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Southwest Kitsch, Southwest Authentic

During our first two years together in the Southwest, Linda and I, like so many other new arrivals to this land, surrendered to its numerous attractions, from, in the words of Albuquerque author Robert Gish, “the lowbrow, curio kitsch” to the clearly authentic.  The “kitsch” was primarily my weakness.  To friends, I fired off enthusiastic postcards bearing the obviously doctored image of the New Mexico hybrid known as the “jackalope”―a giant, rearing rabbit crowned with the massive rack of an elk.  In Albuquerque’s Old Town, I snapped up mini bricks of piñon incense and small bundles of sage smudge, and soon my apartment was smelling like a Navajo sweat lodge, and the inside of my Lynx Christmas Eve on the Taos Pueblo plaza.  Linda, meanwhile, purchased a popular New Mexico curio: a carved wooden coyote in full-throated howling pose; however, she drew the line at the equally popular mini-bandana about its neck.  Surprisingly, she never hung a ristra on her balcony at The Conquistador.  The ristra is a venerable symbol of fall in New Mexico, a mass of chile peppers intricately strung together in a long bundle, the newly-harvested peppers scarlet and rubbery when purchased, but, when hung outdoors, destined to dry, shrivel, and darken to burgundy as they sway en masse in the New Mexico winter winds.  We did, however, purchase and ship red, green, and yellow electric “chile lights” to my sister in New Hampshire.  

We purchased Native American artifacts: pottery from the Acoma, Jemez, San Felipe, and Zia pueblos; a delicate and detailed wooden “eagle dancer” figurine from Albuquerque’s Indian Pueblo Cultural Center; a Navajo rug at a University of New Mexico auction; and a “vegetal chart”―from where, I cannot recall―explaining the origin of Native American dyes.  Linda gave to me my first ring, a turquoise set in silver from the pueblo of Sandia.  In our rented townhouse, our first dwelling together, framed photographs of iconic Southwestern locales, places such as Laguna Pueblo and Monument Valley, by Ansel Adams and others, graced the walls.  We watched Robert Redford’s 1988 film adaptation of John Nichols’s novel The Milagro Beanfield War, set in a thinly-disguised Taos, although filmed largely in the northern New Mexico village of Truchas.

Books with Southwestern settings and themes quickly became my passion.  I purchased them at Albuquerque’s independent and chain bookstores, as well as the gift shops of Albuquerque and Santa Fe art museums and cultural centers and Santa Fe’s famous La Fonda Hotel, the La Fonda displaying titles by Willa Cather, Frank Waters, Rudolfo Anaya, Tony Hillerman, and Nichols.  Lawrence Clark Powell’s book Southwest Classics, a marvelous work I purchased on a whim from a used book store on Central Avenue, introduced me to a vast range of much earlier and lesser-known Southwestern authors, including Erna Fergusson, whose 1940 non-fiction work Our Southwest remains my favorite book about this land.      

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