Hasta la Vista

ecstasy of expression

This article first appeared in Winter 2007 Su Casa

On a sprawling spread between a fracturing granite escarpment and a crook in the Pecos River not so far from Las Vegas, New Mexico, Nicasio Romero and Janet Stein Romero have conjured a wonderland of art and architecture. Their combined efforts have brought forth a neotraditional New Mexican compound alive with creativity and brimming with latent community, an interactive cell that takes and gives and shares, that makes new delight from the worn out and discarded, that cherishes playfulness and contemplation in equal measures.

The Romeros preside over this place like sprites from some Middle Earth of inspired hospitality. Theirs is the democratic Land of Enchant-ment that lives up to our license plate slogan, a mesmerizing balance of nature and humanity.

Despite its dramatic setting, this place known as El Ancon (the corner, in Spanish, referring to the elbow in the river nearby) reveals itself in dimensions less of terrain and edifice than of intent and activity. First there is art. Nicasio and Janet, both artists themselves, work in separate studio spaces and sell their work out of a shared gallery directly to collectors, as well as doing commissions. This two-story, double-thick, pitched-tin-roofed adobe, which is the oldest building among a half-dozen here, dates at least to 1851.

Outside the gallery, art covertly and overtly populates the 10-acre property. It seems to pop up everywhere. The couple has hosted a Father’s Day art show here for 18 years, bringing in 60 other artists from the area, who display their work in situ at various choice spots hither and yon. The Romeros also continually display Nicasio’s work and others’ pieces at their El Ancon Sculpture Park, a kind of open-air treasure hunt of outdoor art, where the visitor doesn’t so much view the art as discover it. Scattered around the rustic grounds, fraternizing with native flora, blending with utilitarian artifacts like meticulously stacked wood piles, sculpture lurks, stands tall, and clocks the passage of time with lengthy shadows cast across the unraked ground.

The common theme seems to be transformation, the repurposing of salvaged materials into beautifully imagined new forms, whether by Romero or others. Dispersed among the bushes and walls, one series of knee-high “junk art” figures by Duane Harris of Albuquerque depicts midget banjo players ingeniously welded together from hubcaps, springs, bicycle pedals, scrap metal, and less-easily identified industrial detritus. In posture and vivacity, they achieve an uncanny verisimilitude, one-better than a Pixar robot. Elsewhere, Bob Hymer’s clutch of baseball players crafted from weather-grayed rough-sawn timbers immortalizes an instant of athletic climax. Over toward the renovated gallery, a single stone balances—seemingly hovers—above a boulder.

In describing El Ancon, narrative summary continually veers toward cataloging. There’s just so much to see! And everywhere you look, something seizes the eye and won’t let go, as if the intimate landscape were one of those “find the hidden objects” pictures in a children’s magazine. And because so much of the raw material for these pieces once belonged to this kind of setting—what rural New Mexico landscape isn’t peppered with scrap?—the artwork camouflages itself with native familiarity.

Time now to consider the large-scale view, the dimension of daily life. The Romeros share a classic L-shaped, metal-roofed, northern New Mexico farmhouse. Swathed in shade trees and snuggled deeply in art and the clutter of artists at work, the house so authentically evokes Territorial New Mexico that I’m stunned to learn Nicasio built it just 20 years ago. Impossible! This re-creation feels as old as the gallery across the way.

Elsewhere on this compound straddling a dirt county road, set at seemingly random but pleasingly spaced intervals, I find a lovely house rented by an Internet telecommuter, Nicasio’s former studio, which he is converting to a dwelling, and a new studio for Nicasio. There’s also a straw bale studio or rental house, Janet’s studio, and a spacious pavilion built by Nicasio to house the life work of artist Frank Bradstock—but that’s another story, too long for the telling here, except to say that it further illustrates the invisible web of community linking this place to the world up and down Interstate 25, which occasionally drones in the distance.

Yet another dimension here encompasses a series of architectural sculptural spaces, as we might call them. They punctuate the landscape high and low and nestled into a feral copse of fruit trees. Looming over the homestead like an Anasazi tower, the fired-adobe brick torreón arrests the attention of every arriving visitor.

“It was the first permanent piece I built here, about 18 years ago,” Nicasio recalls, standing on the broad rock ledge below the torreón. “I’d been wandering around up here and wondering what it would be like from a bird’s-eye view.” He gestures to the verdant fields along the bottomlands and the piñon-studded mesas across the Pecos River to the west. To capture that view—and then some—he kiln-fired enough adobe bricks from local clay to stack a tapering, four-sided obelisk eerily reminiscent of the ancient tower at Hovenweep ruins in Utah, which Nicasio has never visited.

I enter the tower through a crouching-height doorway. A sturdy wooden staircase spirals up to a chamber a dozen feet off the dirt floor. From here I kneel before a rectangular unglazed window and wish I had time to wait for sunset.

Huddling below the rocky apron at the feet of the torreón, a cluster of plastered, igloo-shaped mounds surround a dome-roofed kiva dug several feet into the earth. It cannot be denied these abstract, nipple-topped horno ovens resemble breasts, and emerging from the kiva might suggest a birth passage from Mother Earth: “I was working with yin and yang,” Nicasio admits. “I wanted to create these female shapes to go with the male shape of the tower.” He plans to complete this congregation with a low wall partially encircling the uphill side to divert runoff water, which drains into the adobe-vaulted kiva via recently dug gopher tunnels.

Complementing the torreón, a spiraling adobe nautilus called the Caracol (snail) sits near the edge of the home grounds above the field that stretches toward the Pecos. The plastered walls ascend as they wind inward, rising from curb height to a six-foot peak in the middle. A concrete-lined canal snakes from the nearby acequia through a rambunctious unkempt garden, curls one final time, then gently flushes ditch water over a strategically placed rock into the Caracol. The outflow runs off to irrigate a small vineyard below and burbles down toward the hay field. Perhaps five meditators can sit inside the Caracol facing the sunrise, their minds focused by the chuckling stream, the wide open sky, the metaphoric promise of dawn. The Romeros’ cats love this place.

Head off from the Caracol a few hundred feet through the dense thicket of apple and pear trees gone wild, their branches entwined into an Edenic canopy of fruit in late summer, and you’ll stumble upon the Millennium Pod, another of Nicasio’s architectural sculptures. Roughly the size of a phone booth, shaped like a split-open pea pod, this adobe cubby reads like a Luddite’s post-apocalyptic last laugh. Nicasio has embedded obsolete and cast-off electronic devices into the native mud plaster: an eight-track tape player (always good for a wry smile), a telephone, a TV remote control, a can of WD-40, and—to dispel any doubts about the skeptical message—a cassette player set to “pause.”

“It’s about the impermanence of high tech,” Nicasio explains. The Millennium Pod also illustrates something of a maxim of Nicasio: “I’m the kind of artist who doesn’t like to buy stuff to make stuff.”

Hence the aforementioned woodpile, which is a hive of aging lumber cuttings crowned with mud plaster. Above it hangs a bola of willow twigs. They make an oddly compelling pair. One huddles. One floats. Next spring that hive will be gone, burned up as woodstove BTUs. Birds nest in the bola, which enjoys a more enduring status.

Nearby, the community irrigation ditch bisects the property, skirting the yard of the main house in a graceful serpentine, then flowing calmly past the gallery on the way to the neighbors. Nicasio serves as mayordomo of the El Ancon Acequia Association; furthermore, in 1990 he founded the New Mexico Acequia Association, then served as president for eight years. But even this mundane ditch, which elsewhere might languish as a muddy overgrown trench, here gains at least architectural if not out-and-out artistic status. Nicasio has lined it with dry-stacked stone, quarried nearby. A functional job, it’s also quite beautiful. When he says, “I work with stone, adobe, wood, ‘found’ scrap metal . . . ,” I sense that his meaning pivots on the word “work.” It must twist from building the main house to renovating the gallery to creating his upcoming sculptural commission in Brittany, France, to someday restoring the ’63 Volkswagen van in his driveway.

To view Janet’s art, it’s best to move inside her studio, which simmers with artistic energy. Retired now from 20 years teaching art in Las Vegas (public school, New Mexico Highlands University, and the United World College), Janet is “very prolific,” in Nicasio’s words. “She creates something every day.” Her studio, an unassuming stuccoed building, houses an overwhelming collection of—stuff. Art supplies are hard to spot, or is it all art supplies? Assigning categories to these raw materials of creativity challenges my rational mind. Janet works in collage, montage, printmaking, miniatures, and painting in various media.

She describes her work as “fantasy realism.” Everywhere my eye settles—on hats, a New Mexico flag, Barbie-sized patio chairs, magazine clippings—it finds something Janet can—will—turn into art. I could sit spellbound for an hour and still fail to absorb it all, as curious to see what she will do with the raw material as I am fascinated by the completed works.

As a microcosm of their El Ancon compound, Janet’s studio erupts like a geyser of creative energy, hot from the numinous source. Here in this lazy valley, two people freely and very capably express the urge to synthesize and interpret their experiences of the world in fresh, stimulating, even challenging productions of art—theirs and, quite generously, others’, too. That attitude makes their place endlessly engaging to the visitor. It must be so for them, too.

“There’s so much to do, I never have boredom,” Nicasio says, as if explaining why he doesn’t get the flu. “It’s been a 25-year journey here. I’m trying to wind it down to concentrate on sculpture”—and less on construction, for instance. “Now I want to have some fun, as long as I can still work.”