Caught in Roswell's Orbit

This quirky city’s UFO-related claim to fame often steals the thunder from one of the most vibrant art hubs in the Southwest.

The first thing that comes to mind when you hear “Roswell” is probably not karaoke. Yet there I found myself on a Saturday night, in Billy Ray’s, a spacious restaurant and bar memorable for its retro, chrome-bedazzled interior. To kick back in Billy Ray’s is to fall back in time. The building is plain on the outside, so you’d never guess that, inside, The Love Boat crew would not seem out of place if they walked in for some off-duty hijinks. It’s the offbeat heart of Roswell.

In a few moments, I’m going to go up to the front of the room and sing. Am I known for having a good voice? No. But that’s the quirky magic of this city. I’m finding that Roswell is a place where you can give your usual self the slip and discover new strengths (or confirm old weaknesses), without getting hung up on big-city-level expectations—and end up someplace unexpected, further along than before.

I didn’t head down to Roswell to sing karaoke. I came because I’d heard it had a great art scene and good restaurants. Dr. Frances Levine, director of the New Mexico History Museum, tipped me off, and she’s hardly a slouch in the sensibility department. As with the sing-and-let-sing karaoke vibe in Billy Ray’s, artists have long enjoyed a low-pressure, collegial atmosphere in which to create, and it shows in the way that art is available here not only to collectors, but to people who follow the call to pick up a brush or a handful of clay.

Roswell is right smack dab in the center of the southeastern quadrant of New Mexico, east of Ruidoso and a two-hour drive from Albuquerque. Incorporated in 1891, Roswell’s ranching and sheep-raising roots branched out when the town became a significant railroad stop, which allowed the community to export their products and receive goods and materials from afar. The venerable New Mexico Military Institute, a top four-year military high school and junior college, also opened in 1891, imprinting on the place a cultural influence and an architectural presence that continues to this day.

The first time I visited, in 1997, on a road trip to Carlsbad, Roswell was not best known for its all-American history. Let’s put it this way: When the café I stopped at was fairly encrusted with UFO paraphernalia, it didn’t surprise me. Although I was then visiting from the East Coast, Roswell was already firmly on my radar as the UFO capital of the country. An alleged 1947 alien crashdown near the town has long been a source of speculation and debate for buffs, but mentions of Roswell on the cult TV series The X-Files increased chatter to the level of pop-culture familiarity. This was further amplified by another TV show, Roswell, which ran from 1999 to 2002, and focused on three human/alien hybrids who lived in Roswell and passed as normal teens. It put Roswell on the tourism map, and spawned UFO festivals, a museum, and many key rings, T-shirts, and other merchandise. But it overshadowed an art scene that had been building since the 1960s.

Roswell’s Main Street no longer has the Old Wild West look or adobe architecture of many southern New Mexico central thoroughfares. The stretches of storefronts along its wide expanse are punctuated by the swoopy deco silhouette of the bus station, the handsome beaux arts county courthouse with its dome of green terra-cotta tile, and the New Mexico Military Institute’s imposing, crenellated buildings, surrounded by manicured campus grounds.

We began the weekend as witnesses to Roswell’s Veterans Day parade. Veterans watched from benches or drove slowly by, waving flags from car windows. Kids waved at us from floats, Girl Scouts handed out flags, NMMI cadets marched smartly, and high school marching bands played their way down the wide avenue. It could have been Anytown, USA, save for the UFO-embroidered fezzes worn by a swarm of grinning Shriners whizzing by on motorized trikes. Images of UFOs are the ristras of Roswell. They decorate streetlights, fast-food restaurants, concrete walls, anything you can slap a sticker or paint a mural on. But they’re far from Roswell’s only iteration of public art.

Laurie Rufe, director of Roswell Museum and Art Center, rattled off several others, this one being the best example of Roswell’s art gestalt: “The Tree of Knowledge, in front of the Roswell Public Library, was designed by Sue Wink, and made by her and others. It’s a great example not only of artist as artist, but artist as facilitator.” The trunk of this 17-foot-tall steel-branched tree is made up of almost 3,000 mosaic tiles imprinted with words that relate to books: titles, authors, subjects, quotes. As a clay-based collaborative project that encourages further art appreciation, it represents Roswell’s art culture to a T.

“There are three reasons why Roswell’s art scene, in a rural community of 50,000 people, is so strong,” Rufe said. “One is the presence of two extraordinary museums: Roswell Museum and Art Center and the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art. The second reason is the Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program.” Established in 1967, RAIR attracts visual artists from all over the world. Along with the artists currently on one-year residencies, previous artists visit annually or semi-annually, or decide to remain in Roswell after their residencies end. And they display their work at the Anderson, teach classes, and generally pollinate the town with their creative juju.

Then there’s RMAC’s strong tradition of offering the community affordable classes in studio art, especially pottery. The Pecos Valley Potters Guild was founded in 1978 by RMAC ceramics manager Aria Finch and others. Finch is still the ceramics manager, and still the heartbeat of the ceramics community, which, Rufe says, “is huge, and played a real part in the development of Roswell’s art world.”

Finch described the first Pecos Valley Potters Guild Art Sale, in 1979, as being “Just a bunch of stuff we put in the middle of the floor, and we invited other kinds of artists to participate.”

It’s come a long way, baby. Last November, when we entered the handsome Roswell Civic Center, elegant 10-by-10-foot booths draped in black velvet enclosed the oeuvres of some 55 artists.

We strolled with the manageable throng, enjoying the wide variety of pottery on display: Debbie Cooper’s hand-thrown, potbellied mugs painted with Willy Wonka candy swirls; Charlene Willis’s black-on-white silhouette scenes reminiscent of the work of Kara Walker; and the wry, quietly opinionated work of Ben Brooks, whose mugs and pitchers revealed themselves to “not work” in ways that relationships also don’t work. For instance, a piece called No Tea for You consists of a mug and saucer set drilled with a perfectly symmetrical pattern of holes that you might not notice until you pour liquid into the mug. Given the beauty of his pottery, it was a relief to see that Brooks also offered functional versions of these clay plays on words.

Other mediums caught my attention, too: cubist art glass by Neil Abrahamson; Caroline Brooks’s ceramic-and-felted-wool rabbits with wily, wary eyes; Karen Pritchett’s old T-shirts and sweaters reinvented as on-trend sassy skirts and scarves; and Apache artist Cloudburst’s beaded jewelry. Plus, Paula Best’s skillful, aphorism-adorned collages (also available as prints and greeting cards), and recycled jewelry made by Laura Stevens Wills. I couldn’t resist one of Wills’s faintly clacking bracelets made of vintage typewriter keys. On the whole, prices were quite reasonable, especially to my Santa Fe eyes.

I introduced myself to Roswell resident and calligraphic artist Bob Phillips, who, with his wife, ceramic artist Nancy Phillips, and others, founded the Roswell Fine Arts League and its cooperative gallery 15 years ago. “What’s continuously inspiring to me as an artist in Roswell is that most who make art here don’t depend on their art to make a living. They make it for the sheer sake of creativity. There’s a certain guilelessness, a lack of affectation in artists here. It’s also not competitive or pretentious; it’s a very vibrant and supportive community.”

Phillips also mentioned RMAC’s ongoing art classes, both as a community resource and a source of inspiration for himself, who often teaches. “A lot of people retire here, and when I teach them in calligraphy workshops, they discover a different side to themselves. So many of my students never gave themselves any credit for being artistic or creative. They discover a different side to themselves, and it’s really joyful.”

At the spacious, clean-lined Roswell Museum and Art Center, two things made us smile right off the bat: The museum is free—as in always free, every day—and we were encouraged to take photos, as long as we didn’t use a flash. A gallery to the left included Victorian-era clothing, shoes, and furniture, and as we wandered through the exhibition space, we enjoyed everything from displays of locally relevant historical paintings, photographs, and ephemera (lots of nostalgia-triggering vintage baseball and football uniforms) to suits of conquistador armor and Native garb, including a vibrant red Crow dress embroidered with hundreds of elk teeth, which symbolize love and long life.

We then entered a large, dim room—a re-creation of the workshop of Robert H. Goddard, the father of space travel. Goddard spent 1930–1942 in Roswell with his team of technicians, working in secret to advance his theories and practice of rocketry. His research was made possible by a grant from the Guggenheim family—a stroke of fortune, as he and his vision were generally derided as crazy by the general public. Goddard’s progress and presence are something that Roswellians are proud of.

The re-creation is thrillingly realistic, with Goddard’s handwritten labels on drawers, a small television playing black-and-white footage of his rocket launches, and even his desk, the chair slightly askew, as if he’d stepped out for a moment. Amid the cozier touches are rocket nose cones, fully assembled rockets, large, imposing machinery, and well-worn tools.

After that trip back in time, we shot forward into large, modern, light-filled gallery spaces pleasingly dominated by the bright, sculptural art of Tucumcari-born Burqueño Eddie Domínguez, including a giant, multicolored, beaded crucifix necklace, Hope, that would fit a 30-foot-tall person just fine. (This exhibition, Where Edges Meet, will be up through May 26.) Domínguez plays with the relationships among art, domestic objects, and utility. He’s a Roswell Artist-in-Residence alum, and clay shows up prominently in his work.

I spent a moment regarding Domínguez’s Desert Rose, an open white cupboard containing dozens of white ceramic pitchers, saucers, plates, and candlesticks in an installation that could pass as a grouping of household items, were it not for the whole’s strident monochromatic quality.

The interiority of Goddard’s workshop and Domínguez’s subject matter comfortably segued us into the Roswell Antique Mall, a large, tidily organized warehouse space on Main Street. Everything from vintage magazines and telephones to tulle-covered 1950s prom dresses, jewelry, hand-tooled belts, and groovy furniture invited closer looks. It was like a huge indoor yard sale run by a neighbor with a great eye.

If the Antique Mall is Roswell’s yard sale, the Historical Center for Southeast New Mexico is its home. The 1912 yellow-brick mansion, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style, is the former home of James Phelps White, Lou Tomlinson White, and their children, a prominent ranching family with grandchildren who still live in Roswell. James and Lou met in Roswell, though both were originally from Texas. In 1881, James and two of his relatives moved their family ranching business here, and their lives were enriched by the impact of the railroad when it came to town in 1893. The house’s yellow brick from Texas, the sculpture and stained glass windows from Europe, the Stickley Mission furniture, and the piano of Circassian walnut, from Decker Brothers in New York, arrived via train, and emblematize the railroad’s sophisticating influence.

Many of the 14 rooms retain their original furnishings and art, including a childhood portrait of the Whites’ twin boys, Tom and George, who, according to the docent, used to slide down the U-shaped railing of the central stairway that connects the two floors.

Upstairs, visitors get a chance to see what an early-1900s house contained, right down to bathroom toiletries; other rooms provide visual tutorials of Victorian toys, educational materials, fashion, and household electrical items. Slightly eerie mannequins in period dress populate the rooms—in the master bathroom, a man is shaving. As we left this fascinating building, the docent pointed out where the twins’ feet made small footprints in the once-wet cement of the front porch.

Fifty-five years after the White house was built, Donald B. Anderson, a Roswell businessman and artist, dreamed up the idea of providing year-long respites for artists from all over the world. Since then, these residencies have provided five artists per year with room, board, and a stipend. What’s often referred by RAIR as the “Gift of Time” is meant to offer artists “an opportunity . . . to explore ideas in depth, to take risks, and even to fail”—which fits right in with what I’d so far encountered of Roswell’s creative ethos. Artists aren’t expected to do anything except explore ideas—they aren’t required to teach or exhibit. But produce they do, and frequently take advantage of RMAC’s offer to present solo shows. The Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art is the best place to see the accumulated legacy of RAIR artists’ output.

The low-slung, 17,000-square-foot building of pale-gray corrugated metal looked unassuming from the outside. Walking in, we fell into yet another world, this one of supersized white rooms, one flowing into another, featuring over 300 pieces of contemporary art, including the awe-inspiring, extra-large washes of color on landscape paintings created by Anderson himself. The art is arranged as if in a home—albeit a very large, eccentric one—and is not “curated” according to any conventional organizing principles. Anderson arranged them, and still does so with new pieces, going on his own instincts. One of the most recent artists in residence is Rodney Carswell, of the Santa Fe restaurant family that owns the landmark restaurant The Shed, in Santa Fe. His neat, geometric paintings were up at RMAC as well during our visit, an example of the cross-pollination that takes place between the two institutions. Alison Saar, Johnnie Winona Ross, and Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison are some of the most well-known RAIR alumni.

I moved from painting (Ann Piper’s Defloration, in which a conflicted-looking woman eats pink-frosting roses off a cake with her fingers) to sculpture (a hanging shark made, almost imperceptibly, out of a golf bag by Robbie Barber), enjoying the airy jumble, the relationships between proximate pieces, my brain pleasantly, constantly sorting work into what spoke to me powerfully and what didn’t. Easy chairs and couches are placed at intervals, providing homey perches to take in 46 years of creativity, all spawned in Roswell by artists from all over the planet.

Stephen Fleming, the RAIR’s program director, showed us around. “New York museums skim the cream off of the art scene,” he explained. “That doesn’t tell you about what was really happening in the culture. The Anderson takes a poll of a moment in art history. We have the whole range. There’s no traditional curator. It’s not ‘serious’ art—there’s no smart guy running around trying to direct attention. People can be shocked and overwhelmed, but artists love it. It’s an artist-oriented operation.”

Fleming told us that Anderson Museum art openings were essentially big community parties, with dinner provided by the museum for the attendees. We stayed for hours, fascinated by the myriad expressions of human creativity on display.

We were the earliest dinner patrons at Billy Ray’s restaurant, and Billy’s wife, Debbie Ray, welcomed us. We learned that Billy grew up in Roswell, and proposed to Debbie in the Billy Ray’s space in 1980.

Independent restaurants in towns of Roswell’s size often stick to basic Mexican food and burgers, but Billy Ray’s menu is clearly more adventuresome if still steak-centric, with dishes like Southwestern Beef Wellington and stacked steak rellenos. Jocular, friendly chef Todd Alexander came out to say hello and chat us up, to ascertain where we were from and what we were up to. Alexander trained at the five-star Arizona Biltmore under chef Michael DeMaria, who was part of the U.S. team during the 1992 Culinary Olympics. “I loved learning from him, I soaked it all up like a sponge,” he said. The playful élan of his dishes attest to that.

We ordered the stacked steak rellenos to share, as the portions are Flintstones size, and I sipped a whiskey sour. Alexander’s rellenos are composed of small towers of medallions of filet mignon, cheese, and flash-fried green chile. Another bit of playfulness showed up in the plating, in a charming trademark move of his: instead of leaving fussy squiggles on the plate, he wrote us a sour cream message on the chile: “viva new mexico mag.”

Chef Todd’s beef is local, as are his red and green chile, from nearby Graves Farm. The filet mignon more than lived up to its reputation for being incredibly, meltingly tender and flavorful.

Karaoke began at nine, and a little before that, a group of straitlaced friends filed in and got a good table. A dapper older gent in a cowboy hat and western wear stood up and sang a reedy, classic country song that gave me the shivers with its earnest perfection. A young fellow in a hoodie sweatshirt bounded around the room with the cordless mike, giving Eminem a run for his money (at least in the effort department).

The crowd grew—a local heavy-metal singer, Wilbis, and his posse arrived after a gig at the Silver Dome, a nearby warehouse space converted into a music venue with reportedly “phenomenal acoustics.” A flock of waitresses from Peppers, another restaurant, arrived for their post-shift cocktail and commiseration (and one blew us away with her Rihanna song). Other daily customers are the ranch hands and owner from Roswell’s Double Eagle Ranch, home of Mine that Bird, the winner of the 2009 Kentucky Derby.

Every patron who got up and sang a song was applauded, no matter how gifted (or giftless) their pipes. Chef Todd asked us to sing War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends” with him, and then we asked him to sing Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” with us. I felt like I was in a B movie—a good one. The only bummer was the sore neck I woke up with from flinging my hair around like Robert Plant. I didn’t turn out to be an undiscovered vocal wonder, but, as they say, es mejor saber (it’s better to know)—especially the stuff you’re inspired to learn (or confirm) while having a blast.

Need to Know

Lodging

Marriott Fairfield This recently renovated property’s lobby has a sleek mid-century vibe. The rooms sport Marimekko-inspired textiles and clean lines. We found the customer service exceptional. 1209 N. Main St.; (575) 624-1000; marriott.com

Dining

Big D’s Downtown Dive We loved the juicy, well-seared burgers; the crisp garlic-Parmesan waffle fries; and the heaped-high, appealing salads. Playful, kitschy, casual vibe. 505 N. Main St.; (575) 627-0776; bigdsdowntowndive.com

Billy Ray’s Chef Todd Alexander brings panache and inventiveness to Southwestern classics in this restaurant/lounge. Kid-friendly until 9 p.m., when the kitchen closes and it shifts into 100% bar mode. 118 E. Third St.; (575) 627-0997

Capitol Café Classic New Mexican breakfast and lunch joint near the courthouse. Classic except for their rogue green-chile sauce, which contains cream of chicken soup and melted American cheese (it’s surprisingly good). 110 W. Fourth St.; (575) 624-2111

The Cattle Baron Hearty Southwestern steak, chicken, and seafood entrées abound at this popular community restaurant and bar with a handsome, ranch-themed interior. 901-A S. Main St.; (575) 622-3311; cattlebaron.com

Cowboy Café We enjoyed huevos rancheros, chicken-fried steak, and biscuits and gravy at this bustling, plainspoken café with folksy cowboy art and Naugahyde tablecloths. 1120 E. Second St.; (505) 622-6363

El Toro Bravo Cavernous Mexican restaurant with lots of character, large velvet toreador-and-bull paintings, great homemade chips. Live local music. 102 S. Main St.; (575) 622-9280

Pecos Flavors Winery This upscale venue celebrates local wines, beers, cheeses, relishes, and other tasty homegrown items. 305 N. Main St.; (575) 627-6265; pecosflavorswinery.com

Portofino’s A standout red-sauce Italian joint in a former Pizza Hut, with both the expected (spaghetti Bolognese with rich, winey, complex sauce) and beyond. 1203 W. Second St.; (575) 625-8410

Tinnie’s Mercantile Old-school luncheonette and gift shop delivers amazing sandwiches. We enjoyed the Roswell (chicken salad, tomato, lettuce) and the Hondo (avocado, cream cheese, and crisp lettuce on Lebanese bread). The menu tempts with 19 other sandwiches, along with the option to design your own. Green-chile jelly is one of the condiment choices. 412 W. Second St.; (575) 622-2031

Shopping

Adobe Soapworks I discovered this Capitán sister act at the Pecos Valley Potters Art Sale. New Mexico Blue Corn Scrubby Soap, Prickly Pear Cactus with aloe vera, New Mexico Piñon, and the Green Chile bar are just a few of their luxe yet bargain-priced soaps. Their website is more than worth a visit. adobesoapworks.com

Roswell Antiques Mall Charmingly arranged warehouse space filled with everything from vintage buttons to credenzas. 208 N. Main St.; (575) 622-4484

Outdoors

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge Ten miles NE of downtown, these wetlands are a magnet for birders and other nature lovers. Drive, bike, or walk the six-mile loop. 4200 E. Pine Lodge Rd.; (575) 625-6755; fws.gov/southwest

Bottomless Lakes State Park Nine cliff-edged lakes stud New Mexico’s first state park, 15 miles SE of Roswell. Swimming permitted in Lea Lake only in summer. 545-A Bottomless Lakes Rd.; (575) 624-6058; emnrd.state.nm.us/SPD/bottomlesslakesstatepark.html

Arts and Culture

Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art409 E. College Blvd.; (575) 623-5600; roswellamoca.com

Historical Center for Southeast New Mexico 200 N. Lea St.; (575) 622-8333; hssnm.net

Roswell Fine Arts League Gallery 107 E. Fifth St.; (575) 625-5263; rfal.org

Roswell Museum and Art Center 100 W. 11th St.; (575) 624-6744; roswellmuseum.org