If we had to name Santa Fe’s top draw for us, it would be Canyon Road. We have collected art from around the world as mementos of our travel adventures. Yet, compared to many other art communities we’ve visited, Canyon Road stands apart. Not only because of the number or variety of galleries, but it’s the robust history. Walking down the road, you can almost feel the passion and the determination of pioneering artists who turned a dirt road lined with mud huts into a worldwide destination for art lovers.
The Canyon Road Arts District is Santa Fe’s oldest and most historic district. Set in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the narrow winding road is lined with old adobes filled with great art. It’s home to over 80 galleries offering an eclectic mix of everything from vintage Native American crafts to contemporary abstracts and sculptures.
We had explored Canyon Road before, roaming from gallery to gallery. Each time Ron was inspired to get out his paints when he returned to our San Diego home. On this trip, we wanted to learn more about Canyon Road and its current residents. To do that, we turned to Santa Fe Art Tours founder and lead tour guide, Elaine Ritchel.
Our guide, Elaine, was a perfect selection. She fell in love with art at five when she was first awed by Monet and van Gogh. Today that passion is informed by an education in art history and experience as an art educator in the U.S. and abroad. She was charming and fun as she helped us hone our ability to see, describe and assess art.
As we moved from one gallery to another, Elaine shared with us the story of Canyon Road.
Canyon Road began as a rural neighborhood of small farms along an old Indian trail. There are still a few adobes built by early Spanish settlers dating back to the 1750s. Early Santa Feans traveled the “Road of the Canyon” to gather firewood in the mountain forests.
Artists began visiting Santa Fe in the 1880s drawn to the natural beauty, exotic subjects found in pueblos and Spanish villages, and clean dry mountain air that eased respiratory illnesses. The painter Gerald Cassidy was the first artist to live on Canyon Road. He arrived with severe pneumonia, fully recovered, and in 1912 bought a home and studio at 1000 Canyon Road.
In 1916, William Henderson, a successful painter, and poet Alice Henderson moved to Santa Fe because of her tuberculosis. She recovered, and they bought a small adobe house just south of Canyon Road. They built a home on adjacent property and used the first as a painting studio and an office for his new construction business focused on Santa Fe-style homes and furniture, that soon dominated the neighborhood.
By 1919, Santa Fe’s reputation drew east coast artists to visit and then move, including New Yorkers and established artists, John Sloan and Randall Davey. Both worked and lived in Canyon Road homes and studios for decades. These artists cemented Santa Fe’s reputation as a significant art colony. A wave of talented artists followed them.
This brings us to Los Cinco Pintores.
One artist influenced by pioneer Santa Fe artists was 22-year-old Fremont Ellis. He moved to Santa Fe in 1919 where he made friends with four other newly arrived artists, Josef Bakos, Walter Mruk, Willard Nash, and Will Shuster. They called themselves the Los Cinco Pintores or The Five Painters. The five – all in their 20s – loved the artistic freedom and energy of Santa Fe.
The five amigos decide to build their own homes — a row of small adobes on Canyon Road. Except for Bakos, who had some carpentry experience, they had no building skills. The story goes that Shuster and Ellis were building the adobe walls of their homes when Shuster noticed that Ellis’ wall was leaning precariously. He ran to help, only to turn around as his wall crumbled into a pile of adobe bricks. Amused locals called the young artists “five little nuts in five mud huts.”
They were fun-loving nuts who loved to spend evenings together at each other’s adobes. It’s said that they made moonshine in their bathtubs during Prohibition. But, they were serious about their art, and in 1921; they held their first exhibition at the Art Museum in Santa Fe. Los Cinco Pintores eventually became a force in American impressionism in the first half of the twentieth century. They also served as cheerleaders for Canyon Road’s growing art colony.
(We couldn’t have written the above story without paraphrasing Mark Sublette’s excellent history. For more, visit the Canyon Road Arts website at https://www.canyonroadarts.com/the-history-of-canyon-road/ .)
During our tour as we stopped at five galleries, we relied on Elaine’s method of viewing and understanding art that she calls the “Art of Looking.” And indeed it works, whether eyeing a century-old woven blanket, an abstract landscape or sculpture crafted like origami. The galleries she chose were outstanding examples of the broad mix of art here, and as our two hours together drew to a close, we felt a new appreciation for this historic art colony that remains as vibrant today as a century ago.
Besides the several tours Elaine and her team lead, she also hosts a six-week online seminar called “The Language of Art.” It sells out quickly. Learn more at https://santafearttours.com/ .