‘That church is Taos’

The artistic inspiration of San Francisco de Asís

By Robert Cafazzo
Posted 10/5/18

San Francisco de Asís Catholic Church has been mouth-watering subject matter for painters and photographers for over 100 years. Most artists choose to make imagery of the back apse end where …

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‘That church is Taos’

The artistic inspiration of San Francisco de Asís

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San Francisco de Asís Catholic Church has been mouth-watering subject matter for painters and photographers for over 100 years. Most artists choose to make imagery of the back apse end where lie the major buttresses of adobe bricks covered in a plastering of mud and straw. A who’s who of artists have visited Ranchos de Taos to capture images of the iconic church. Most, if not all, of the Taos Society of Artists have made paintings of it. Others include R.C. Gorman, Fritz Scholder, Gustave Baumann, Gene Kloss, Joseph Imhoff, Emil Bisttram, Nicolai Fechin, Laura Gilpin along with far too many to mention here.

The imagery of the church by Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe are often thought of as the epitome of iconic photography and painting of this structure. Every one of the artists who has come to Taos to capture the spirit of this building has honored it. 

Each artist has their own unique take on how to capture an image of the church and what it means to them. There is great history here of the church itself, and the images that have drawn the imagination of so many to see for themselves. Subject matters abound in and around Taos for artists, from hollyhocks to walking rain and of course the buildings of straw and mud, none more fascinating than San Francisco de Asís Church. There’s also been inspiration for artists such as Mark Rothko for his Rothko Chapel paintings and Larry Bell’s “Gus’ Berg” with a glass panel reminiscent of the church’s buttress. As artist Thom Wheeler put it, “One can see the love it takes to maintain it. The Ranchos church is one of the iconic wonders of the Southwest.”

The many paintings of the church by Georgia O’Keeffe tend to be voluminous and sparse, exaggerating the contours and using the sky above to add dramatic color. In “Georgia O’Keeffe, (A Studio Book),” 1976, she had this to say: “The Ranchos de Taos Church is one of the most beautiful buildings left in the United States by the early Spaniards. Most artists who spend any time in Taos have to paint it, I suppose just as they have to paint a self-portrait. I had to paint it — the back of it several times, the front once. I finally painted a part of the back thinking that with that piece of the back I said all I needed to say about the church.”

Ansel Adams’ classic photograph, “Saint Francis Church, Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico,” taken from a low angle creates an illusion of the church being pushed by its buttresses toward the heavens. In this photograph, the church has the appearance of a massive Meso-American pyramid or altar to the sky. Adams single-handedly made the San Francisco de Asís Church unique and awe-inspiring, a mecca for photographers. 

Asked whether he’d ever made paintings of the Ranchos church, Tony Abeyta was excited to speak about his new work: “I started a painting of the Ranchos Church right after Dennis Hopper died and when I went to his funeral. It became apparent to me that the church has been a landmark for the community of Taos, for Hispanics, Native Americans and Anglos alike. Baptisms, marriages, deaths. Everything has transpired on that plaza, the church has served so many people, including myself. I opened my first gallery just to the backside of that church, and have helped plaster the church years ago. I’ve felt so much a part of its plaza. I have been working on this painting for several years and have just finally finished it to include in my upcoming exhibit at Owings Gallery in Santa Fe.”

In the early 1930s, Paul Strand pointed his camera at the Ranchos church time and time again. His use of light, shadow and space are some of the most dramatic images of the church recorded by any photographer to this day. Most of Strand’s inspirational photographs of the church are contained in the book “Paul Strand: Southwest” by T. Willner-Stack & R. Busselle, 2005.

“The church was all I photographed my first year (2001) living in Ranchos,” said photographer Adam Schallau. “I was broke, couldn’t afford to travel and I could barely afford to develop a roll of film, but the church was there and I fell in love with it. Just about every day I would walk to the church to study the texture, light, shadow and color. If things felt right, I might create a photograph. It is a great place to make mistakes and learn.”

The artists Harold Joe Waldrum and Margaret Nes have chosen to represent the church through some of the most colorful celebratory paintings. Former gallery owner Tally Richards said, when referring to the many church paintings of Harold Joe Waldrum, “The churches unite the literal with the mythical, the illusive and the essence of an ideal.” Waldrum’s paintings are an exquisite orchestration of color. 

Today, Nes creates a compositional fullness through her unique use of color. She uses a bright color palette, with a shading technique that keeps the forms from becoming blocks of color, giving her church paintings a sense of volume.

Artist Marvin Moon was truly taken with the church as subject matter. He’s made close to 200 paintings of it. He said, “That church is Taos, a spiritual icon. It has a spiritual and magical quality that speaks of Taos. I’ve been fascinated with the spirituality of it. A lot of people see paintings of the Ranchos church and have no idea what it is.” For Moon, it is a special place that has been drawing him back to Taos since the early 1950s.

Whether you’re an artist or an architect, the church in Ranchos has been inspiring visitors for generations. Recently, someone asked why people make imagery of the church. “Do they paint the back or the front? I think the back would be rather odd to paint, but maybe I’m missing something only artists understand. It just looks like odd architecture to me. Oh, I see, it’s almost like ancient Stonehenge. I see it now.” 

Sometimes visitors to the Ranchos de Taos Plaza ask, “Where’s that famous church?” while they are standing at the back of it. 

It’s always tempting to respond with, “We’d better check and see if they’ve moved it!” 

Others ask, “Where are the paintings that O’Keeffe made on the church?” When answered with, “Most of them are in museums,” visitors become withdrawn and disappointed. Expecting something else entirely their thinking is that O’Keeffe had painted the church, meaning that she painted murals on it or perhaps inside of it.

Taos art galleries where you can view paintings and photographs of the Ranchos Church include Parsons Gallery of the West, Wilder Nightingale Fine Art, Greg Moon Art Gallery, Kimosabe, Taos Print & Photography, Magpie, DAFA, Thom Wheeler Gallery and Ed Sandoval Gallery to name a few.

A bit of advice for photographers; Plan to take photographs early in the morning as the sun rises, or after 3 p.m. Most days these are the quieter time periods of activity around the church. For painters, set your easels in areas that keep you out of the way of traffic. The parking area is active throughout the day and there is an active church community. 

Inside the church wondrous retablo paintings are part of two altar screens in the Spanish Colonial style known as reredos. One of these reredos is the largest surviving altar screen attributed to Antonio Molleno. Fine examples of Spanish Colonial bultos (carvings of saints) and furniture are also inside. The icon painting “Nuestro Padre San Francisco de Asis” by Father Bill McNichols hangs above the front doorway interior. 

Please note that photography of the interior is not allowed. Mass on Sundays is at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. For more information about the San Francisco de Asís Church parish the website is san-francisco-de-asis.org

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