Biographies/People (84)

Friday, 23 January 2015 00:15

Reies Lopez Tijerina, 1926-2015

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Rifling through a file of drawings earmarked for eventual framing, I turn up a small sketch in colored inks of the Santa Fe plaza. Its bright splashes and energetic lines, almost obliterating subject matter, tell me at once it is an Alfred Morang, acquired many years ago, and the only Morang we have. My mother-in-law purchased it for us one festive day in front of the Palace of the Governors, where Alfred was producing sketches for tourist trade.

The first Alfred Morang I ever saw was a small oil, riotous in color, heavy with impasto, explosive with emotion. It was typical of his work at that time (1954), free and very bold—and disturbing. Whether one liked it or not, it could not easily be ignored. Three heavily rouged harlots, arms linked together, stood against a Santa Fe night-scene and glared indolently at the spectator. Garish oranges and reds twisted frantically through predominant blues, and the women of the painting seemed bathed in writhing firelight.

“Ladies of the Evening,” he called them when I later mentioned the painting to Alfred. He had done a series on the theme, and he managed to find a few others to show me. They were equally provocative, each executed with vigorous brush strokes and palette knife, fusing tenderness and violence, each somehow a definitive statement despite these obviously conflicting elements.

I never saw much of Alfred. He lived alone near us and occasionally dropped in to review our work. Slight, beset with nervous energy, the Van-dyke beard poised jauntily before him, he would move from painting to painting, singling out what he liked. His weekly column of art criticism in the New Mexican was carefully and conscientiously written, free of cant and personal bias.

The columns were but a small part of his compulsive writing. I visited his cluttered rooms a few times and found manuscripts and parts of manuscripts stacked or scattered over every available surface. Like his paintings, they were original and difficult, a world unto themselves, haunted by a wild yet gentle beauty. I remember that one day the wind was roaring through an open window, and pages of manuscript tumbled, swirled, and eddied everywhere, over our heads and about our ankles. I knew a moment of panic at seeing those thousands of words scattered on the wind, but Alfred was feeding a kitten and seemed oblivious to the blizzard of prose.

He had one of Santa Fe’s first radio talk-shows, and on a few occasions he invited me to be a guest. The last time I faced him over a microphone, he was very ill, and the table at which we sat rattled under his compulsive trembling. But his courage never failed. The interview was professional, and not without humor.

Though we saw less and less of him socially as domestic and business concerns claimed us, I frequently glimpsed Alfred on his innumerable Canyon Road errands. More often than not, he was bundled in a long black coat, whiskers white with frost, paintings under one arm. He walked quickly, bent into the weather, and most of the time appeared indifferent to his surroundings. Speaking to him triggered inevitable, and often brilliant, discourses on whatever painting, literature, or music occupied his mind at the moment. He was recognized on sight by most Santa Feans and enjoyed the rather dubious honor of official representative of the art colony.

I was in the neighborhood’s Claude’s Bar the night his house caught fire. An old army buddy from Chicago had come to town and wanted to down cognac while viewing local color. There was little of that to view, for it was a bitterly cold night, the streets were deserted, the bar was almost empty and quite cheerless. My bachelor friend dredged up memories of a thousand other cafes in France and Germany, while my thoughts strayed to demands at home. Three weary women at the other end of the long bar seemed to be nowhere, waiting for nothing.

The sound of sirens startled us all. Fire engines skidded past the door. We could hear them screeching to a halt in a compound behind the bar. I knew Alfred’s small adobe casita was there.

Nothing could be done. The roof had already crashed in, and flames leaped high in the sky. I was thinking how very, very strange it was to be standing beside this war comrade looking helplessly, just as we had done in Europe, as property and life were devoured by fire. And even stranger—later—when stretcher carriers fled the still-burning ruin and rested their burden on the frozen ground; for firelight, like streaks of red and yellow pigment, crawled erratically over the sad tableau. And looking up from the bearded profile on the stretcher, I saw that the women from the bar had joined us. Harsh, bright colors spiraled over their tawdry dress and hennaed hair, highlighting them against the black night. They were much too like the three women in his painting, bewildered and pathetic, vulnerable under the heavy crust of cosmetics. His Ladies of the Evening.

Whose world where we in, and what was real? But my army friend would have none of that, and we walked home silently in the cold.

 

Andrea Bacigalupa

 

 

Thursday, 30 October 2014 16:04

Juan Estevan Arellano

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