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Santa Fe’s Art Colony

New Mexico is renowned for its natural beauty, clear skies, and soft pastel landscapes. It has inspired local artists for generations, and drawn artists of all the creative arts from around the globe. The state boasts several “art colonies” and numerous artists’ studios, both large and small. The arts and culture industries are estimated to have a $5.6 billion impact on the state’s economy, as estimated by the state’s Department of Cultural Affairs.

Artistic communities, (think Left Bank in Paris), thrived in Europe for many years, but in the United States art colonies only began in the early 20th century, starting out chiefly in New England, and rural New York. Some colonies were planned and purposely created, while others sprang up as like- minded individuals and friends “discovered” a particular inspirational place. Such was the Santa Fe art colony of the early part of the last century, and the local artistic community thrives here today, as well as all across New Mexico.

The arid New Mexico climate brought many individuals seeking respite from tuberculosis, (the so-called “Lungers”), and many among them discovered or re-discovered their artistic muse in our unique landscape. Painter, and Zozobra creator Will Shuster came to Santa Fe in search of help with his tuberculosis, acquired after being gassed in World War I, and he later became one of the members of Los Cinco Pintores. Renowned artist and advocate of Pueblo Revival Style architecture Carols Vierra also first came as a “Lunger”, and spent time at the famous Sunmount Sanatorium in Santa Fe.

Painters, writers, poets and playwrights lived, socialized and worked together in Santa Fe. As with any group friendships were formed and dissolved, and individuals moved away and sometimes returned. There were also famous drop- ins such as D.H. Lawrence, Robert Frost, and Carl Sandburg who sometimes stirred up rivalries and petty jealousies among the “local” cognoscenti. Harvard educated Witter Bynner had a rest cure in Santa Fe when he was exhausted from work and travel, and later became one of the regular Santa Fe art crowd. A poet by trade, he wrote the play Cake skewering Mabel Dodge Lujan, who was jealous over D.H.Lawrence’s friendship with Bynner.

Photo of D.H. Lawrence
D.H. Lawrence in a photo taken by Witter Bynner, at Bynner’s home in Santa Fe in 1922 (POG Photo Archives #200135)

After a joint trip to Mexico Lawrence had based a character in The Plumed Serpent on the Santa Fe poet. Bynner was purported to have poured beer over Robert Frost’s head when Frost visited Santa Fe, apparently in a disagreement over another poet’s work, and Bynner’s jealousy of Frost’s success. Bynner published several volumes of poetry, and a prose non-fiction work on his friendship and travels with D. H. Lawrence, Journey With Genius: Reflections and Reminiscences Concerning the D. H. Lawrences (1951), but only his translation of The Way of Life: According to Laotzu is still in print (Perseus Book Group, 2015). While not considered one of Lawrence’s masterpieces, The Plumed Serpent is still available in print (Wordsworth Classics, 1999). Bynner never became a household name like Robert Frost, but the Library of Congress still administers the Witter Bynner annual Fellows program for the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry, established in Santa Fe in 1927.


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