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Every day, when the sun reached the middle of its passage across the high desert country, the people on Canyon Road, like those throughout their village of Santa Fe, could hear the bell in the tower at San Miguel begin to toll, and they knew that el ciego viejo, the old blind man, had come to the thick-walled chapel and knelt at the altar to pray.
They knew, too, that for as long as el ciego viejo prayed, the bell would toll miraculously, moved only by hand of God, producing a celestial purity of sound. They knew that for as long as he prayed and the bell tolled, light streaming through windows high above him would find its way into his eyes. He would be able to see the chapel’s religious paintings, the carved wooden icons, the massive hand-hewn vigas. They knew that when he stopped praying, the bell would fall silent. Darkness would return to his eyes like night descending on the desert, and he would see no more until he returned to the chapel the following day to pray once more.
That happened a long time ago, back when only a few people lived beside Canyon Road, along the south bank of the Santa Fe River, in small homes of adobe – or sun-dried bricks of mud and straw. They had made the bricks, lovingly, with their own hands. They still spoke the Spanish of Castille, lisping their "S’s." They prayed to images of saints lit by candles at altars in their homes. They bought firewood from peddlers who hauled it on the backs of burros from the forested Sangre de Cristo Mountains down onto Canyon Road. They danced at fandangos to music issuing from the strings of violins and guitars. They talked about their crops of corn and fruit, about their flocks of sheep, about good horses and bad dogs. They worried about raids by the Apaches inhumano y malo. They counseled each other, saying things like:
Nunca permitan que una doncella corte cebolla, porque llora Maria Santisima.
Do not let a virgin slice onions because the Blessed Virgin Mary will cry.
Nunca pongas los zapatos en las cabecera porque tendras malas pesadillas.
Never put your shoes at the head of the bed because you will have nightmares.
No le pegues a un gemelo porque te tuerce el pescuezo.
Do not hit a twin because he will twist your neck.
The early Spaniards felt drawn to the Canyon Road area by the Santa Fe River bottom, which offered irrigable land for their crops and pasturage for their flocks; by a centuries-old Pueblo Indian trail, which provided a convenient passageway for mule trains and ox-drawn carretas; and by the community’s nearby main plaza and governmental offices, which offered protection from Indian attacks.
They established Canyon Road, only about three quarters of a mile in length, from the most humble of beginnings—a prehistoric path of dirt and tiny houses of mud; but they imbued it with an enduring quality of style, character and charm.
Today, on Canyon Road, zoned strictly for "residential arts and crafts," you will find Spanish colonial, Spanish/Pueblo and American territorial architecture which has been burnished and mellowed by the passage of the years. You will discover more than five dozen galleries with paintings, sculpture, Native American crafts, traditional Spanish crafts, Santa Fe fashion, mixed media, photography and antiques literally spilling out of the doors and windows. You will find world class food and service laced with the rhythms of Spanish classical guitar, flamenco, blues and jazz. You can find a quiet bar enfolded by adobe walls with a warm fireplace on a cold winter night and have a good heavy red Spanish wine and a long conversation.
Should you choose to walk the length of Canyon Road, with its one-story common-walled structures and narrow sidewalks, you can see that it has historic roots in ancient village streets of Mexico, Spain and Moorish Africa. Through an open gate, you get a glimpse of a courtyard or a garden which once served as a center for family and social life and as a sanctuary against outside invaders. You get a glimpse of exquisite Spanish or territorial architectural features which helped satisfy a yearning for beauty. You discover little passageways and alleys which convey a sense of mystery and sometimes surprise with a garden of sculpture and blooming roses.
Los Cinco Pintores, the Five Painters – Fremont Ellis, Willard Nash, Wladyslaw Mruk, Jozef Bakos and Will Shuster – cast the mantle of art over Canyon Road, indeed, over much of Santa Fe, in about 1920. They felt drawn, not by fertile soil, an ancient Indian trail, or a central plaza, but by adobe grace, strong Hispanic and Indian faces, elaborate ritual and celebration, striking landscapes and stunning light.
Known affectionately as "the five nuts in the little mud huts," they lived as neighbors in adobe cottages just off Canyon Road. They opened their homes to the public. All but indifferent to money, they swapped their paintings for groceries, medical care and other essentials. They exhibited in Santa Fe’s new Fine Arts Museum.
They painted, not for the snobbish elite of New York City, Boston, Newport, Chicago or San Francisco, but for the people of the earth. They made us see the extraordinary in an ordinary person, the uncommon in a common thing, the classic beauty in randomly carved hills and mountains.
They became a magnet for the art community, which came to occupy homes, studios and galleries for the full length of Canyon Road, making it the heart of Santa Fe’s art colony and the pulse of a world-renowned art market. Measured by the quality of works (for instance, Russell, Remington, McCarthy, Wyeth, Hurd, Homer, Ellis, Wood and Warhol), the span of cultures and the diversity of media, Canyon Road probably represents the greatest concentration of quality art in the nation today.
Lynda Foshie, owner of Running Ridge Gallery on Canyon Road says, "You will see the traditional work produced by the early Santa Fe and Taos artists and the contemporary art by modern masters, including categories in realism, expressionism, romanticism, transformational, visionary, experimental and cutting edge painting and sculpture, contemporary and vintage photography, video and performance art." You will also find traditional weavings, ceramics, jewelry and kachina dolls produced by Native Americans; wood carvings and tin works crafted by Spanish descendants; clothing and accessories created by top Santa Fe school of fashion designers; and work fashioned by Latin American, African, Middle Eastern and Oriental artisans.
If (no, when) you grow weary and your senses become overloaded with visual art, you can stop at one of the several restaurants along Canyon Road, and you can have a cold drink or a hot coffee or a good wine in a patio or a flowering garden or a sidewalk porch.
You can end the day in casual elegance by planning a meal at the Geronimo Restaurant, located on the south side of Canyon Road, in a building constructed two and a half centuries ago by Geronimo Lopes. Go early. Have a glass of wine in the restaurant’s warm and intimate bar, nestled into the old building’s adobe walls, where artists gather and conversation flows richly. Expect a meal, for instance, the salmon, of gourmet quality and with polished service. After dessert, walk up the street to El Farol, a bar for one hundred and fifty years, have a Drambuie or a Gran Manier and enjoy the murals. With luck, someone will be playing Spanish guitar.
When you leave and walk down Canyon Road in the silence and darkness, listen carefully. Some people think you can still hear the bell of San Miguel.
For whenever you decide to go, you can get additional information about lodging, dining, museums and attractions at Canyon Road and in Santa Fe by contacting:
City of Santa Fe Convention & Visitors bureau
201 West March Street
P. O. Box 909
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87504-0909
If you want to learn more about Canyon Road, and Santa Fe, read Old Santa Fe Today by The Historic Santa Fe Foundation, Editor, Sylvia Glidden Loomis, The School of American Research, Santa Fe; Santa Fe Then and Now, by Sheila Morand, Sunstone Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico; or Santa Fe by Alfred Morang, Sage Books, Inc., Denver, Colorado. I have not been able to find a single book which deals exclusively with Canyon Road.
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Santa Fe, New Mexico