Cultivating community

Embudo ceramic artist spearheaded creation of library, community center in small Río Arriba County town

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DIXON – When the Embudo River whispers from the mountains into its autumn canopy, there is no place as pretty or rustic as this valley.

It’s a place where archaeologists still come in search of the ancient Tiwa, and where the Spanish staked the future for dozens of families with the 1725 Embudo Land Grant.

Gathering has always been important to those who live along the acequias of Northern New Mexico. So when Shel Neymark and others sought out a location for an Embudo Valley Library and Community Center, they decided to purchase the old Zellers General Store and orchard on 1.5 acres in the middle of Dixon.

With volunteers, donations and sheer will, the library has prospered as a place “to cultivate an empowered and thriving community,” according to its mission statement.

The property today is home to a grocery co-op, a radio station, archaeological lectures, a maker space for 3-D printing, a pollinator garden and early childhood and after-school programs. It also offers a place for senior citizens who need assistance with Medicare enrollment and tax forms.

There are plans for a seed library.

When a family lost a loved one to a house fire in October, the space around the library was used for a Frito pie fundraiser to help with burial costs.

“Having a place to gather is really important. That’s what makes community,” said Neymark, 66, a library board member who has been a steady advocate since a smaller version of today’s library opened 25 years ago. “We like to say the library has a ‘culture of yes.’ People come to us and want to do something. That’s why we’ve been successful.”

Neymark, a ceramic artist who has public installations throughout the state, has been chosen as one of The New Mexican’s 10 Who Made a Difference honorees for 2017 because of his contributions to the community library in Dixon, a town of less than 1,000 along State Road 75 in Río Arriba County.

“He was instrumental in getting the community to form a co-op and buy the building and instrumental in attracting some of the people up there now,” said Doris Martin, a Santa Fe resident who has known Neymark and his wife, Liz Riedel, for over 30 years. Riedel is a former physician’s assistant at the Embudo Valley Clinic.

But Neymark is quick to say that the library flourished from a fusion of many people’s efforts, some of whom have passed away.

They include Riedel, as well as Marcia and Bob Brenden, Jane Kaluta, Touffic Haddad, Celeste Miller and Sara Pene. Others who had input are Jaime Valdez, Porfirio Rivera, Eloy Duran and Stan Crawford. Connie Wood and Sandy Funk spent lots of time volunteering to get donated books organized, and woodworkers Johnny Moulton and Ed Brown organized the first efforts to build shelves

Dixon native Pete Garcia, who was Río Arriba County manager when the library opened, helped secure an initial grant, said Neymark, and the McCune Foundation, as well as the New Mexico and Santa Fe Community Foundations, have provided support.

Black Mesa Wireless donates the Wi-Fi to the building, and Sol Luna Solar in Dixon donated and installed the solar panels, which allows the building to operate with lower costs.

Neymark also said an anonymous donor, someone he has known a long time but has promised not to publicly name, gave $200,000 to purchase the old grocery store in 2002 after the community raised $50,000 on its own.

“We raised $50,000 in three weeks,” Neymark said. “Within six weeks of saying we wanted to buy this, we owned it.”

The library today has 16,000 titles, 1,400 cardholders and 19,000 annual visits. The facility and its board of directors were honored at a 2015 White House reception with first lady Michelle Obama, as a winner of the National Medal for Museum and Library Services.

The son of a machine shop owner, Neymark grew up in a gritty industrial suburb of Chicago, but quickly went his own way studying ceramics art at Washington University in St. Louis. He first purchased land in Embudo while living in Santa Fe as part of an artist co-op and moved there full time in 1983. He met his wife in the community.

The couple live on a stretch of the Río Grande just north of the Embudo Station restaurant, often canoeing to their home from a portage off State Road 68, instead of traveling on a mileslong gravel road. Neymark has public art installations at the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden in Albuquerque, and in White Rock, Artesia and Truth or Consequences, as well as in private homes. He has both a home and studio on the property and occasionally opens it to the public during the annual Dixon Studio Tour.

He and the other volunteers opened the first library in small, ramshackle barn in 1992 near the current site. They had piles of donated books and a $2,000 budget.

No one knew if anyone would even come, Neymark said. But on the first day, 50 books were checked out. “I was coming up the road,” he said, “and I saw a young man with an armload of books.”

Elena Arellano, whose late husband was historian, writer and acequia advocate Juan Estevan Arellano, was hired as one of the first librarians.

She said the local Hispanic families needed a place for other services besides books. So Arellano became a notary public, and the library started offering copying and other office services. She built a large video collection, important for many who did not receive cable television. Even today, the library and community center is one of the only locations in the valley with high-speed internet service, and many residents sit outside to connect with free Wi-Fi.

When she became librarian, Elena Arellano said, Hispanic families started coming. “It was word of mouth. They saw there were different services.”

Neymark spent years working with Juan Estevan Arellano, who died in 2014, to compile a topological and historical map of the Embudo Valley.

One outcropping on the river, now private property, was a gathering site for the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the rebellion that drove the Spanish from the province, according to Arellano’s research.

The map also charts all 10 of the acequias that feed the gardens and agricultural lands where there are now wineries and organic farms.

Neymark received funding from several nonprofits and then worked with four area teenagers – Brooklyn Sullivan-Seebeck, Daija Fernández, Mark Gonzales and John Salazar – to build a 40-foot-long ceramic piece and assemble it for public display near the library.

Martin recalled he battled severe arthritis the whole time.

“I wanted the next generation to know about their town,” Neymark said. “I volunteer because I love this place, I am so grateful to be here. I have friends here, and the people take care of each other. I’m not sure you can find that in many places.”

Contact Bruce Krasnow at brucek@sfnewmexican.­com. This story first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sibling publication of The Taos News.

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