WHAT makes one place an artists’ colony and another not? There are dozens of little picturesque fishing villages along the Cornish coast but it’s St Ives that is the artistic Mecca.
Why Capri and not Malta? There’s always something indefinable. Maybe only an artist can see what makes for an artists’ haven. Such was the case with Taos, in America’s south-western state of New Mexico, a surprisingly green place thanks to the Rio Grande river and a network of underground aquifers, and it’s this greenery and the perfect light that drew many artists to the town in the early part of the 20th century.
The traditional architecture of hummocky dwellings uses adobe (a mixture of mud, clay and straw) and is painted wonderful shades of dusty pink and faded terracotta, while zoning laws prohibit high-rise buildings and ugly signage. New Mexico only joined the United States in 1912 and has a reputation of being a place apart, which Taos exemplifies. If you want more bustle, try the state capital, Santa Fe, 70 miles away.
For a sense of old Taos, you need to visit Taos Pueblo, a few kilometres out of town. This ancient settlement belongs to the Pueblo Indians and is the only living Native American community designated both a World Heritage Site by Unesco and a National Historic Landmark, having being continually inhabited for 1,000 years.
Its rough and ready primitiveness is one of the factors that drew artists to this amazing place and it’s now a living museum of sorts, with many dwellings (some without electricity or running water) still inhabited by Pueblo Indians. Some are private homes, others have gift shops at the front and living quarters at the back and so are open to the public. Standing rather incongruously in the centre of the settlement is a whitewashed church with bell tower and stained-glass windows. My guide tells me ‘colonialists’ brought Catholicism but most Puebloans have adopted a mix of Christian and Native American traditions.
The best time to travel is early spring or September to avoid the blistering heat, but under the hot midday sun the cool shop interiors are welcome relief as the thick adobe provides amazingly effective air-conditioning. One shop/home has a large gallery at the back, selling wonderful Navajo pots and the turquoise and silver jewellery for which New Mexico is famous, but look closely and it’s also a family kitchen with lino and a propane cooker.
Listening to the guide, I detect a long-buried resentment that not only was tribal land stolen but someone put a parking lot on it. The Taos Pueblo is the oldest and most complete Native American settlement in the US, and that it survived at all is partly thanks to one woman – Mabel Dodge Luhan. A New York heiress, she came to Taos in 1917 with a dream to found an arts colony. Enchanted by the architecture and the scenery, the desert scrub of sagebrush and the brooding southern spur of the Rockies, she also found herself in the midst of the Pueblo Indians (and married one).
Over the years, Luhan saw her vision fulfilled, but only to a degree. Carl Jung, Aldous Huxley, Leopold Stokowski, Martha Graham and Ansel Adams all came to Taos, and the actor and artist Dennis Hopper even ended up buying Luhan’s house in the 1970s. The place is now an exquisite 19-room B&B.
After 12 months of long-distance stalking, Luhan coaxed writer DH Lawrence to sample the magic of Taos, thinking he would be just the man to highlight the plight of the Pueblo Indians and help define a new American modernism in art and literature. Lawrence had been searching to create his own sunny, free-love utopia in an atmosphere that would help his incipient TB, and Taos with its otherworldliness, dry desert heat and high altitude might have been just the place.
Arriving 90 years ago in 1922, he stayed for several months, writing, painting and contending with the increasingly pushy Luhan, who saw Lawrence as her protégé. His reaction – “I don’t choose to be anybody’s protégé” – meant they grew increasingly disillusioned with each other and Lawrence called Luhan’s radical chic clique “high-brow palefaces” and even nicknamed Taos “Mabeltown”.
I stay slightly out of town at Casa Gallina, which has four casitas (or small houses). Mine is the Bantam Roost, a spacious, charmingly decorated one-bedroom, two-storey casita with full kitchen and terrace off the bedroom. Proprietor Richard Spera, recently stopped working as a masseur to devote himself to caring for his guests, and his aim is to get them to slow down. “We have such fast-paced lives and forget to appreciate all the beauty that’s right in front of us,” he says.
The beauty in front of me includes a garden of purple irises and hens that provide fresh eggs, and rocket in the herb garden for my breakfast omelette. It’s all a bit more Provence than New Mexico. Back in town, we dine at Love Apple, based in an old chapel, where they offer locally sourced, organic home cooking that is affordable, unpretentious and accompanied by a good wine list to wash it all down.
Sadly Taos never did fulfil Luhan’s dream of becoming the cradle of American modernism. But over the years, it certainly has attracted an array of artists, jewellers and photographers as the great phalanx of gift shops, galleries and small museums attest. But there’s more to the town than its bohemian vibe anyway.
Eight miles away is the Rio Grande gorge, crossed by a vertiginous road bridge and bordered by easy hiking trails and in winter some of America’s best skiing. And at Rancho de Taos, four miles south, is the San Francisco de Asis church, with its striking blend of towers and curvaceous adobe that so inspired Georgia O’Keefe and Ansel Adams. It seems in Taos country you’re never far from the art.
Rooms start at £117 a night at at Casa Gallina’s Bantam Roost, Taos, (www.casagallina.net); and £66 a night at Mabel Dodge Luhan (www.mabeldodgeluhan.com).
Admission costs £6 and photography permits £3.70 at Taos Pueblo settlement (www.taospueblo.com) – check for feast day ceremonies.
Love Apple, 803 Paseo del Pueblo Norte Taos (www.theloveapple.net).
Getting there BA has flights from London Heathrow to Denver for around £580 return, including taxes, and to Santa Fe for around £538 return, including taxes.
Car hire is available from Budget (www.budget.co.uk/us); Thrifty (ww.thrifty.com); or Dollar (www.dollar.co.uk/USA)