Taos, Arroyo Seco & the Search for Rebecca James
Last Thursday, I traveled to the villages of Taos and Arroyo Seco with a friend visiting from England who was up for a little northern New Mexico adventure. (He was also slightly dessicated, as it happens, for the assimilation into the arid Southwest climate from moist & mild Sheffield proved a slow one.) The original inspiration for the journey was to visit the Harwood Museum where a rare show of reverse oil on glass paintings by Rebecca James, one of my favorite Taos Moderns who lived and worked in New Mexico in the 1930s-40s, was on display. But let’s face it, there’s never a bad time to visit Taos and Rodger’s company made it all the better: a fun traveler, a great friend, and someone who likes good coffee as much as I do.
I saw my first Rebecca James paintings in the 1990s while working at a Santa Fe art gallery and was totally captivated. Since then, I’ve been on the hunt for more of her work. Sure, I’ve looked at pictures in books, but photos simply can’t capture the sensitivity and presence of the flowers, shells and New Mexico scenes she painted “backwards” with oils on glass. It’s only in the close, intimate viewing of Rebecca James’ paintings that the subtle rendering of a white shell against a white background, the translucent edge of a rose petal, the scratched-in details of a landscape, begin to reveal the inner abstract feelings — humility, simplicity, solitude, and faith — that she desired to communicate.
The reverse oil on glass painting technique originated in Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries, then spread throughout Europe, Africa, and the Middle East according to the availability and expense of glass and glass making chemicals and supplies (like wood, which was needed to heat the silica carbide). Reverse glass paintings recorded both religious and historical imagery. The technique, which involves constructing a painting in reverse (i.e., highlights that would be painted last are painted first, and words are painted backwards so they will read correctly when viewed from the front) was favored because glass provided a surface for the painting as well as protecting it after it was finished. Despite its long history, reverse glass paintings are not common among 20th century artworks, which might be what first drew me to James’ masterful use of the art form.
So on Friday I found Rebecca, thanks to this fantastic show, which also included some of her charcoal drawings and colchas (embroideries). The show closes on June 4, so anyone within 500 miles of Taos should really consider making the drive. It’s worth it. Here’s a little tribute to one of my favorite painters who, along with the other Taos Moderns and Santa Fe Colony artists, was a pioneer in delivering images of the exotic landscape, architecture, Native people, and Hispanic culture of the newly-American southwest to the rest of the world through their art. (I’ll post a few words and pictures about Taos & Arroyo Seco separately in the next few days.)
Rebecca Salsbury James and her twin sister Rachel were born backstage of the wildly successful Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which their father managed, in England, 1893. After her father’s untimely death in 1902, she and her siblings moved with their mother back to Manhattan, where Rebecca felt bored, uninspired, and stifled. In 1922, she married photographer Paul Strand, a protégé of art dealer Alfried Stieglitz, and soon became part of the Stieglitz circle of avant-garde artists and writers. After contemplating taking up writing or photography, she finally decided to teach herself to paint, although she struggled and never felt satisfied with her work. In 1929, she eagerly accepted an invitation to spend the summer in Taos with her good friend, mentor, and perhaps lover, Georgia O’Keeffe, hoping to perfect the reverse oil on glass technique that fascinated her. Upon leaving the urban East and entering the vast American West, she felt liberated and energized.
For the next three years, she and Strand summered in Taos, but their marriage had fallen apart and they divorced in 1932. “Becky” James moved to Taos permanently that year and became a dramatically changed woman: she ditched the demure Victorian garb in favor of western gear, drank hard liquor, smoked cigarettes, and cussed like a man. She married banker Bill James in 1937.
In 1940 she discovered the archaic Spanish Colonial colcha embroidery technique, and devoted herself to the stitch that expressed some of the same feelings as her paintings. Becky and Bill James were active members of the Taos art and social community for the next two decades, until Bill died suddenly of a heart attack in the late 1950s. Thereafter, Rebecca suffered a long bout of rheumatoid arthritis which eventually crippled her to the point that she could no longer find solace in creating her art. In 1968, she gave away all of her possessions, wrote letters to her friends, and committed suicide with sleeping pills.
In her own words (from the exhibition catalogue): “A walking woman, a waiting woman, a watching woman, a mourning woman, a devout woman, adobe, cedar posts, old dry wood, the fields of alfalfa, the churches — I love these things. They have made me paint and I am grateful.”