Donna Clair

Southwest Contemporary Artist

How I Came to New Mexico and learned about Art and Life



It is an autumn ritual for me to do some “backroading”, taking photos to use as source material for my winter work.  Since I no longer drive, I called my friend Geraint Smith  ( and booked an afternoon tour to Truchas.  We started out near the river at Pilar.  The trees were magnificent.  I was reminded of the book Rain of Gold by Victor Villasenor.  There were places on these little roads where the trees were still in full color, their branches arching over the road – it was otherworldly – there is serenity in those trees!

We traveled through some little villages. As Jicarita Peak and Truchas Peaks came into view, I was grateful to have lived with them for so many years.    They are part of me.   Monday was overcast and rainy.  There were snow squalls on the peaks.  Dark clouds were giving hints of winter storms to come.  I remembered those early winter afternoons in my little adobe house, watching the light change on the mountain.  The thrill of the wind and rain – the coming snow – a fire in the woodstove with a pot of soup or stew boiling away on top.  In a way I was reborn in this place.

This trip to
Truchas felt different – in a way I no longer felt a part of it. After all these years, I was
an outsider looking in
.  Buildings have changed and most of the people I knew and considered my friends are now gone.  Almost a week later I am having flashbacks to my life on the horse ranch and the village.

Coming into Truchas there is a little camposanto to the left adjacent to the morada.  I thought of the secret and sacred rituals held in that place – the stories of the “Tieneblas” – when everything goes dark and there is great noise and turbulence.  Many years ago there was a Santa Fe artist who opened a gallery in town.   One Good Friday he had been invited to the morada .  His ego got the best of him and he decided to wear a tape recorder attached to his ankle.  The men in the morada caught him and he was physically removed by an angry and threatening group of participants. The next day he, his wife and all their belongings were loaded on the back of his pick up truck and he was told  to leave town and never to return.

We passed the house of my old friend, Pedro Ribera Ortega.   Pedro taught Latin at the high school in Santa Fe.  My son was one of his students.  His house was called “La Casa de las Ruedas” – the  house of wheels.  Wheels everywhere – the symbol of Life. Was astonished the first time I was invited for coffee. The entryway was a closed in patio with a large statue of the Virgin Mary at the far end.  Everywhere I looked there were “plasticos” – plastic graveside flowers.  One of Pedro’s friends worked as a caretaker at Rosario Cemetary and he offered a never-ending supply of flowery tributes to the Virgin.  The back of his house were floor to ceiling shelves of old, old books – histories of northern New Mexico.  Pedro was an archivist  and geneologist. All of his time away from teaching was spent  listening  and writing down stories from the villagers who also brought them maps and deeds of their lands in Truchas.  His little adobe house contained many treasures.  Pedro died many years ago and I heard he had no immediate family.   As we passed his house on Monday, I noticed that the roof in the back of the house was gone and only tumbled down rafters and vigas were all that remained.  I thought of his treasures and hoped they had been rescued and are now stored in a safe place.


Nuestra Senora del Rosario, the centuries old church has been
restored.  I recalled the time I donated a painting and my friends Susie
Romero and her sisters spent weekends selling raffle tickets at the
mall in Santa Fe….$4000 enough to pay for the materials to have the
old beauty remudded and brought back to life.  My first Easter in the village I was invited to participate in a Good Friday ritual called the Encuentro, the last meeting between Mary and her son.  The memory of singing alabados with the women as they carried the statue of the
Virgin dressed in black to the door of the little church; the men of
the village, the penitentes outside the door with the large Christo on
the cross will always be with me.  Those old carvings came alive for me – I deeply felt their sorrow.  We sang the words for
the Virgin Mary “Jesus, querido”.  Susie and her mother Carmelita knew
all the words of the sacred songs.  They are gone now.  In my
imagination the old songs are still alive in the walls of that old church.  

That Easter season in Truchas was life-changing  As I walked home from the Encuentro it felt as though my feet weren’t touching the ground – I felt Grace.  The clouds over the mountain had cleared and the sun felt warm.   In a short time I realized the phone company had cut off my service for my unpaid bill.  Waiting for payment from the gallery, I was without contact to the outside world for three weeks.  I knew that this was was somehow connected to my experience at the old church on Good Friday.  No  troubles came to me from the outside – everything became still and I learned the value of silence.      
The general store is closed now. Flashes of the days I would walk down the road to get my mail at the store, buy a loaf of bread and chat with Ercilia Tafoya.  Ercilia was born in the nearby village of Cordova and on one visit she told me the history of her family.  There is the entrance to a huge canyon near the end of the village and stories of buried treasure in that place.  I am certain there are seekers posing as hikers still hoping to find their fortune.

A little further down the road in the left was the little adobe I rented from Susie Romero. This was the second time I lived in Truchas.  The only heat was  a wood stove in the living room. I bought two or three cords of wood that winter.  I had bricks laid down on the carport and closed it in with low adobe walls and large windows gave me plenty of great daylight.  On many winter days it was a challenge to go out there to paint, but  I did some of my best work in that “studio”.  During my visit on Monday I thought of the winter nights I would look out my window and watch the full moon rise over Truchas Peaks – so large and bright it made “moonshadows”.  I often wondered what miracle brought me to this place as a witness to such magic!

We stopped the car to say hello to Bill Franke who was watering his flowers near the road.   Bill owns the Hand Artes Gallery.  Successful for many years, he sold all the work I could give him back in the day.  Juan Gabriel, the hugely famous Mexican singer bought a painting one day and visited with me at the studio.  The image he purchased was of an old woman and a little boy walking together along a country road. He told me in Spanish that the image reminded him of his mother.  Many friends and collectors were introduced to my work through Bill’s gallery.  I so enjoyed that time! I felt energetic and the paintings just flowed. Living in the village was a great inspiration! (To be continued)