SANTA FE, N. Mex. — The Ralph T. Coe Center for the Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, recently opened its Project Space, a vast warehouse-like annex near its headquarters south of downtown. In alignment with their organizational mission to create awareness, education, and appreciation of Indigenous arts, Bess Murphy, the Coe’s creative director, enlisted two local artists, Eliza Naranjo Morse (Santa Clara Pueblo) and Jamison Chas Banks (Seneca-Cayuga), for its inaugural project. The two artists envisioned a community center, and they invited members of Ventana de Vida, a retirement community a few minutes’ walk from the Coe, to gather at the Project Space regularly to create and talk. Many residents had converted parts of their living quarters into art studios, so they had plenty to contribute and discuss.
Banks and Naranjo Morse envisioned Giving Growth as a response to the loneliness and forced hibernation brought on by the pandemic. The project is a call to action borne from our collective loss, an acknowledgment of the centrality of relationships that are vital to our own well-being. Many people were deprived of care during the pandemic, as many in their old age, even before Covid, were lacking in that same care, as Anglo-American culture often disregards or downplays the needs of elders, the validity of their daily lives.
As meetings progressed, the group of elders, along with Naranjo Morse, Banks, and Murphy, started planning an exhibition that would include artwork by those Ventana de Vida residents who wanted to contribute. Naranjo Morse and Banks also felt that in addition to fostering intergenerational relationships, they wanted to encourage a richer sense of place for the residents. Both the Coe and Ventana de Vida are on Pacheco Street, a fairly nondescript section of office parks and other commercial buildings in midtown Santa Fe. Using donations from Reunity Resources, a local non-profit committed to sustainable agriculture, they built raised beds at the Coe and at Ventana de Vida, planting squash, corn, chilis, and flowers. The residents of Ventana de Vida in turn offered their own extensive gardening experience, and the beds became a hub of activity and collaboration for the group.
When I visited the Coe Center in late July, zinnias had just begun to bloom in the raised beds, and deep yellow squash blossoms peeked out from viny tendrils. I walked with Banks as he used a long hose to water each one. A woman from Ventana de Vida and I began chatting. She had lived in California before settling in New Mexico, and we talked about what grows here and not there, two desert climates unforgiving to many plants. To garden in New Mexico, as I’ve learned since becoming dedicated to my own flowers and vegetables during Covid, is to become acquainted with death. The sun, nurturing at sea level, becomes punishing at 7,000 feet; most supposedly sun-loving plants will shrivel and burn with more than a few hours of direct sunlight.
Inside the Project Space, we sat at tables with watercolor kits. Everyone dabbled, painting abstract patterns or still lifes from objects in the room. Talk turned to the neighborhood, which runs along part of the Rail Trail, a walk/bike path parallel to the railroad tracks that snake through town. Someone noticed that a mural was defaced; they joked that their anonymous friend, a prolific painter whose works in various styles were stacked against one wall, should repair it. Or maybe it wasn’t a joke — the anonymous painter, who is about 90, could do it, and probably stealthily. Another Ventana artist, Charmaine Quintana, asked everyone to save their seltzer cans, because she planned to repurpose the purple grape color in one of her sculptures. She showed me photos of works-in-progress on her phone. A couple of them were memorials to her deceased pets, and I immediately thought about my three cats, my multi-species family.
A few weeks later, I arrived at Naranjo Morse’s home on Santa Clara Pueblo, just outside Española, at 7 am. As I drove north the rising sun had illuminated the pink mesas in the distance. On land near her home, as well as the houses of her parents, aunt, and cousin, neat rows of flowers, about thirty yards long, glinted in the sunlight. Eliza had sowed the zinnias, marigolds, and bachelor buttons in May. She greeted me in the yard with coffee, and we chatted about Giving Growth It had been more work than she first anticipated, and she wondered aloud whether she should simply have made some paintings to hang in the space instead of taking on such a complex, multifaceted project. I wondered to myself at the comparison. I had seen enough at this point to know that what she and Banks had created was at once deeper, more alive, and yet more ephemeral than a traditional art object.
Soon, Banks and Murphy arrived. A few more friends showed up, too. We split into two groups and started at each end of the crop, cutting the mature flowers, sorting and balancing the marigolds and zinnias in separate buckets. Recent rains kept the air cool, and as a collective we made quick work of the harvest.
Later that week, visitors gathered at the Coe Center for the opening of Giving Growth. Round winter squash hung over the sides of the raised beds, and corn stalks shimmered in the late afternoon sun. At the entrance to the space, I chatted briefly with Ron Kaino and Yolanda Carbajal, residents of Ventana de Vida. Kaino has been carving and playing Andean end-blown flutes made of carrizo cane from southern New Mexico, a skill he honed over decades of study. He played some songs while Yolanda recounted her advice to a friend who was learning to play the instrument, which has confounded traditional flautists: “just keep trying, don’t give up, and one day you’re going to make a sound and you’re on your way.”
One of the galleries, next to a room displaying objects from the permanent collections, held works by other Ventana elders. Quintana’s sculptures made from repurposed materials were there, intricately curled and constructed, paired with notes to her lost loved ones. Robert Francis “Mudman” Johnson’s contribution included a small tableau of rocks and a worn greeting card. Peeking inside the card, I could make out the sentence, “I love the we I’ve come to be.” A selection of the anonymous painter’s hyper-color abstractions hung on one wall. Cecilia Gordan’s collages and paintings displayed her facility with multiple styles. Another abstract painting, paired with a variety of lively painted rocks by Sukha, hung next to a detailed still life by S. E. Smith.
As I walked into the Project Space, my eyes adjusted to the dark and focused on dozens of small cups dotting the floor, each one holding a bouquet from our harvest. Scores of battery-powered tea candles were the only sources of light in the darkest corners of the room — constellations of tiny stars. In the center hung Banks’s four screenprints of full moons, one placed symbolically at each of the cardinal directions: an icy-blue, winter full moon in the north; an orange summer moon in 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 for this mini-cosmos. I sat on one of the benches near the moons and watched visitors enter the hushed space, wander through the darkness, take a flower, and carry it with them. I chatted with a woman about the prints, and we each shared our indelible memories of watching a full moon rise.
I’ve often thought that 2022, the first year that many of us have felt comfortable enough to resume some of our socializing, our occupation of public space, is the year that we have all begun to see and understand the ways in which we have been changed, damaged by the pandemic. But surrounded by the glinting lights and the seasonal full moons, watching people kneel to examine the small mound of earth, I understood also that this is the time for our collective healing, an opportunity for us to come together and take care of one another after years of neglect and loss.