IN SANTA FE, MIXING FIRE AND LIGHT; FROM TORRID NEW MEXICAN FEASTS TO SPLENDID ART GALLERIES, THE CITY ENTICES

SANTA FE – She’s got to have it.

Hot! Hot! Hot!

My friend, Aurelio, can’t help herself. She lusts for hot, hotter, hottest chili peppers, a habit she picked up as a child and cannot shake. Not that she’d want to, as long as she can sneak into Mudville (a.k.a. Santa Fe) for an annual weeklong fix. Addiction amid the adobes.

Even though she’s lived in Boston a couple of decades or so, Aurelio is a shameless New Mexican defector. Raised on the dusty rose soil of a hardscrabble ranch in outskirting Tesuque, riding bareback and bathing in the creek, she was nurtured on home-squeezed goat’s milk and torrid chili.

When the estimable Leo Romero, out of Guadalajara, introduced fine Mexican cuisine to Boston at Casa Romero some time ago, Aurelio tried to nominate him for a presidential medal.

But mention TexMex, MexMex, or NewMex to me, a guy wary of such gastrointestinal depth bombs, and the medal I think of is the Purple Heart. I always thought that chili was a temperature below 32, a South American country, or a Yankee outfielder last-named Davis. Until I met Aurelio. Now I know about red chili and green chili. Maybe even black and blue, gray, orange, rainbow and plaid varieties exist for the afflicted, the chili abusers.

Presumably there is something to do in Santa Fe besides eat at the Guadalupe Cafe, where the congenial boss lady-chef Isabelle Moomea caters to salivating junkies like Aurelio and her brother, Ford, with blue corn cheese enchiladas splattered in red and green chili (Christmas, as the natives call it), a fried egg over easy, and “posole” (hominy stew).

I will say this for Isabelle: She is the sorceress of sopapillas, delicately deep-fried and hollow minicushions of dough, generally eaten with honey. Not, thankfully, chili. Yum. Although, gulp, they can be filled with chili.

“Of course there are other attractions,” frowns Aurelio, meanwhile burrowing into pork tamales, chili rellenos and carne asada, and trying to think of a couple. “Santa Fe has more splendid museums and art galleries per capita than anywhere else. Even the state Capitol building is a repository of art – New Mexican paintings, sculpture, and Indian weaving. There’s world-class shopping, and . . . .”

I don’t wear Indian jewelry, I remind her.

“That’s not the only item. And there’s ballet, dude ranches, skiing, spas, theater, a chamber music festival, and probably the most renowned attraction internationally, the Santa Fe Opera . . . .

“Maybe the best of all – and it’s free – is the daily cloud show.”

She’s right about that. New Mexico may lead the planet in celestial art. Billowing, pillowing, jutting, scudding across the endless overhead stage, these continuously distinctive clouds are magnificent showoffs. They are splashed and sculpted, monsters and miniatures, soothing and angry.

Ever captivating, constantly changing are formations that run from simple to phantasmagorical. Since this sky is a 360-degree vision, you’re scanning heavenly blue here, a thunderstorm over there, a mysterious shroud somewhere else, hills balancing walled towns in another place. This is a full-service ceiling, a channel-switch every time you look.

“It’s the reason so many painters have come here. The light,” Aurelio says. “Ah, the light. The clarity. No pollution. You can see the layers and layers of mountains. It reminds me of Tibet – but that was a long time ago. Who knows what the Chinese have done to mess up that sky?”

One of the adoptive painters who felt, “New Mexico is my place,” was the determined, willful Georgia O’Keeffe. Although her mother had said, disapprovingly, “Painting is one of Georgia’s crazy notions,” she worked and produced her fascinating canvases almost to the end of her 99 years.

Her output, so tremendous and compelling, called for a public building devoted to the hanging of it. And it materialized, the outgrowth of an idea of Ann Marion, seconded by her husband, John. Bulwarked by the donation of the Marions’ sizable O’Keeffe collection, the handsome Georgia O’Keeffe Museum opened in downtown Santa Fe two years ago.

Adobe, of course. “Here’s more mud in your eyes!” was probably the architectural cry, and it came out just splendidly with comfortable, airy galleries, and a sculpture courtyard.

“We knew it would be a success,” says George King, the director of the world’s only museum devoted to the creations of one woman. “O’Keeffe really grabs people. But we’ve been overwhelmed by the response.” Best time to avoid lines is late afternoon, says a townie.

Aurelio remembers that, as a child, she met O’Keeffe, an acquaintance of her parents, and they dug for dinosaur bones together at Ghost Ranch near the painter’s place in Abiquiu, northwest of Santa Fe in an area where such fossils have been found.

“She was strong and striking, like her work.”

Stronger than chili?

“A dead heat with jalapeno.”

Plenty of those huge, powerful O’Keeffe flowers have been assembled for the current show, “The Poetry of Things,” that runs into October.

O’Keeffe explained, “I painted a flower big so you’d have to look at it. Nobody looks at a life-sized painting.”

I’m magnetized by them. But as I wander through the rooms I can’t help feeling that those gargantuan black and purple petunias, black larkspur, reddish-orange poppies, black iris, blood-red canna, blue jacks-in-the-pulpit, and creamy jimson weeds are looking at me. Hungrily?

I stay near the center of the room, warily, not getting too close. Could they devour a passerby in their sensual but ominous swirls and whorls? On another wall is the ethereal “Ladder to the Moon.” Maybe it’s there to climb, to escape O’Keeffe’s dangerous-looking garden?

Adjoining the new, stunning Gerald Peters Gallery is a restful garden with rocky waterfall and fish pond. Its occupants at the moment are the amusing animals sculpted by the French couple, Claude and Francois-Xavier Lalanne, that we last saw at the Bagatelle Garden in Paris. Massive ducks, a tyrannosaurus with ivy-clad body, a see-through fish, and a herd of black-faced-and-horned sheep are among their creations holidaying in a foreign land.

The Lalannes are more fun but not as well known as Alexander Calder, the man of hanging knicknacks called mobiles. One such droops from a Peters ceiling, and if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it. I ask anyway.

“Six-hundred-fifty thousand dollars,” responds a cordial galleryman, Brady Roberts.

“A steal,” I say.

“That’s the only way we’d get it,” says Aurelio.

Small and choice is the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, founded by Bostonian Mary Cabot Wheelwright in 1937, a response to her friendship with Navajo medicine man Hosteen Klah. A wonderful eyeful therein, the show “Clay People” that stays until November, is a cast of whimsical, satirical, and bizarre figures by unknown potters from nearby Cochiti and Tesuque pueblos.

These characters – Anglos, Indians, and Mexicans – are out of the last decades of the 19th century. Gone with them is this style, but contemporary pueblo dwellers Virgil Ortiz, Roxanne Swentzell, and Nora Naranjo-Morse (also in the show) are reviving it with their own updating.

As iron-willed as O’Keeffe, the paint brush lady, is a timeless Spanish lass-about-town named “Carmen” whose art is the brush-off of admiring males. In fine, flirtatious voice as this year’s flaming “Carmen” at the Santa Fe Opera is a young Englishwoman making her US debut, Sara Fulgoni. She’s a wow (wildly, obstreperously winning) in this, one of five operas of the season.

Also winning, as always, is the setting for this sort-of-ampitheater that dates back to 1957. It used to be that your parade of Traviatas, Aidas, Fausts, Manons et al. could get you rained on. Now the audience is entirely roofed, but the panorama of the Jemez Mountains fading into dusk to the accompaniment of stars is intact because the building remains open on either side.

The Big Dipper moves into view just as Don Jose dips his knife into Carmen, a jalapeno-tempered honey if there ever was one.

“Why did he have to do that?” I groan, knowing it means the end of a marvelous evening.

“Probably,” says Aurelio, “because she wouldn’t share her chili peppers.”

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