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Sassy Femmes Still Rock the New Mexico Art World

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Uppity Women Wednesdays
(image by Meryl Ann Butler for OpEdNews.com)

To bring in the new year with some sass, Vicki Leon and her writing partner, Joyce Wyels, present a colorful lineup of wildly creative women of northern New Mexico in this month's "Uppity Women Wednesdays" installment. From world-famous Georgia O'Keeffe to the talented new generation of Native American female artists, all of them were influenced by the physical and cultural ambiance of Taos pueblo and environs. Wyels, a long-time contributor to Americas magazine and other periodicals, shared honors with Leon for the California state award for best travel writing in 2012.

What is there about northern New Mexico that has drawn artists and writers, including a surprising number of sassy, creative, powerful women, for over a century?

"The color! The color!" exclaimed Georgia O'Keeffe as she burst on the Southwestern scene in 1929, buoyant from her recent New York successes nurtured by her husband, famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz.

Among the many remarkable women who have found their way to New Mexico, the most celebrated may be O'Keeffe, the formidable painter whose best known works reflect the desert landscapes she observed. As she put it, "When I got to New Mexico I recognized that it was my country. I'd never seen anything like it before, but it fit me exactly. There's something in the air; the sky is different, the wind is different."

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O'Keeffe would later pursue her passions at Ghost Ranch near the diminutive village of Abiquiu, which became her favorite artist's retreat. Like many of her contemporaries, first she gravitated to the congenial town of Taos and the welcoming adobe owned by Mabel Dodge Luhan.

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A decade earlier, Luhan had decamped from New York to New Mexico; before that, a freewheeling lifestyle had her alternating between New York and Europe as she embraced, then shed, a succession of husbands and lovers.

While living in Florence, Italy, Mabel Dodge had renovated the elegant fifteenth-century Villa Curonia, first occupied by the Medici family. There she established an avant-garde salon, where the bisexual Mabel enjoyed a brief dalliance with Gertrude Stein. Her invitation to Stein had read, "Please come down here soon--the house is full of pianists, painters, pederasts, prostitutes, and peasants. Great material."

Later, as she presided over her legendary Greenwich Village salon in New York, Mabel wrote her first published article, which compared Stein's use of language with Picasso's use of paint. Nevertheless, it was her journey to New Mexico that heralded a new beginning: "My life broke in two right then, and I entered into the second half, a new world that replaced all the ways that I had known with others, more strange and terrible and sweet than any I had ever been able to imagine."

Mabel found herself drawn to Taos, an artists' colony and venerable village that grew up just a mile from Taos Pueblo, the 1000-year-old multi-level pueblo believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the U.S.

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Vicki Leon, author of over 35 nonfiction books on women's history, ancient history, and travel, along with pictorial books for younger readers on wildlife and earth's fragile habitats, lives on the California coast but often returns to her favorite (more...)

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