by Lester Strong
Opera, theater, books, activism, painting, photography, politics, old friends (mine), old partners (mine) and current husband (mine), art exhibitions: Through my blu sunne blog I’ve covered a variety of subjects, usually linked in some way to the AIDS epidemic. In this entry I’d like to change lanes and explore a topic very personal to me that has little if any relation to AIDS.
In my first blog entry, “Notes from a Pop-Up Life in the Arts,” I described myself as both a writer and a visual artist. What I didn’t mention is that I was born and reared in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I lived the first seventeen years of my life, went to college in Santa Fe for four years, then moved for graduate school in 1968 to New York City, where I’ve lived ever since. Virtually all my writing, and certainly all my visual art, have been carried out as a resident of New York. But my imagination is rooted in New Mexico.
When I say “rooted,” I mean both my verbal and visual imaginations in the work I produce seldom escape at least a passing reference to the desert colors, mountain vistas, and Native American/Hispanic architecture with which I grew up. Some of New Mexico—White Sands National Monument and Tent Rocks National Monument, for example—have an almost otherworldly quality. But I have in mind more the everyday realities of living in the state. I grew up in a modest six-room house in Albuquerque, a tract house that made for comfortable living, to be sure, but nothing out of the ordinary in terms of tract housing. Yet it was spectacularly situated: a front-view to the east of the 10,500-foot Sandia mountains, and a back view to the west of gorgeous sunsets nearly every evening I lived there. College in Santa Fe was a somewhat different story. Located in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, a few miles south and east of the city’s main plaza, the school was surrounded by natural beauty everywhere you looked—not just the Sangre de Cristo mountains, but the Jemez mountains; orange-red-gold sunsets you couldn’t miss from the large plate-glass windows facing west in the dining hall where we all ate every evening at supper time; clear, deep-blue skies on sunny days (most days were sunny in the semi-arid desert climate), and the entire Milky Way splayed across the sky at night since the area of Santa Fe around the college was not yet polluted by city lights.
Then there was the adobe-style architecture, not in the Northeast Heights of Albuquerque where I grew up, but at the University of New Mexico campus not too far away, in some of Albuquerque’s suburbs, and certainly in Santa Fe, where the architectural code requires buildings to be designed in one of two styles: Native American Pueblo or Territorial.
How can I convey the impact of a New Mexico heritage on my writing and visual images?
Let’s start with my writing. The hotel central to one piece of my fiction had its start from afternoons I sometimes spent in downtown Santa Fe, sitting in the lobby of the historic La Fonda Hotel on the plaza soaking up its quintessential Pueblo-style architecture, Southwest furnishings, and paintings on the walls celebrating elements of Native American culture. The fictional hotel I imagined in my story was not the La Fonda, but in my mind at least it evoked a Southwest ambience. It was situated in a village much smaller than Santa Fe, but also surrounded by mountains and a populace that produced woven blankets, pottery, and wood carvings similar to the items produced by the Native American and Hispanic artisans of Northern New Mexico. Need I add that my imagination felt quite at home in this imagined physical and psychological setting for the story I had to tell?
Another piece of fiction took its start from three Southern New Mexico locations: Truth or Consequences (yes there is a town with that name in New Mexico’s Sierra County), Silver City, and Las Cruces. In this story the Native American and Hispanic influences in the state are quite muted, although “Santa Fe Style” does make an appearance in one of its chapters. But the mountains and a large copper mine near Silver City play important parts in the story, as does a certain “cowboy” attitude expressed by one important character, an attitude I witnessed in a few members of my own family.
Turning to my art, I have always loved bold colors. No doubt this is related to my childhood living among the bold colors of the desert Southwest: the bright summer sun; the “purple mountain majesties” of New Mexico’s Rocky Mountain ranges; the deep azure skies with their white, fluffy clouds drifting overhead; the brilliantly colored sunsets; the gold-brown adobe colors of the Native American pueblos and Spanish mission churches; the vivid blue and turquoise paints on so many gates, doors, and window frames of homes in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, but also in other parts of the state. It shows up in the pieces of art I’ve done directly related to New Mexico, and also in others having nothing to do with the state.
An example of a piece directly related to the state: Spring Cleaning SW (Scoured). This watercolor, done in 2015, is an ironic comment on the spring winds that scour the desert with the dust kicked up during what is usually a very dry season of the year. No clear images can be made out, but the colors emitted by the dusty haze are suggestive of something . . . something . . . well, something very Southwest during a Spring dust storm, anyway.
A piece of art whose origins have nothing to do with New Mexico: Turner SW. A mixed-media watercolor with ink completed while in London during 2003, it sprang from a visit to the Tate museum and a long while spent in the rooms of its J. M. W. Turner Collection. I don’t remember if it related to any specific painting, but I do remember being obsessed by the art of this wonderful British colorist—I couldn’t wait to return to the hotel room and produce something along the lines of the vibrant, almost hallucinatory effects he achieved in so much of his art. As for the silver tree I placed in Turner SW, I don’t think it came from Turner. Instead it resembles a large, dead tree—perhaps a cottonwood—that I drove past on most of my visits back to Albuquerque over the years. The tree is now long gone, but my tree commemorates the forlorn beauty that made it so memorable to me.
I’ve lived in New York City far longer than my twenty-two years in New Mexico. I love New York and feel no urge to relocate back to my home state. So I’ve asked myself: Why does my Southwest background have such a hold on my imagination? After all, New York is an exciting place to live. It’s the locale of many novels and movies, and potentially of many more. It’s a dynamic metropolis with many visual experiences worthy of commentary via any of several visual art disciplines. In fact, I’ve produced some art based on my New York experiences. Still, my imagination regularly returns to the desert Southwest. Why?
Recently I came across the translation of a comment attributed to the French writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless.” It occurred to me: My life in New York has its exciting moments, but by and large it’s been a work-a-day existence of writing, editing, paying bills, riding subways and buses, dodging traffic and bicycle riders as a pedestrian when crossing streets, cooking, and cleaning my apartment. New Mexico as a work-a-day experience is so far in my past it has dimmed in memory. Perhaps that distance has set my imagination free, even added an element of mystery and romance to a place I have so little to do with on a daily basis any longer. In that case, I owe a debt of gratitude to New York for the groundwork it provides in allowing me to explore and express a part of myself that to me feels very precious and beautiful. What more can an artist ask for from everyday life?
Note: There is at least one thing more an artist can ask for on a daily basis in relation to artistic practice: a good personal relationship with a partner or spouse. A topic to be explored in another blog entry.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor for A&U, with a twenty-year history of writing about HIV/AIDS among many other topics and issues.These short articles, mostly related to the disease, are reprinted from his blog blu sunne: Notes from a Pop-Up Life in the Arts. For more of his writing on a variety of topics, visit his blog at blusunne.com.