Monday, January 24, 2011

Profiles: Introducing Karen Young of the Mabel Dodge Luhan House staff

Today I interviewed Karen Young, my first profile on the remarkable women who staff the Mabel Dodge Luhan House. Although her main duties involve educational programming and marketing, like her co-workers, Karen’s life extends beyond the walls of the Mabel Dodge. Here’s her story:

Karen Young feeding breakfast to her alpacas

A background in anthropology and work in archeology led to Karen’s first trip to Taos in 1969. Through a private field school for high school students conducted at Southern Methodist University’s Fort Burgwin,  11 miles outside Taos, she and her archeologist  husband Jon spent four seasons with students from Picuris Pueblo, California and other states conducting a month-long dig at Pot Creek site. During that time, the two became acquainted with the Kit Carson Foundation director Jack Boyer, in charge of three museums--the Kit Carson Home, the Blumenschein Home, and the Hacienda de los Martinez.

Five years later, the couple packed up the family and moved to Taos, a move made possible by Karen’s creativity. With Jack Boyer’s support, she wrote a successful National Endowment for the Humanities grant and created a job for herself and Jon developing an interpretive plan for the Blumenschein Home, the Martinez Hacienda and the Taos Morada. During this time, the Youngs lived in a part of the Blumenschein Home while they built their first home—an adobe designed by Karen.

The NEH grant funded the Young’s first year in Taos, allowing just enough time for Karen and Jon to provide the family with a roof over their heads…the interior was still under construction. Karen remembers the day they moved in -- May 8th -- because it snowed. After the NEH funding ended, Karen and Jon scrambled to survive. Painting fences, sporadic jobs at the Katchina Lodge and the Abominable Snow Mansion, and other seasonal work kept them afloat until George and Kitty Otero, then owners of the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, asked them to help run the Global Realities program. Months later the Forest Service hired Jon as Forest Archeologist, and Karen’s Museum Studies degree landed her a job at the Millicent Rogers Museum. For the next seven years, work there as museum educator and acting director carried her through divorce, and almost through building her own pumice and adobe home.

When the Millicent Rogers Museum hired a new director, Karen suddenly found herself without a job due to cutbacks. Now single, she despaired at being unemployed and at the possibility of having to leave Taos. One day she ran into Pablo Trujillo, whose group Los Alegres had played traditional Hispanic music at the Mabel Dodge, at the post office. When Karen told him her news, he asked to see her hands. Examining them, he announced: “You’ll stay here. You have callouses.” Stay she did, finding work as director of the Northern Pueblos Institute through Northern New Mexico Community College, as co-director of the Taos Historic Museums (formerly the Kit Carson Foundation), and most recently back at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House.

Another kind of work opened up for Karen when her world took on a new dimension in the 1990s. She became interested in alpacas after meeting Phil Switzer from Estes Park, Colorado who brought some of his animals to the annual Taos Wool Festival in 1994. Right then Karen decided she would like to raise alpacas. She consulted with Phil who told her to talk to other breeders and attend alpaca association meetings. As it happened, the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association held its annual meeting in Estes Park the following year. Karen attended the conference, went to lectures, talked to breeders and invested $5 in a raffle ticket for two machos or male alpacas. At the end of the conference, she checked to see who had won the raffle. Someone replied: “It was someone from New Mexico…name started with ‘W’.” Karen’s hopes were dashed, but only until someone else said: “Oh, the last name was Young.”

That’s how Morning Star Alpacas got its start…and that’s another story. Today Karen owns 31 alpacas. She manages to sustain them and her business through the occasional sale of an animal and the wool, and sometimes she shows her animals. Yet the alpacas help sustain Karen—caring for them keeps her active. She finds great joy in watching these calm, gentle animals from her living room window. The alpacas’ cycle of breeding, birthing, and aging echoes the change of seasons in Nature, and in Karen’s life in Taos.

Double rainbow over Karen's home
 In closing, I asked Karen to answer the question "What is it about Taos that invites women to be remarkable?" Her multi-pronged answers follow: "An environment that reaches out and enfolds you; finding new strengths with each challenge met; support from all cultures." I particularly liked her last statement: "The surprise of finding you've sincerely been accepted into the community." And the community benefits from Karen's presence.

Adios for now,

Monday, January 10, 2011

Mabel Dodge Luhan and Mark Twain – Reflections on Autobiography in the New Year

What a wee part of a person's life are his acts and his words! His real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself....his acts and his words are merely the visible thin crust of his world...The mass of him is hidden -- it and its volcanic fires toss and boil, and never rest, night or day. These are his life, and they are not written, and cannot be written.... Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man -- the biography of the man himself cannot be written." -- from Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1*

Over the holidays I immersed myself in the autobiographical works of “The Three Fates” -- Mabel, Frieda Lawrence and Dorothy Brett. I skimmed their works– including Mabel’s Winter in Taos, Frieda’s Not I But the Wind and Brett’s Lawrence and Brett -- mining them for answers to questions about the three women, and for topics for the blog. I came away wanting to know more -- their autobiographies left me unsatisfied, the writing didn't reveal nearly enough about them.

Cover of Winter in Taos, reprint, fourth printing 1996

I finally fastened onto Mabel’s four-volume autobiography, Intimate Memories, which she started in 1924. Mabel wrote of her early intent “I started out to try and show the inward picture of a person of my own period; what heredity and environment had made of her. I did not believe, and do not believe, that she was inwardly so different from a lot of others. She was a 20th century type.” Background (published in 1933) deals with her early life in her hometown of Buffalo, New York; European Experiences (1935) covers time spent in Italy at Villa Curonia; Movers and Shakers (1936) discusses her years as hostess of an avant garde salon in New York; and Edge of Taos Desert (1937) traces her journey to Taos, and meeting and eventually marrying Antonio Luhan from Taos Pueblo.

In each volume Mabel investigates a certain period of her life, each representing a phase that contributed to her search to make herself “real.” Her therapist A. A. Brill, America’s first practicing psychotherapist and the first to translate major works by Freud into English, had suggested she write about her life as therapy. Brill viewed the practice of psychotherapy as a way of giving meaning and structure to life, and so encouraged Mabel to write as a means of self-discovery.

Lois Palken Rudnick and I have discussed the writing of biography, in light of our own work [on Mabel Dodge Luhan and Ernest L. Blumenschein, respectively]. Our conversations have centered on how no matter how many letters, pictures, diaries, interviews, clippings and archival material we delved into, what emerged in the end was a partial portrait of our subjects. I suppose that’s why Mark Twain’s statement on biographies being “but the clothes and buttons of the man” struck me. The full life Mabel lived took place in her head, and could never be written in full.

That said, my goal for this coming year is to post brief sketches on Mabel, her circle, and generations of women who followed,  and to provide enough of a portrait for each of us to recognize ourselves in these women. For as Mabel herself stated, our stories are much the same -- the universal stories of the human race -- and there are life lessons to learn from everyone. Let this be part of our own self-discovery, part of becoming "real."

Happy New Year!

Adios for now,

* from "Riverboat Rambler" by Garrison Keillor. New York Times Book Review, Sunday, December 19, 2010: 7 -- Review of Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1.

**Mabel Dodge Luhan to Hutchins Hapgood, 5 November ?, Hapgood Collection, Beinecke Library, Yale University, quoted in Intimate Memories: The Autobiography of Mabel Dodge Luhan, edited by Lois Palken Rudnick. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999: vii).