At Mabel’s house


Dear Artist,

I’m laptopping you from Ansel Adams’s room in the beautiful old home of Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos, New Mexico. It’s now a B and B and conference center. In these hallowed rooms Mabel entertained some of the luminaries of her day — D.H. Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe, Nicolai Fechin, Walter Lippman, Marsden Hartley, Willa Cather and many others. Mabel was a maven of experimental thought, risky undertakings, free love, new art, new writing, socialism, anarchy and counterculture. In 1916, at age 37, while still in New York and in the process of getting a divorce from her second husband, she began thirty years of psychoanalysis and started a bi-weekly advice column for the Hearst newspapers.

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941 Gelatin silver print 15 3/4 × 19 1/2 inches by Ansel Adams (1902-1984)

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941
Gelatin silver print
15 3/4 × 19 1/2 inches
by Ansel Adams (1902-1984)

With her fifth husband Tony Luhan, a Pueblo Indian, Mabel built this house in 1918. “Now I had come to the place where one life ends and another may begin,” she wrote in her autobiography, “For the first time in my life I discovered I could trust someone always and that I could be trustworthy to someone always.”  Mabel intuitively cultivated what she considered the right kind of talent and dropped those who were beneath her. Hers was the art of the salon. Often quiet and coy, then again flamboyant and bombastic, she flaunted her narcissism. Above all, Mabel was without fear. She felt writers, painters and intellectuals were naturally attracted to her and that she had a unique ability to bring out their best. “It is my gift to the world,” she wrote.

Aspens, New Mexico, 1958 Silver Gelatin Print 18 × 22 1/2 inches by Ansel Adams

Aspens, New Mexico, 1958
Silver Gelatin Print
18 × 22 1/2 inches
by Ansel Adams

Those of us who seek a quiet life, who don’t do salons or put ourselves forward, can only reflect on the connections we might have missed. Success and fame in the arts often depends on who you know and being in the right place at the right time. To be invited to pass through Mabel’s pueblo gates was worth a long journey by train and jitney. Though many thought her crazy, to be endorsed by her was of some consequence. Mabel’s dance card reads like a who’s who. These walls exude the spirit of some of the creative greats of the first half of the twentieth century. Is it possible some of this moxie can rub off on passersby?

Best regards,


New Church, Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, c. 1929 Gelatin silver print 7 1/2 × 9 7/16 inches by Ansel Adams

New Church, Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, c. 1929
Gelatin silver print
7 1/2 × 9 7/16 inches
by Ansel Adams

PS: “I have always been myself and at the same time someone else; always able to be the other person, feel with him, think his thoughts, see from the angle in which he found himself.” (Mabel Dodge Luhan 1879-1962)

Esoterica: Right now Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones is giving a yoga and writing workshop in Mabel’s house. There’s another workshop coming in August. “In silence we alternate between writing and meditation,” says Natalie. “A cushion or chair is fine — sits are no longer than 30 minutes and some are shorter. We have timed writings and space each day for a nap, a solitary walk and individual writing. Instruction is available.” I’m wondering how enforced silence might work in a painting workshop.

New Mexico, 1933 Gelatin silver print 7 1/4 × 9 1/2 inches by Ansel Adams

New Mexico, 1933
Gelatin silver print
7 1/4 × 9 1/2 inches
by Ansel Adams

This letter was originally published as “At Mabel’s house” on March 18, 2011.

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“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” (Ansel Adams)



  1. Thank you for sharing this very spirit filled letter and for your selection of Ansel Adams photographs,
    Thinking of fearless work and quiet time, keeping a good connection to the open and all possible are much appreciated messages today.

    Brightest wishes to all!

  2. Dorothy Murrell on

    Lovely. I’m also very impressed that she divorced her second husband in 1916 and built a house with her fifth husband in 1918. You go girl!

  3. New Mexico and Santa Fe are magical places for me. The second time in Albuquerque, I sold a painting to an art dealer my husband and I met in a bar, who wasn’t drinking. Enchanting! We also collect Ansel Adams. I loved this column and the beautiful photos.

  4. Jerry Mayfield on

    Having been born and raised in New Mexico 88 years ago, living in beautiful Hawaii the last 50 years I still miss the beautiful skies that go on forever as do the vast deserts accented by cool verdant mountains.
    A true artists paradise that I enjoy in watercolor upon return visits.

  5. I stayed in the Ansel Adams room on one visit to Taos and the Mabel house. Mabel brought many great artists and writers of her time to relocate out west. She must have been a power house, kind of like the Steins in Paris.
    I live in Santa Fe now. New Mexico is rich with history, culture, art and wonderful light.

  6. I have just read “At Mabel’s House”, and Robert Genn’s description of that place, made me again all eager to read “How to Be A Painter” . Is there a definite plan for its publication, yet? I so hope for it.
    How will we hopefuls hear about publication?
    I think—having painted regularly around Taos for several golden years—i felt afresh that flame of creativity Mabel and Robert fanned .

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oil on canvas
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Essentially I am representational painter, with a real appreciation for the design aspects of abstract art.  By emphasizing strong shape relationships and connecting bands of textural color, I am able to paint the natural world in two dimensional patterns while striving to create interesting three dimensional compositions.  Andrew Wyeth, a realist who has influenced my work, painted very abstract watercolors that helped him explore the possibilities for unusual compositions.  Like him, I value the drama of a strong composition, solid drawing, complex textures, and sumptuous, rich color while attempting to ground the painting’s design in essential, free form shapes.  Past Masters who have shaped my artistic direction are: Joaquin Sorolla, John Singer Sargent, Richard Diebenkorn, and the California impressionists. Richard Schmid is a contemporary painter whose instruction has contributed greatly to my ability to capture the light, intimacy, and subtle textures of the hidden landscapes.
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