Monday, November 19, 2012

Rebecca James, Part Two: Taos

Rebecca James. Photo courtesy of the Taos Historic Museums.

Back in Taos in 1933, Becky (as she now called herself) started a new life. She renewed friendships with Spud Johnson, Dorothy Brett, and Frieda Lawrence, among others. She also reconnected with entrepreneur Bill James. He had first noticed Becky while porch sitting in front of his latest business venture, the Kit Carson Trading Company. They discovered a mutual Buffalo Bill connection: Bill James’ father had known Judge Beck who was Nate Salsbury’s guardian. This was but one of many commonalities shared by Becky and Bill. They married in 1937. The gregarious Bill introduced his new bride to members of the Sunshine Club. Becky joined in the group’s poker parties. On occasion poker club members wore costumes—she dressed as a nun—and they regularly imbibed in Taos Lightning, the local bootleg whiskey. As Spud Johnson later noted, Becky began to act and talk tougher (he compared her rough language to that of a stevedore’s), “simply out of delight in finding herself ‘free’.” Becky became a Taos character. Her appearance was both striking and unmistakable: platinum hair tucked under a wide-brimmed black Stetson, jeans with an open shirt (often topped by a flowing black cape), black cowboy boots—all set off by her classic profile. A marked change from the sedate Victorian-influenced dresses of earlier years.

The Great Taos Poker Society. Courtesy of Taos Historic Museums.

Devoted to Bill, the love of her life, Becky supported his enterprises. When he entered politics in 1938, first as a councilman, then as a gubernatorial candidate, she penned articles and editorials for Taos and Santa Fe papers. When he founded the New Mexico Aberdeen-Angus Cattlemen’s Association, Becky served as the organization’s secretary. She also sold the resulting dairy products to townsfolk.

All the while, Becky continued to receive recognition for her landscapes, still lifes and genre subjects. The Denver Art Museum showed 31 of her glass paintings in 1933. Two other solo exhibitions followed at Santa Fe’s Museum of New Mexico in 1934 and a second showing at Stieglitz’s An American Place in 1936. A reviewer for her 1939 exhibition at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center commented on the unique quality of Becky’s style which was at once modern, abstract and full of symbolism.

Rebecca James White Roses at Twilight (1941)*

In accordance with the Colorado Springs reviewer, Mabel Dodge Luhan gave a good overview of Becky’s work in Taos and Its Artists:
The paintings on glass by Rebecca James, that are occasionally to be seen here in exhibitions, are perhaps the most exquisite productions of any Taos artist. Flowers—sometimes only a single flower—fruit, still-lifes composed of objects found in the valley, an ancient cross, an old Santo, are reproduced with a most poignant sensitivity to color and meaning.
When the modernist Rio Grande Painters group invited Becky to exhibit with them, she discovered a new medium. She also made a new friend, E. Boyd. Becky found in E. (as her close friends referred to her) a fellow aficionado of Spanish Colonial art. E. Boyd became the Museum’s first curator of Spanish Colonial Arts. Her seminal book, Popular Arts of Spanish New Mexico, and her research laid the foundation for all future scholars in this field. No doubt E. based the book on her notable collection of 1200 objects. Through her Becky would have probably seen museum-quality examples of colcha embroidery.

Colchas captured Becky’s artistic interest. She took lessons from her Taos neighbor, Jesusita Perrault, who had earlier taught the special stitch to adults and schoolchildren. An authority on Spanish Colonial embroidery, Jesusita had a fine collection of authentic colcha patterns. She had stitched her own indelible bird, animal and flower designs. At first mastery of the tiny stitch baffled and defied Becky. However, when she finally gained competence, she put the same love for the places and things that she portrayed in her paintings into her embroideries. By the early 1950s Becky’s colcha pieces had attracted the attention of museum curators. In 1952 E. Boyd installed 100 of her friend’s original embroideries in a solo exhibition at the Palace of the Governors. That same year Becky’s friend and fellow artist, Dorothy Benrimo, arranged the show at the Harwood Foundation in Taos. In an article in El Palacio magazine that year, Frieda Lawrence commented on seeing Becky’s colchas: “I got a vivid impression of Rebecca herself—the artist….You could feel how much of herself she had put into her work.” Further, through “her own genius” Becky had successfully mixed Spanish Colonial and European iconography. The result was “enchanting.”

"For Dorothy" Courtesy of the Millicent Rogers Museum

Becky herself spoke to the artistry of colcha embroidery:
This versatile stitch, for me, has provided a creative means to make a statement with stitches. The living world around one—the skies, the land, the people, grasses, trees—can be imbued with immediate life in a way never achieved by the mere decoration of a doilie, a pillowtop, a skirt.

Her colchas came to national attention. In 1963 editors of Women’s Day magazine visited Santa Fe for the first time. At the Museum of International Folk Art they viewed the “Embroideries by Rebecca James” exhibition. Delighted by the beauty of these colcha paintings, they asked Becky to write up their history, materials and stitching method. Her article appeared in the magazine’s April 1964 issue. In it Becky likened painting to embroidery. Whether with a paintbrush or with needle and thread, “both the painter and the hand-stitcher start with equally simple, ordinary tools—and for both the responsibility is the same—to create something that lives, speaks and gives delight.”

Holy Child of Atocha. 1963.024  Courtesy of the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art**

After a 20-year hiatus, three prestigious institutions hosted solo exhibitions of Becky’s work. In 1951 her glass paintings were invited to San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor and to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. The renowned San Francisco art critic Alfred Frankenstein praised her work: “Mrs. James paints her people very naively, but with infinite pathos, sympathy and love.” He deemed the show,“one of the year’s most poignant.” In 1954 the Martha Jackson Gallery gave Becky her third New York exhibition.

Of Becky’s creative work, her writing is less known. She had typed up some of Mabel’s memoirs in the 1930s and compiled artists’ biographies for Mabel’s Taos and Its Artists, so she had a good idea of the work that went into a book. Since so much had been written about artists and writers, Becky elected to write biographies on living men and women, people she knew well. Most interested in frontier types, preferably connected with gambling, cattle wrangling or bootlegging, several such characters appeared in the 1953 publication Allow Me to Present 18 Ladies and Gentlemen, 1885-1939. Among the people she portrayed were Bill James, Jesusita Perrault, gamblers Doughbelly Price and Curly Murray (who fled the Texas Rangers on a trumped up murder charge), and Gerson Gusdorf (who introduced such ”firsts” to Taos as the first sewer line, Western Union, the telephone). Different as they all were, these men and women had one thing in common. As Becky put it: “neither mud nor snow nor sleet nor wind nor lack of public utilities could invade their love for Taos.”

Becky’s world came to an end when Bill died of a heart attack in June1967. Becky lost the will to live. She already suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, which compounded her pain. A year later, following a last showing of her colchas at the Millicent Rogers Museum, she took her own life.

Rebecca James life work is preserved through her art, her writing and her scrapbooks. Taken together these informed the most comprehensive treatment of Rebecca James to date: "In the Shadow of the Sun : the Life and Art of Rebecca Salsbury James" (Ph.D.dissertation) by Suzan Campbell. And now, Debra Simon and Judy Sokolow are in the homestretch for their documentary, BECK.

Wishing you all a Happy Thanksgiving.

Adios for now,


To find out more or lend your support to the "BECK" Documentary, please contact Debra at for further information.
Donations to Ra~Rie~Mon Productions in support of this film are tax deductible.  

* Rebecca James White Roses at Twilight Courtesy of the Taos Historic Museums.
** Photo of Rebecca James colcha embroidery, Holy Child of Atocha, courtesy of the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, Collections of the Spanish Colonial Arts Society.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. Rebecca James is my favorite colchera!!