In Santa Fe, artists and retirees unite to fight loneliness

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View of the exterior of the Ralph T. Coe Center for the Arts project space through one of the Give growth raised vegetable gardens

SANTA FE, N. Mex. – The Ralph T. Coe Center for the Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, recently opened its Project Space, a sprawling warehouse-like annex near its headquarters south of downtown. In keeping with their organizational mission to raise awareness, education and appreciation of Indigenous arts, Bess Murphy, the Coe’s creative director, hired two local artists, Eliza Naranjo Morse (Santa Clara Pueblo) and Jamison Chas Banks (Seneca-Cayuga ), for his inaugural project. The two artists imagined a community center and invited members of Ventana de Vida, a retirement community a few minutes walk from the Coe, to meet regularly at Project Space to create and discuss. Many residents had converted parts of their homes into art studios, so they had a lot to contribute and discuss.

Banks and Naranjo Morse considered Give growth in response to the loneliness and forced hibernation caused by the pandemic. The project is a call to action born out of our collective loss, a recognition of the centrality of relationships that are vital to our own well-being. Many people have been deprived of care during the pandemic, as many in their old age, even before Covid, lacked that same care, as Anglo-American culture often ignores or downplays the needs of elders, the validity of their daily lives.

Partial view of artwork installation in the Ralph T. Coe Center for the Arts gallery by members of the Ventana de Vida Seniors Community (2022)

As the meetings progressed, the group of alumni, along with Naranjo Morse, Banks, and Murphy, began planning an exhibit that would include artwork from Ventana de Vida residents who wished to contribute. Naranjo Morse and Banks also felt that in addition to fostering intergenerational relationships, they wanted to encourage a richer sense of belonging for residents. The Coe and Ventana de Vida are both on Pacheco Street, a fairly nondescript section of office parks and other commercial buildings in downtown Santa Fe. Thanks to donations from Reunity Resources, a local nonprofit organization lucrative committed to sustainable agriculture, they built raised beds in Coe and Ventana de Vida, planting squash, corn, peppers and flowers. The people of Ventana de Vida in turn offered their own gardening experience and the flowerbeds became a center of activity and collaboration for the group.

When I visited the Coe Center in late July, the zinnias had just started to bloom in the raised beds and dark yellow squash blossoms were popping out of the viny tendrils. I walked with Banks as he used a long hose to hose everyone down. A woman from Ventana de Vida and I started talking. She had lived in California before moving to New Mexico, and we talked about what grows here and not there, two unforgiving desert climates for many plants. Gardening in New Mexico, as I’ve learned since devoting myself to my own flowers and vegetables during Covid, is getting to know death. The sun, nourishing at sea level, becomes punitive at 7,000 feet; most plants that are supposed to love the sun will shrivel and burn with more than a few hours of direct sunlight.

Inside Project Space, we sat at tables with watercolor kits. Everyone tried their hand, painting abstract patterns or still lifes from objects in the room. The conversation turned to the neighborhood, which runs along part of the Rail Trail, a bike path/boardwalk that runs parallel to the train tracks that meander through the city. Someone noticed that a mural was degraded; they joked that their anonymous friend, a prolific painter whose works of various styles were piled up against a wall, should fix it. Or maybe it wasn’t a joke – the anonymous painter, who is around 90, could do it, and probably stealthily. Another Ventana artist, Charmaine Quintana, asked everyone to save their cans of seltzer, as she planned to reuse the purple color of the grape in one of her sculptures. She showed me photos of work in progress on her phone. A few of them were memorials to his deceased pets, and I immediately thought of my three cats, my multi-species family.

Partial view of artwork installation in the Ralph T. Coe Center for the Arts gallery by members of the Ventana de Vida Seniors Community (2022)

A few weeks later, I arrived at Naranjo Morse’s house in Santa Clara Pueblo, just outside Española, at 7 a.m. As I drove north, the rising sun had illuminated the pink mesas in the distance. On a piece of land near her home, as well as her parents’, aunt’s and cousin’s houses, pretty rows of flowers, about thirty meters long, glistened in the sun. Eliza had sown the zinnias, marigolds and bachelor’s buttons in May. She greeted me in the yard with a coffee and we talked about Give growth It had taken more work than she had originally anticipated, and she wondered aloud if she shouldn’t have just made a few paintings to hang in space instead of taking on such a complex project. and multi-faceted. I wondered about the comparison. I had seen enough by this point to know that what she and Banks had created was both deeper, more alive and yet more ephemeral than a traditional art object.

Soon Banks and Murphy arrived. A few other friends also showed up. We split into two groups and started at each end of the grow, cutting off mature flowers, sorting and balancing marigolds and zinnias in separate buckets. Recent rains kept the air fresh and as a collective we quickly got to work on the harvest.

Later that week, visitors gathered at the Coe Center for the opening of Give growth. Round winter squashes hung from the sides of raised beds and corn stalks glinted in the late afternoon sun. At the entrance to the space, I spoke briefly with Ron Kaino and Yolanda Carbajal, residents of Ventana de Vida. Kaino carved and played Andean end-blown flutes made of carrizo cane from southern New Mexico, a skill he honed over decades of study. He played a few songs while Yolanda shared his advice to a friend who was learning to play the instrument, which baffled traditional flautists: “Keep trying, don’t give up, and one day you’ll make a sound and you are on your way.

Eliza Naranjo Morse (Santa Clara Pueblo) and Jamison Chās Banks (Seneca-Cayuga), “Giving Growth” (2022), installation with screen printing on fabric, freshly harvested flowers, tealights, earth and micaceous clay, variable dimensions

One of the galleries, next to a room displaying objects from the permanent collections, housed works by other Ventana alumni. Quintana’s sculptures made from repurposed materials were there, coiled and intricately constructed, paired with notes to his lost loved ones. Robert Francis “Mudman” Johnson’s contribution included a small painting of rocks and a worn greeting card. Glancing inside the card, I could make out the phrase: “I love the us I have become”. A selection of hyper-colored abstractions by the anonymous painter hung on one wall. Cecilia Gordan’s collages and paintings show her ease with multiple styles. Another abstract painting, paired with a variety of animated painted rocks by Sukha, hangs alongside a detailed still life by SE Smith.

Upon entering the project space, my eyes adjusted to the darkness and focused on dozens of small cups dotting the floor, each containing a bouquet of our harvest. Dozens of battery-powered tealights were the only sources of light in the darkest corners of the room – constellations of tiny stars. In the center hung Banks’ four serigraphs of full moons, one symbolically placed in each of the cardinal directions: an icy blue winter full moon to the north; an orange summer moon to the south; a neutral-colored Equinox Moon in the west and a white Equinox Moon in the east.

In the center of the square, a perfect half-sphere of earth from Naranjo Morse’s garden formed the center of gravity of this mini-cosmos. I sat on one of the benches near the moons and watched visitors enter the hushed space, stroll through the darkness, pick up a flower, and take it with them. I chatted with a woman about the footprints, and we each shared our indelible memories of watching a full moon rise.

I’ve often thought that 2022, the first year many of us felt comfortable enough to resume some of our socializing, our occupation of public space, is the year we all started to see and understand how we have changed, damaged by the pandemic. But surrounded by the twinkling lights and seasonal full moons, watching people kneel to examine the little mound of earth, I also understood that this was a time for our collective healing, an opportunity for us to come together and to care for each other after years of neglect and loss.

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