early the next morning for further exploratory of the environs, and found Albuquerque to be relatively dismal (in other words, business developers, let’s not pursue work there). Many buildings appear abandoned and construction efforts have been exhausted. There are, however, indications of new direction. The city hall, for instance, is a rather spectacular example of architecture. Newer hotels reside nearby.
From there, I made my way to the Broken Saddle Ranch to try a bit of horseback riding. The cowpoke assigned to me assumed I had more skill and experience than I did. My early experience was “get on that horse, Timmer, and let’s see how you ride!” with a slap as I galloped off into the sunset, barely holding on. However, this cowboy took us on to a high desert terrain accompanied by several hours of trotting, galloping and cantering through the wilderness. By watching how he sat in the saddle, placed his boots in the stirrups and guided the horse in its rhythmic ascent, I was able to hold on with the best of them. This was sheer exhilaration. The hillside, mostly desert with scrub and piñon pine, was dotted with burrowings and mine shafts hoping for gold and silver. Later at a recommended roadside restaurant, my companion, who is interested in the work of a particular Apache artist, Allan Houser, discovered that his son was sitting near us. Houser Sr. had since deceased. He offered a tour of the Houser compound, an artistic complex arranged with classical Native American sculpture: an archer pointing an arrow high into the sky, serene figures of ritual, abstract bronze sculpture, watercolors, drawings-an extraordinary output of creativity in virtually all dimensions. I understood that Allan Houser, as well, was an awesome harmonica player, and he even built a music lab in the basement of his corporate offices. Clearly, Houser was an enterprising Apache and not only created sculpture which is currently within the environs of the White House, but has been placed in significant collections elsewhere. Prices range from several thousand to nearly half a million, and weigh from a mere several pounds to multiple tons.
Onwards, we journeyed to Santa Fe. Santa Fe is clearly an enclave of the wealthy, with the underpinnings of poverty scattered in the perimeter. I learned recently that New Mexico is one of the poorest states in the union, with the highest hunger rate extant in America-even beyond what one might presume the more impoverished southern US states. That evening, we made our way to 10,000 Waves, a Japanese-style spa with multiple treatments, baths and therapies. Perhaps the most significant detail of this facility was the extraordinary attention to design. A lantern path leads you up through the pine to the opening of a traditional Japanese-like structure, with carefully laid stones, bamboo plantings and a deep Koi pond. The opening reveals delicate Japanese joints, explicit uses of materials and infinitesimal application of sensitive detailing. Outdoor hot tubs are exposed to the starry sky above. Cabins are available for rent; I’m certain I’ll return in the future to experience this more completely.
The next day, we made our way to Taos for more wandering. Moving higher into the high desert of New Mexico, we visited the Taos Pueblo. Pueblo, to me, always seemed to be a tourist attraction with staged shows and a gaggle of Native American souvenirs and artificial commerce. Instead, this Pueblo, which apparently was relatively ancient, had no electricity, and people live within the darkened interiors of their adobe homes, all stacked upon each other and arranged in a beautiful, organic way. The Navaho people at this pueblo were taciturn, calm, graceful and seemingly wise in their quietude. Taking a tour of this site was a powerful experience. Somehow, this group of Native Americans (“Indians”, as Sherman Alexie self describes the group) seems to have retained its sense of dignity and spiritual purpose, which is manifested in different ways and articulated singularly by the varying individuals we encountered. Their domical stoves produce exquisite bread from their wood-fired hearths. Later, upon recommendation from “Wings,” we hiked to the Taos ski area, up into Williams Lake. Most of these climbs tended to be more belabored than I thought, but the altitude, combined with the scarcity of oxygen, made them surprisingly challenging. Each of these climbs was beautiful and largely un-peopled. This solitude was an added benefit to the beauty of the Taos ramparts.
The next day we made our way to Abiquiu but stopped at Bandelier, a 20th century, discovered dwelling site nestled in a valley not far from Los Alamos. Bandelier was a German explorer who was responsible for the initial archeology. The site shows, amidst its cottonwoods and pine, what was once a beautiful, wholly environmentally integrated community, nestled in against the great vertical cliffs, in many cases multi-tiered and, apparently as always, centered around its spiritual relationship with the earth. It was a wonderful place to say the least.
From there, we made our way to Abiquiu, to a small bed and breakfast. Later, we set out to Farolita, a lunchbox-sized Mexican restaurant, positioned at a remote crossroads, 15 miles away. Across from the general store, in an area almost absent of light, the full moon shone above the darkened streets. Inside was a noisy crowd of natives to the area, rock climbers and people picking up their to-go orders. After dinner, stepping out into the dark, we decided to explore an area called Plaza Blanca. As described by our innkeepers, this was a bit of land, regarded by a son of an emir from Saudi Arabia, as a spiritual fulcrum, who wished to establish an Islamic colony. Abiquiu already has a fairly deeply ingrained spiritual reputation as the key painting environment of Georgia O’Keefe, among other artists. Shirley McLaine, coincidentally, makes her home there. Other luminaries reside nearby. This Islamic immigrant brought his associates from Saudi Arabia and established a colony of approximately 500 members. He built a mosque overlooking the valley and purchased, apparently, nearly 7,000 acres of land, including his omphalos (center of the earth, as you might recall from your linguaphile vocabulary update of last week). Arriving at this site (Dar Es Islaam), we followed the cartographic instruction of the innkeeper. Making our way to the end of a lonely road, we came to a rampart, lit by the moon to the most extraordinary valley I’ve seen in the deep of night. The white cliffs were exposed to reveal a cathedral of enormous grandeur, with towers and rippling walls duplicating the spirit of a medieval structure. It was breathtaking beyond belief, and deathly silent. We were hesitant to try and make our way down into the rocky plain for fear of losing our way through the labyrinth below. It was a profoundly spiritual place and we decided to return the next morning at 5:30 a.m. We drove to the mosque and found that it was unlocked. A rather large conference structure was attached to the “madrasa” (mosque). We went into the darkened prayer room and the area for ritual cleansing; there was no electricity. Circling this site, I was surprised by skittering cats that feigned their feline ancestry with regal posturing, trying to strike a gesture of a sinewy mountain lions. A watchman arrived as we departed, wearing a Dr. Seuss hat, and we chatted about Islamic mysticism: Sufism, and our interest in this religion. He was kindly and surprisingly nonchalant about our late night incursion into this sacred space. Getting up early the next morning, we hiked through “White City”, the Plaza Blanca and watched the sun rise. Later, we visited Ghost Ranch, and hiked to the top of the Kitchen Mesa, as a further climb. We drove out to Georgia O’Keefe’s secret and abandoned residence at Ghost Ranch, and viewed her former working compound.
This being the concluding day, early afternoon on Sunday, we made our way back to Santa Fe and flew out to Denver. Leaving Denver later that evening, the moon rose, a great wavering persimmon in the steel gray of the haunted mountains and plains below. A fitting conclusion to a journey that was both revealing in its sense of urban dissolution, yet spiritually enlightening in the mystery of its distant surroundings. To all, I would recommend this path. Thanks for your attention and consideration.