Taos celebrates an American legend

Gala weekend planned at J.H. Sharp's carefully restored studio


The community of Taos is invited to the grand opening of a historic interpretive exhibition, “Joseph Henry Sharp Studio: The Life and Work of an American Legend,” on Sunday (June 11), 3-5 p.m., at the Couse-Sharp Historic Site, 146 Kit Carson Road.

Sharp was one of the original six founding members of the Taos Society of Artists (1915-1927). He was the first of the TSA group to visit Taos (in 1893). It is due to his enthusiasm for Taos that the others began arriving.

In 1902, Sharp began spending summers in Taos until 1909, when he met neighbor Eanger Irving Couse. At this point, he moved to Taos permanently. It is unusual in the art world that three of the former studios of one artist would be preserved and open to visitors. The Absarokee Hut at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming (moved from its original location in Montana), is one of three Sharp studios that welcomes visitors. In Taos, at the Couse-Sharp Historic Site, the Luna Chapel (in use 1909-1915) next door has been open for private tours. Now, additionally, the large studio of J.H. Sharp will open to the public with a reception on Sunday.

Davison Koenig, executive director and curator, has worked to restore the studio building itself and create an atmosphere that honors the artist. “I especially appreciate the care that was taken in researching, recovering and replacing many of the authentic items seen in old photographs of Sharp in his studio. These touches greatly enhance the visitor’s experience of stepping back in time,” he said.

For two years, Koenig has poured his talents into restoring the Sharp studio. With major support from the Tia Foundation, along with generous gifts and loans of Sharp artwork and memorabilia, Koenig has created a welcome addition to the historic sites of Taos.

“I was first attracted to the human side of the Indian; the character of the old warriors I found particularly interesting,” Sharp himself is quoted saying in the site’s materials. “Their romance and idealism are the most beautiful symbols brought down in the annals of time; their religion, their legends and superstitions are all unique. Not these alone, however, brought the greatest influence to bear on my work. It was more the humanity of the present, the aspect we can see, know and feel that was my greatest aspiration.”

Sharp is said to have “humanized” the Native people he depicted in portraiture and in narrative painting. Rather than depictions of “the noble savage,” as was a common notion of the time, he painted them with realism. Stately Native dignitaries had been depicted in the paintings of George Catlin and Charles Bird King since the early 1800s. During the early 1900s, Sharp kept up this tradition of painting portraits and the lifeways of a true American heritage. The presentation inside the studio presents “the subtle beauty and quiet customs of Native people,” Koenig said.

The exhibition itself includes more than 30 artworks by Sharp, along with correspondence, Pueblo Indian pottery, Plains Indian beadwork and a variety of historic artifacts that appear in many of the paintings on view. The paintings are arranged chronologically to present a timeline of when and how Sharp was working.

A highlight of the exhibition is the buffalo robe with a painted green dragonfly and subtle beadwork around areas where holes appeared. Notice that the outstretched hide appears in the painting, “Working by Firelight,” hanging next to it. Look carefully at the items on view in the large display case. Over and over again, you’ll see these very objects appear in painting after painting. You’ll also see “Indian Camps in Taos Cañon” (1928), a painting of a Native encampment of glowing teepees by a river with rolling forested hills making up the background. Take the time to read the letter to its left. Read Sharp’s thoughts in his own words. Ask about the crucifix hanging over the inside doorway, attributed to German master woodcarver Veit Stoss (1450-1533).

The Couse-Sharp Historic Site has also set up a teepee between the Couse home and Sharp’s studio. The teepee presented here is similar to what Sharp would have used as his traveling studio.

“Those of us who’ve been affiliated with the site for many years are always amazed at how many Taoseños don’t know of the existence of the site and its treasures and, in some cases, are even unfamiliar with the Taos Society of Artists. With the addition of the new ‘Sharp Studio’ exhibit, we hope that our community and its young people will visit and appreciate the TSA’s [Taos Society of Artists] important contributions to Taos as an early art colony,” Holly Azzari, vice president of the Couse Foundation and volunteer coordinator of the Couse-Sharp Historic Site, said.

The opening reception on Sunday presents Sharp’s primary studio (1915-1953) to the public for the first time.

Over the last few years, the studio has been occupied by contemporary Taos artists Harold Joe Waldrum, Gustavo Victor Goler, and most recently, Randall LaGro.

“The Sharp studio was a fabulous space where I could feel this great artistic essence in the walls that resonated with me,” Goler said. “I remember just sitting in the studio looking towards the large window and just soaking in the space. I was a young artist at the time only a few years into my career, but it was in the Sharp studio that I began to get momentum. It was a place where I established my foundation not only as an artist, but as a conservator and an authority of New Mexico saints.”

For more information, call (575) 751-0369 or visit couse-sharp.org.

Special events

Saturday (June 10), 10 a.m.: Lecture on “The Studios of Joseph Henry Sharp” by Peter Hassrick, director emeritus and senior scholar at Buffalo Bill Center of the West, at Harwood Museum of Art, 238 Ledoux St.

Saturday (June 10), 5 p.m.: The Couse Foundation fifth biennial gala and art auction (a ticketed event) at El Monte Sagrado Resort, 317 Kit Carson Road.

Sunday (June 11), 3-5 p.m.: Grand opening with Taos Mayor Dan Barrone, ceremonial ribbon-cutting ceremony of the J.H. Sharp studio’s “Joseph Henry Sharp: The Life and Work of an American Legend” at the Couse-Sharp Historic Site, 146 Kit Carson Road.

July 1, 3-5 p.m.: The first Saturday open house and exhibition opening for “Seldom Seen: Archival Stories,” along with a book signing for “The Couse Collection of Pueblo Pottery” by author E. Jane Burns at the Couse-Sharp Historic Site, 146 Kit Carson Road.

The Couse-Sharp Historic Site has a regular open house each first Saturday of the month through October. The site also offers private docent tours from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. by appointment. For more information, call (575) 751-0369.