Taos was the first of a number of places where Elaine and I have lived over our long marriage that could be considered to have “Artists’ Colonies.” Taos and Bisbee, Arizona, and San Miguel de Allende, in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, come immediately to mind. I’ll deal with San Miguel later. Taos was early on.
Taos has attracted painters and writers especially for a long, long time. Books have been written about the Early Taos Painters who came and stayed because of the light. Mabel Dodge Lujan attracted writers to the area—D.H. Lawrence notably.
Taos was good for us, I think. Elaine honed her already considerable skills in the darkroom at the Taos News and her job as the only photographer at the paper put her in a position to meet people she might not otherwise have come in close contact with. And, at the same time, she always let me tag along if the event seemed of interest and I promised not to embarrass her.
Because she was/is quiet and unassuming, Elaine was the perfect person to be assigned the Taos Pueblo as her “beat” with the newspaper. She was always welcomed by tribal members and so had access to events that otherwise she might not have. For example, in the early days of what has come to be a crowded and (to me) unmanageable annual event—the Buffalo Pasture Powwow—Elaine was invited to photograph the dancers from the reviewing stand and even to enter the dance area to make images that would be inaccessible to most non-tribal people. Her Taos Pueblo Dance Series that resulted from our time there is, to my mind, some of her finest black and white work to date. At one time she had a contract with a publisher in Paris who proposed to do a fine edition of the dance photos with my accompanying text. Sad to say, that publisher canceled the contract when my then agent told him that I was not giving him the rights to my second novel, Bad Medicine. But more about the French later. To this day we have good friends at Taos Pueblo. We don’t have good friends in France.
The newspaper was how we came to know many of the artists in Taos. Navajo artist R.C. Gorman, among others. I’d actually first met R. C. Gorman in 1969. At the time I was a Graduate Assistant in the English Department at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas. I was friends with the artist Ray Drew who taught at Highlands and had ridden along with him one wintry day when he drove the seventy-some miles to Taos where, he said, he was to deliver a couple of his water colors to a gallery. The gallery was the Navajo Gallery of R. C. Gorman where, in those days, he also lived. I recall that while Ray and Gorman were talking business I was wandering around admiring the art. Gorman told me to go ahead and look behind a closed door—it was a bathroom—where his male nudes were displayed. I remember that I commented on the work but allowed as how I really liked a particular monograph of a Navajo woman. He said if I’d agree to come up and pose for him sometime he’d consider giving me the monograph in return. I was embarrassed and laughed—told him I didn’t think so. I can report that Gorman and I visited many times up until his death in November of 2005 and the subject never came up again. (I smile, as I write the above, to be reminded that I did once contribute—by invitation, mind you—a recipe to one of Gorman’s books in the series Nudes & Foods wherein recipes contributed by Gorman’s friends, the famous and the not-so-famous, were published alongside examples of his nudes.)
I knew R. C. Gorman to be a generous and humorous man—I’m proud to have known him.
Proud, too, that knowing Gorman in the Taos years with Elaine was also how we came to know his Gallery Director, traveling companion and social overseer, Miss Virginia Dooley.
Miss Virginia was a remarkable woman. She was completely devoted to Gorman. She told us that she had been a hippie selling sandwiches from a basket on Taos Plaza when she first met him. When we knew her she lived in a large and marvelous, art-filled home north of the town of Taos. She called the house “Shiprock East,” and it was the site of her famous Sunday dinners wherein she and Gorman held forth in the closest thing to a Salon that I have ever had the good fortune to attend. It was at Shiprock East that I had the good fortune to meet and visit with a number of prominent people, most of them in the arts. It was where I met Gorman’s father, Carl Gorman, a fine artist himself, a drop-dead handsome, white-haired man who, once he learned that I had served in the Marine Corps, became my dinner companion. Carl Gorman was one of the original Code Talkers in World War II. He told me he was fifteen-years-old when he was recruited to help establish the group who baffled the Japanese with their radio communications in Navajo.
Later, when Bad Medicine was published and Elaine and I were living in central Mexico, we visited Taos to sign books at Moby Dickens Bookshop. Gorman and Miss Virginia showed up and, we were invited to the following Sunday’s Salon at Shiprock East. I told Miss Virginia that my favorite uncle had come from his home near Tulsa to see us in Taos, and she insisted that he would be very welcome. I was delighted.
You may be relieved to know—as Glenn most certainly was—that on this particular Sunday Miss Virginia served up a huge platter of well-cooked (god forbid it should have been rare) roast beef and buttery mashed potatoes along with all the side dishes that one might expect in Oklahoma.
Some years later when my aunt and niece were telling me at Glenn’s funeral how much he’d enjoyed, and how often he’d told Oklahoma friends, of his fine afternoon in Taos with R. C. Gorman, I related the story of his food worries to great peals of laughter.
I suppose you could say that I had done as much as I could to inject at least a modicum of jocularity into Glenn Wiley’s life. As the owner of a Title and Abstract Company in a small Oklahoma town, Glenn’s life was—from my point of view, anyway—about as hum-drum as life could be. Except for his stint in the Army, my uncle had never lived outside of Oklahoma. He lived his life within a couple of hundred miles of where he was born. This is a relatively common trait in my family, it seems to me . . . a trait that I happily escaped.
Anyway, Glenn and his wife, Gloria, owned and operated their company with a small staff. The main Sapulpa Post Office was where their mail—both personal and business—was picked up daily. So I got into the habit of sending Glenn postcards and letters from our travels. Most notable were the picture postcards that I sent him when we lived in Mexico.
I remember one card in particular was a bright color photograph of a rather stout, heavily made-up, bouffant-haired Mexican woman with her bright red lip pursed suggestively in a wet kiss. I address the card to “Mister Gleen Wiley” at his PO Box. In the message area I wrote that the children “Rosa and little Gleen” were missing their daddy and wondering when he would be home. I signed the card with kisses and hugs, “Maria.” You should understand that my uncle was of the generation that believed with certainty that postal employees would routinely read postcards and even hold sealed envelopes up to strong lights in order to decipher any kind of titillating evidence they could gather on their small-town customers. Gloria told me that Glenn would sometimes show my cards around the office—I guess some of them he thought a little too racy—but that he had a file in his desk marked “Ronnie” that she would sometimes see him poring over and laughing to himself.
I once sent a package addressed to Mrs. Glen Wiley with the return address of a major hotel chain with a branch in Oklahoma City—a couple of hours from Sapulpa. In the package was an incredibly large brassiere that I had pick up at a used-clothing outlet—a Salvation Army Store, I think. An accompanying note—also on hotel stationary—read, something to the effect:
Dear Mrs. Wiley,
We want to thank you and your husband for choosing our hotel for your recent stay. After you had checked out, our Housekeeping Department discovered that you had left the enclosed article hanging on the bathroom door.
We look forward to your next stay with us.