Ranchos de Taos Church

The day was ending as I slowly drove home to Santa Fe. The stormy sky had brought a deluge intermingled with frozen rain and hail. A break in the downpour came as I was passing the village of Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico.

In the plaza there sits the San Francisco de Asis Mission Church which dates back to 1772. This church is one of the most painted, drawn, and photographed buildings in New Mexico. It is an elegant structure in both form and shape, crafted from the earth it sits on. Over the decades, I have probably passed by the Ranchos Church several hundred times. On some occasions I have stopped to admire and walk around, and at times have attempted to take photos. It is always worth the view as I pass by.

On this late afternoon as I turned into the plaza, the light became delicate and even, the sky above glowed softly with spirit, and the soil was rich in color from the rain revealing the soul force of the earth. At this moment it was my good fortune to have the plaza all to myself with not a single soul or creature around. It was time to make another attempt to capture the magic and splendor of this special place. The rain had slowed to a drizzle. With camera in hand I got out of my car. About 8 exposures into the process the thunder began to rumble, and the rains came. Returning to the car, I dried off my camera and myself, and sat in silence watching the light show in the sky above the church and listening to the rain. It was a sublime moment. Sitting there I began to contemplate the age and the antiquity of this spot. I remembered something my friend Rodolfo had once told me as we walked through the city of Rome. He explained how ancient civilizations are stacked up one upon another in his age-old city. It was all dust on top of dust. Contemporary buildings built on foundations of vanished structures from thousands of years ago. I began to wonder what was under the Ranchos Church and the history of this site. What cultures were here going back through time?

Back in the studio as I began to work, I pondered Rodolfo’s words and the perspective they brought to the experience of that stormy afternoon. I saw the space that filled the landscape flowing into the canopy of a dream like sky, and then beyond into the universe, and eternity. The design that is integrated into the soil of the church foreground is Anasazi, photographed from a water jar that dates back about one thousand years. I began to picture cultures, peoples, and time marching on, transforming what was once one thing into something now very different. And all of it merging, combining, vibrating into the present moment, and taking form with majestic beauty as the Ranchos de Taos Church.

Smoke Spirit Dancer

Smoke Spirit Dancer “And while I stood there, I saw more than I can tell, and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.” Black Elk My family first came to New Mexico in the first half of the 1950’s. I was about 6 years old. It was a dusty and very foreign place to a kid from Florida. I still have lots of memories of those days.

When I was in my 20’s and living in Albuquerque my mom gave me a gift. She had found an Apache spirit bag in one of the last authentic trading posts of Old Town Albuquerque. She said the shopkeeper insisted that it never be opened. He said that the pouch had been imbued with magical charms and herbs by a medicine man to bring protection and healing spirit to its possessor. While holding the bag the objects inside could be felt and I would try to imagine what my fingers were feeling.

There was definitely a sense of energy. It has a necklace of fine red coral heishi stands that are attached to the soft beige leather beaded pouch which has leather fringe and dangling shells. Now decades later it has never been opened to this day. On a wintry morning this year a piece of burning incense had been placed into the bottom of one of my pueblo pots. The spirit bag was lying near the pot. I began watching the daylight piercing though the smoke rising and twirling skyward.

The vapor took the shape of a mystical dancer, almost ghost like. I started thinking about the spirit bag and the legend relayed from the shopkeeper. I wanted to know more about the pouch and was inspired to research Spirit bags. While in that process I came across some Native American quotes which led to the one above by Black Elk.

His words resonated with me. No doubt the world of spirit and the unseen forces were a constant factor in his life. Black Elk was what was known by his Oglala Lakota Sioux people as a wičh ša wakȟ ŋ, a medicine holy man. Most likely it was someone like Black Elk who assembled the spirit pouch my mom had given me. The thought of seeing the unseen inspired the making of “Smoke Spirit Dancer” For several days I waited with my camera set up as the morning light would pass through the rising smoke.

After days of trying, I became partial to one image that was captured. The spiraling plume had taken a form that seemed to be a dancer. The vision in my mind now needed a night sky and a sliver moon. The quest for those began and finally all were gathered and assembled over the months ahead. So here is Smoke Spirit Dancer, an homage to the great unseen mystery and dance of life we are all in