Saturday, January 11, 2014


Mars and I collect images of the Virgin of Guadalupe – in all forms, religious representations, abstract sculptures, pillows, hot pads, and articles of clothing.  Almost all of them are from New Mexico.  We live in Connecticut but visit the “Land of Enchantment” at least once a year.  The icons help remind us of the area the rest of the time.

When J*, a high school BFF of Mars who now lives in Albuquerque, visited our house for the first time recently she asked what attracted us to this particular representation of the “Mother of God”.  We did not have a readily available answer.
 Then the January issue of New Mexico magazine featured “25 Life-changing, ‘I Love NM’, Aha! Moments”.  Mine is easy to recall.  And now I can see how it is tied in with the V.O.G.  
I was raised Catholic in Connecticut beginning in the 40’s through the 60’s.  Morality for a monochrome age – like the clothing worn by the nuns and priests who instructed us, and the television programs and TV sets that we watched them on. Unfortunately I was the type of person who worried about the dark possibilities rather than seeing the light.  I was not a happy Catholic.
In the midst of all this was the Virgin Mary.   None of these rules were her idea, and she never did anything wrong  – ever.  Plus we were told she could intervene on our behalf with her more judgmental son and his father.  What was not to like? 
 Unfortunately her perfectly sinless image was pictorialized in distant, otherworldly, almost colorless, blues and whites.  I also remember representations of her various appearances at Lourdes and Fatima.  (Guadalupe was not mentioned.)  Their lack of living color was similar.
 One time in elementary school in defense of a smaller classmate I punched the mouth of a bullying sixth-grader with a Lady of Fatima ring I was wearing.  I knew I had done something wrong as soon as the tyrant’s blood started flowing.  And I figured it was even worse because I had used an icon of peace as a potentially deadly weapon.  On the other hand it was the only real color I had seen on an image of the Virgin Mary, and perhaps was an actual instance of her intervention. 
 I fell in love with Mars (not a Catholic) in our senior year of college and we married two years later.  As a result, among other good things, I began worrying less about my afterlife and more about experiencing the nuances and experiences of the real
 world with someone that I wanted to make happy.
After twenty-four years together Mars and I decided to do something special to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary in September 1992.  That summer we had seen a Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. 
 We had been familiar with reproductions of some of her paintings – bleached cattle skulls against a vibrant turquoise sky, extreme close-ups of maroon and red flowers – as well as an actual work “The Lawrence Tree”, which we saw at a local museum where it was inadvertently hung upside down.
But Mars and I were not prepared for the impact of several rooms full of the real thing and we were totally blown away by O’Keeffe’s ability to create abstract shapes and near-hallucinogenic colors out of the bland, lifeless landscape of the desert southwest. 
In Georgia O’Keeffe’s own words, “what is my experience if it is not the color?”
 We decided to go to Santa Fe and Taos to see some of the places that inspired her inventiveness.
 There we saw more wildly colored depictions of the area by other local artists. But we were even more overwhelmed by what we encountered in the great outdoors of northern New Mexico itself.  One morning before daybreak we drove to the bridge at the Rio Grande Gorge outside of Taos.  The previous afternoon we had seen a landscape painting of similar terrain lighted by another impossible combination of abstractly arranged purples, oranges, maroons and reds.  Now, as we stood in the darkness staring (appropriately) at the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to our east we saw that very-same multi-color mélange wash over the sierra as the sun moved upwards into the sky.
And we discovered Our Lady of Guadalupe.   Not in a sunrise apparition – that would have been way too much for us, or this essay – but instead in images found in the back-road churches of Chimayo and other small New Mexican towns as well as less spiritual locations such as the upscale gift stores of Santa Fe, tee shirts advertising that city’s Café Pasqual Restaurant, and on socks given to Mars by our daughter-in-law and son this past Christmas.
 Again, like O’Keeffe’s MOMA exhibition, Mars and I were already somewhere aware of the V.O.G. – in this case from having seen the story on the PBS children’s series “Wishbone”:
“…a live-action television series that brings books to life for kids and their families. In each episode, the star - a friendly Jack Russell Terrier with an overactive imagination - leaps into a new and exciting adventure with his human owner, Joe Talbot and his friends in their hometown of Oakdale.
“[In the episode] ’Viva Wishbone!’ Joe's family friend Julia tells Joe stories from Mexico that help him understand the power of love for his mother. Meanwhile, Wishbone is Juan Diego in the story of ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’.”
Again, like happened in the museum, the effect of the real thing was irresistible.
 The Virgin’s gold aureole, crimson tunic, and turquoise mantle were the colors of Juan Diego’s indigenous culture – were the tones of Georgia O’Keeffe’s southwest paintings – were the natural hues of the Rio Grande Gorge sunrise. 
What is my experience if it is not the color?

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