Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Salons: Mabel Dodge Luhan and Two Remarkable Women of Taos

Photo of Mabel and her son John in the Gran Salone, Villa Curonia*
My obsession with words and their meanings coupled with reading in Mabel Dodge Luhan’s European Experiences (one of her memoirs) and a Remarkable Women of Taos event on July 28th sent me to the dictionary for the definition of “salon”.

I noted how listing number 2 – “a fashionable assemblage of notables held by custom in the home of a prominent person” – readily applied to Mabel who presided over one of the most famous salons in American history at 23 Fifth Avenue in New York. From 1913 to 1916 she hosted pre-World War I "movers and shakers" who supported avant-garde ideas in the arts, politics and society. Revolutionary at the time, salon topics ranged from the ideas of Freud to the virtues of free love to anarchistic and socialist views of working-class struggles.

Mabel explained the popularity of her Evenings and her raison d’etre for holding her salon:

There were so many people with things to say, and so few places to say them in. There seemed to be no centralization in New York, no meeting place for free exchange of ideas and talk. So many interesting people only meeting each other in print! So I thought I would try to get people together a little and see if it wouldn’t increase understanding if they would all talk among themselves and say what they thought. And I think it did…some who had been enemies for years in the hateful half-truth of newspaper columns came more and more to understand one another as they aired their views together in the open.

Prior to her salon in New York, Mabel spent a dozen years living in Italy. In European Experiences she documented her first evening in Florence as she gazed down at the Arno River from the salone or suite of rooms in the hotel, a palace once owned by an old Florentine family. Searching for a home, she and her then husband Edwin Dodge found the Villa Curonia in Arcetri a region in the hills to the south of the city center. Perched on a “high special hill of its own,” the imposing structure resembled the “imperial villa” below it, built at the same time and owned by “grand dukes.”

In her book Mabel describes Villa Curonia’s North Salon, a wide, 50-foot long room, and the Gran’ Salone built at the west end measuring 90 feet in length. Artist Jacques Blanche used the larger salon as the setting for Mabel’s solo portrait as well as a painting of her and her son John. Looking at the room’s splendid antique furniture and damask wall coverings delineated as backdrop in Blanche’s canvas, the first listing for salon – “spacious and elegant apartment or living room” –  applies in this case.

Portrait of Mabel and John by Jacques Blanche

In these and other rooms, Mabel hosted as her dinner guests luminaries like the world-renowned Italian actress Eleanora Duse, art connoisseur and critic Bernard Berenson, concert pianist Arthur Rubenstein, writer and Paris salon hostess Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo Stein, collector and one of the first prophets of Modernist art. One can imagine the lively conversations that occurred around the long, narrow dinner table on the terrace. I believe that the atmosphere Mabel created in her Italian villa served as the impetus for her salon in New York, and later, in a different form, in Taos.

The tradition of the salon lives on, though the living rooms have changed. That’s another topic for another time. However, I believe that you’ll be interested to know that the art of conversation prompted a salon-style gathering in Taos this past weekend.

As part of the Remarkable Women of Taos, Lily’s in the Garden of San Jose hosted Taos locals Gail Russell and Dana Micucci. Tea and light refreshments accompanied the sharing of ideas, inquiries and insights with these two fascinating women. Allow me to introduce them and share what salon attendees and I learned about them.

Gail Russell
Resident in Taos for the past 33 years, photo artist Gail Russell's images capture the Southwest's essence of light and spirit of place. As a child Gail was always painting, drawing and making prints. Supported by her parents (Gail's mother, a sculptor, studied at the Art Institute of Chicago), Gail pursued a career in fine arts. While studying at the Pratt Institute in New York City she arrived at an artistic crossroads. She could either buy an expensive etching press or pick up the camera that her employer and mentor fashion photographer Richard Davis gave her. Gail chose the camera as her predominant means of visual expression. Her interest in Native American spirituality and her photography skills soon combined to guide her on her life path. In 1972 she was requested to document a gathering of spiritual leaders from many tribes who had come to New York to speak in support of native sovereignty. Gail won the respect of several of the elder delegates. Three years later as a trusted friend she participated in the "Longest Walk" and photographed the stretch she covered on foot from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. for Newsweek. Gail continued to photograph and work with various Indian tribes.

In 1987 her involvement with Indian people took another turn. While traveling in the Black Hills in North Dakota, Gail experienced the horrific February snowstorm that shut down part of the state and struck the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation particularly hard. In the aftermath, when three Lakota Sioux elders were found frozen to death in their cabins, Lakota elder Nellie Red Owl asked Gail to do something. An idea of Nellie's led to the two women founding the Adopt-a-Grandparent Program  that helped elders in need on the Pine Ridge Reservation as well as some Taos Pueblo elders.

Gail operated the program for 17 years out of a tiny office inArroyo Hondo, where she and several employees over the years, including Jason Immanuel, Guida Liecester, Mary Hambrock and Steven Martinez. Gail stepped down from the Adopt-a-Grandparent Program in 2001 to pursue photography full time. Her body of work testifies to her long-time interest in temples and antiquities, inspirational images, the human form as well as the Southwest and American Indian life based on years spent among Sioux, Taos Pueblo and other Indian people.

Throughout the afternoon, Gail showed examples of her work. The photo titled Night Song struck a deep chord within me. Recalling Taos Society of Artists member Joseph Sharp's paintings of similar scenes in Montana over a hundred years ago, it thrilled me to discover the continuity of traditional culture translated into contemporary times. I discovered that Night Song was a particular favorite of Gail's. When I asked her about the photo, she put her feelings to words:

The Drum was the Heart Beat
carrying the singers all through the night,
Prayers traveling up to the Heavens
With the smoke from the Sacred Fire,
Awaiting the Morning Star....

Regarding her photos, it is Gail's hope that her work "might remind the viewer of a higher thought, a place filled with light, or perhaps a memory that touches the heart."

Dana Micucci
A more recent arrival, journalist and author Dana Micucci divides her time between Taos and New York City. Her fascination with the written word began in childhood. After receiving a BA and an MA in English Literature, Dana fulfilled her long-held dream of living as a Bohemian writer in a garrett of her own on the Left Bank of Paris.

Upon her return from Paris she began her career as a freelance journalist in New York City, with a stint working as senior publicist for the international art auction house Christie's. Over the past twenty-five years her articles and essays on topics of culture, art, design, travel, and spiritual and socials issues have appeared in such newspapers and magazines as The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Architectural Digest, and Art & Antiques. Noted figures Dana has interviewed in the course of her career -- among them architect Richard Meier, choreographer Twyla Tharp, writers Toni Morrison and Doris Lessing, and artists Louise Bourgeois and Kiki Smith -- constitute a contemporary roster of movers and shakers.

A passion for fiction landed Dana in Columbia University's Creative Writing Program, where she was a senior fellow. She published poetry in literary journals, and her experience in Paris and interest in cultural history led to the publication of Artists in Residence, a guide to the homes and studios of eight 19th-century artists in and around the City of Light. She is also the author of two other books on art and collecting. 

Art-related travel stories took Dana throughout the world and brought her to many of the world's sacred and exotic lands to study and write about their cultural and spiritual traditions. Chronicles of seven sacred journeys spanning fourteen years of her life inform Dana's most recent book, Sojourns of the Soul: One Woman's Journey around the World and into Her Truth (Quest Books, 2011). Transpersonal psychologist and three-time recipient of the American Psychological Association Award for Journalism Gay Luce deemed Dana's book "An easy read, elegantly written, this is the gripping story of a woman's profound transformation, with travel as a spiritual teacher. It is a vivid experience, both well researched and inspiring."

Trained in a variety of healing modalities, Dana employs these skills and her written work to foster cultural and spiritual understanding. As she says, "Now more than ever, current world crises demand that we develop a deeper understanding of diverse cultures, and therefore ourselves.”

Just today while hunting through the stacks at the Santa Fe Public Library, a book leaped off the shelf into my hands. I’ve spent the better part of the afternoon riveted to its pages, and as synchronicity would have it, this passage provides the perfect ending to this post on salons. It’s from the introduction to The Joy of Conversation: The Complete Guide to Salons (Utne Reader Books, 1998), the paragraph where author Jaida N’ha Sandra states:

Salons are gatherings where people talk “big talk,” talk meant to be listened to and perhaps passionately acted upon. Salons are incubators where ideas are conceived, gestated, and hatched, sometimes in a matter of minutes or hours. Salons are the frontiers of social and cultural change. Salons are the concert halls where conversation is presented in virtuoso style.

In these times of sound bites and Tweets it seems like the authentic face-to-face conversation of a salon could help people find meaning in their lives, come to trust their individual voices, and develop the ability to evaluate the mind-boggling amount of information that comes over the internet. No doubt that the salon can play just as integral a social and cultural role now as it did in Mabel’s day.

Adios for now,


* Artist Jacques Blanche photographed Mabel and John in preparation for his painting of them. The images are taken from Mabel's book European Experiences published by Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1935.