Restored frescoes at the Coronado Historic Site evoke anew the sacred mysteries of the Puebloan past.
NEED TO KNOW
Coronado Historic Site 485 Kuaua Road, Bernalillo. Take I-25 to exit 242, then head west on U.S. 550 for 1.7 miles. Open 8:30 a.m.–5 p.m. Wed.–Mon. Closed New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Admission $3; children 16 and under free. Tours An enthusiastic crew of rangers and docents take visitors into the painted kiva. Brian Gilmore is there most Sundays. Go to nmmonuments.org/coronado for details.
Exhibitions March beckons the renewal of spring, and galleries,museums, and creative institutions throughout the state are gearing up for the seasonaltransition to a fresh batch of outstanding artopenings, events, and exhibitions.
At SITE Santa Fe, FEAST: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art (through May 19) continues to explore the concept of the shared meal through the work of more than 30 international artists and artist groups. The Museum of Contemporary Native Arts examines the work of New Mexico– based mixed-media artists Sallyann Paschall (Cherokee) and Alex Peña (Comanche) in The Place Between (through March 31). MoCNA also explores contemporary printmaking with a group exhibition titled ARTiculations in Print, alongside a selection of prints by the late Inuk artist Kenojuak Ashevak (through March 31).
Throughout the month of March, Santa Fe Creative Tourism presents DIY Santa Fe, an opportunity for visitors to engage in hands-on art activities and workshops with more than 200 nationally recognized artists and craftspeople. From family-geared activities such as “Family Clay Play” to intensives focusing on everything from photography to printmaking, there’s something for budding artists of all ages and experience levels.
Also in Santa Fe, the Museum of International Folk Art opens The Wooden Menagerie: A New Mexico Wood Carving Tradition (March 2–February 15, 2015), which highlights the historic roots of the state’s woodcarvers with numerous examples of the craft from the 20th century. On March 7, the Diffusion Annual Retrospective Exhibition, which celebrates unconventional photographic processes and works, kicks off with a public opening reception at the Verve Gallery of Photography.
Exhibitions at the Harwood Museum of Art, in Taos (through May 4), concentrate on a handful of artists with strong ties to New Mexico: Art for a Silent Planet: Blaustein, Elder, and Long, a look at the most recent work by three mid-career northern New Mexico artists; Charles Mattox: Poetry in Motion, works on paper by the multidisciplinary artist, whose career spanned early experi-
ences with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) through the first generation of computer-generated art; and Ken Price: Slow and Steady Wins the Race, Works on Paper (1962–2010), the inaugural retrospective of the sculptor’s lesser-known works on paper.
In Ratón, the Old Pass Gallery marks Women’s History Month with The Art of the New Mexican Woman (March 1–31), a group exhibition of work by local artists. The Riverside Nature Center, overlooking the wetlands in Farmington, presents an exhibit of nature and wildlife photographs taken at Animas and Berg Parks (March 4–April 19).
Brian Gilmore pauses outside the visitor center at Coronado Historic Site and plucks a red-and-black shard from the sandy ground. Setting it into my hand, he says, “You’re holding a 500-year-old piece of pottery. Think about the pot this came from. Did a mother put beans and squash into it to feed her family?”
He swings an arm past a low-slung grid of adobe bricks outlining the foundations of what once was the bustling pueblo of Kuaua. “This was a major structure where people lived and thrived for 400 years. I see the little kids playing in the plaza, the dogs and the turkeys, the women grinding corn, the men in the kiva.”
With that, he’s hit on the main reason I’ve come here: to get down into that kiva. Since its discovery, in the heart of the Depression, it’s fueled speculation, tourism, and mysticism. Gilmore, a retired Navy man, became enchanted with the historic site three and a half years before the kiva’s legendary painted murals were painstakingly restored. Visitors weren’t even allowed into it, so as a newly recruited docent, he had plenty of time to collect tales to tell about who lived here, how they may have worshipped, and why they disappeared.
With the kiva newly reopened in August of last year, his bounty of stories finally found eager listeners, like me. In the past, I was more likely one of the many motorists zipping past Coronado’s discreet “turn here” sign on the four-lane road connecting Rio Rancho to Bernalillo. Little did I know what wonders awaited.
“This,” says Ranger John Cutler, “is the hidden secret of New Mexico.”
Outside, a six-rung latilla ladder rises to the top of the kiva. Jutting from a roof hatch is another ladder of 17 rungs that carry us down and down, into the underground darkness. As my eyes adjust, earth-toned images emerge from the square walls. Eagles. A headless kachina. A game animal. Canyon swallows. Splays of black, white, and brown dots connect the images. Some of the dots are seeds, others represent raindrops. Together they underscore the gifts of plenty that people scratching out a life in the desert prayed for through ritual chants and dances.
Kuaua was one of several Tiwa pueblos once scattered between Albuquerque and Bernalillo. Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and his expedition used them as a winter headquarters in 1540. Warfare, disease, and drought are among the explanations for why they soon disappeared. Over time, wind-blown sand filled their kivas.
When archaeologists stumbled across the murals in the 1930s, they became players in an Indiana Jones–caliber drama. The paintings’ salvation owes thanks to human ingenuity, New Deal money, and the leadership of Edgar Lee Hewett, a founder of the Museum of New Mexico. College students helped archaeologists remove the murals, pile them onto trucks and inch them 20 miles south to the University of New Mexico.
There, conservators peeled away 17 layers of paintings—decades of ceremonial prayers—and fit them onto solid backings. Most are now stored at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, in Santa Fe, although a few are on display in Coronado’s visitor center.
Hewett wanted to create a place where people could learn more about Native life before Spanish contact. In 1938, he hired Ma Pe Wi (Velino Shije Herrera), a Zia Pueblo artist who had painted murals at a northern New Mexico ranch and would later paint more at the Department of the Interior, in Washington, D.C. Ma Pe Wi studied the original murals’ shapes and colors, then taught himself on the fly to paint in true fresco (buon fresco) by applying pure pigments to wet lime plaster.
“We’re in awe of how he did it,” said Connie Silver, the conservator who oversaw the murals’ renovation. “This final layer of plaster is very, very thin, and you have to do it in sections because at the end of each day, the lime plaster is so dry that paint won’t take. The work he did was unbelievable.”
In 1940, Coronado State Monument, now called Coronado Historic Site, opened for public viewing, quickly becoming a star of the state’s museum system. It boasted the only painted kiva open to the public, and demostrated how closely Native peoples tied their lives to the earth.
In his posthumous 1996 memoir, A Cowboy Writer in New Mexico, author John L. Sinclair, a longtime caretaker of the site (see his 1947 article), captured the reaction of a Santo Domingo Puebloan: “These pictures around here— they are everything that we believe. They show us how to live. To us, these paintings are everything to live for.”
Beyond that, explaining each one’s purpose is a game of what Gilmore calls “informed speculation.” Elders of other Pueblos revere the murals as a sacred expression of their ancestors and so decline to explain possible meanings or purposes. Visitors are welcome, but photography is not.
Over time, the kiva suffered. The ceiling hatch I climbed through with Brian Gilmore let in rain. Puddles seeped into adobe walls. Visitors, who once entered at will, built sooty campfires or added graffiti so offensive that rangers cut it out and filled the spaces with concrete, the archenemy of adobe.
In 2005, the kiva slumped into the endangered column. The next year, the public was locked out, and folks like Silver, a Vermont-based conservator, were hired. A seven-year reconstruction included replacing the roof’s foot-thick slab of concrete with a more forgiving version. John Cutler chipped away an ill-fated paint job from 1972 and taught himself how to mix and apply lime plaster. Silver and her colleague, master fresco artist Henry Pospieszalski, settled in for long stretches of underground painting.
“It’s an extraordinary work of art, as well as a sacred space,” Silver said. “You almost have the sense of the kachinas helping you out.”
Visitors can now enter only with a ranger or docent, in order to ensure that the murals are protected and that visitors reap the knowledge of folks like Gilmore.
We stand on the dirt floor and ponder the purpose of the painted birds—to carry seeds for planting or to carry messages to the heavens? “If I’m the cacique, the leader,” he says, “I’m going to pray for rain, for food, for a bountiful year. I see all of this as an attempt by those people to explain and understand the world around them.”
We spend a half hour or so trading theories on mysteries that only deepen. Eventually, I climb back into the bright light just as six new visitors arrive. I wander down a trail and, in the growing distance, hear Gilmore talking with his new guests on the roof.
“Are you familiar with the Pueblo Indians?” he asks.
“Just a little,” one answers.
“Well,” he says, “let me tell you a little bit…” ✜
Kate Nelson is an award-winning journalist, author, and marketing manager for the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors. On her hikes around the Placitas area, near Bernalillo, she sometimes comes across shards of Pueblo pottery—and leaves them in place.