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Museum fashioned from the desert

A Taos, N.M, museum founded by an Eastern fashion designer who fell in love with the arts and crafts of the Southwest reflects the area's styles.

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 30, 2001

[Photo: H. Peter Wingle]
The Navajo Shepherdess, by John Suazo, sits in the courtyard at the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos. It is quality, not quantity, that is a feature of the artworks in the museum.
TAOS, N.M. -- Classic. Exquisite. Distinctive. These words aptly describe not only the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos, but its benefactor as well.

Tucked away on the outskirts of the famous New Mexico art colony, the museum beautifully presents a masterful collection of jewelry, pottery and weavings from American Indian, Hispanic and Anglo cultures and artists.

The museum's concise layout is soothing to visitors, and the triumph of quality over quantity is apparent.

Millicent Rogers was a lean, captivating, creative fashion designer from New York. Her family's wealth was amassed from holdings in Standard Oil, Anaconda Copper and U.S. Steel. Taking the geographical cure for the breakup of a three-year relationship with Clark Gable, Rogers traveled West in 1947 and became permanently intrigued by New Mexico and its history.

For the next six years, she applied her discriminating and elegant taste to acquiring just the right blanket, basket, rug or necklace. Preservation of these art objects became her goal. Her death in 1953 at the age of 50 marked the founding of the museum.

Dedicated to expanding the understanding and appreciation of Southwestern art, the museum opened in 1956 in downtown Taos and moved to its present location in 1968.

The stark adobe structure, a combination of Spanish-Colonial and Indian designs, blends unnoticed into the desert landscape. Four miles north of town, the former private residence provides a fittingly simple setting for the exceptionally fine work it houses.

Fifteen galleries comprise the museum. Each room contains a theme item or a specific personal or family collection.

There are changing exhibits and new acquisitions, but permanent groupings allow for repeat enjoyment of favorite articles.

Many visitors will recognize the distinctive polished black-on-black pottery of Maria and Julian Martinez from nearby San Ildefonso Pueblo. The technique they redeveloped in 1919 became the foundation of Maria's long and productive career and was handed down to their children and grandchildren, who also became noted artists.

Other pottery is presented by the pueblo of origin -- be it Santa Clara, San Juan or Acoma. Examples from the turn of the century are paired with more recent specimens for comparison. Pottery from southern New Mexico and northern Arizona dating to 950 is highlighted with a corrugated jar.

Elaborately adorned and colorful Zuni kachina figures, depicting various animals and mythical creatures, tell the stories of ceremonial dances. A cow figure, for example, was used for a prayer ritual to increase cattle herds.

The largest room emphasizes traditional Hispanic culture. Santos (religious images), decorative tin work, carved wooden furniture and colcha embroideries are among the featured items. Seventeenth and 18th century farm implements and household utensils give a sense of life in those eras.

Bold color combinations, from the late 19th century eye-dazzler rugs and blankets, intricately designed Apache baskets and ornate Zuni turquoise jewelry, highlight additional exhibits.

Modern Southwestern artwork appears alongside Rogers' own jewelry designs. Photos depict her fashion and costume creations and her lavish personal flair. Silver bracelets, necklaces, concha belts, pins and rings are breathtaking.

A small but rich collection of baskets includes those of Apache, Hopi and Tohono O'odham peoples.

Through small, strategically placed windows, visitors catch glimpses of the muted Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) mountains. Courtyard doorways afford views of R.C. Gorman's bronze sculpture Winona and John Suazo's Navajo Shepherdess.

A haunting sense of the beauty of both the museum and its benefactor lingers with visitors after their tour.

If you go:

The Millicent Rogers Museum is located 4 miles north of Taos, near U.S. 64.

It is open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m., closed major holidays and San Geronimo Day (Sept. 30). From November to March, it is open Tuesday to Sunday.

Admission is $6; seniors and students are $5.

For further information, contact the museum at P.O. Box A, Taos, NM 87571; call (505) 758-2462.

In Taos, the art collection at the Harwood Museum of the University of New Mexico centers on paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures and photographs by area artists from 1800 to present.

Memorable are Walter Ufer's Winter in New Mexico -- two women wearing blankets, tracking snow with storm clouds coming in -- and E. Martin Hennings' Chamisa in Bloom, featuring the yellow flower bursting forth against a mountainous background.

A second level highlights 19th and 20th century artifacts, such as wood carvings, tin work and retablos (religious paintings of saints).

The museum's changing exhibits focus on living artists from Taos.

For further information, contact: Harwood Museum of the University of New Mexico, 238 Ledoux St.; call (505) 758-9826.

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission $5; children 11 and younger are free.

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