“In Search of America” (and Santa Fe) – excerpt from a new book by Robert Wolf

Among its many virtues Santa Fe has always been a refuge for dreamers, eccentrics and artists. Some of these magnificent souls bring with them an unmistakable effervescence, a radiant and slightly skewed take on the world that reminds us of what a life of complete freedom, with both its rewards and its costs, looks like.
If there were a poster child for Santa Fe artistic eccentricity it would have to be Tommy Macaione (1907-1992). Old time Santa Feans remember Macaione wandering through the city, usually with a few of his beloved dogs with him, painting area landscapes, gardens and street scenes. He was instantly recognizable with his leonine head of hair and bushy beard making him look like a Renaissance artist who just happened to drop into the latter part of the 20th century.

Tommy Macaione statue by Mac Vaughan, Santa Fe

 Tommy Macaione statue by Mac Vaughan, Santa Fe
We got some insight into Macaione when the author, Robert Wolf, stopped by the gallery a few months ago to talk about his new book, In Search of America. Wolf met Macaione and other Santa Fe artists when he lived here and the new book includes accounts of that period.  In addition to Macaione, Wolf writes about artists including Alfred Morang, Harold West, Eli Levin and others.
We were so interested to hear some of these stories of Santa Fe that we are hosting a book signing for Mr. Wolf this month. In addition to Mr. Wolf’s appearance we’ll be showing some works by artists who appear in the book. The book signing and exhibition will take place Friday, October 16 from 5 to 7 pm at the gallery.
When Mr. Wolf was a student at St. John’s College he met Macaione and writes about the artist and other Santa Fe adventures in his new book, “In Search of America”. Following is an introductory comment and excerpt from the book by Mr. Wolf:

From the early 1960s through the early 1970s, I lived on and off in New Mexico. In February 1963, at age nineteen, I left an upper middle-class Connecticut home to rent an uninsulated shack in Duran for $10 a month, and stayed until late March. In 1965, I returned to New Mexico to enroll in St. John’s College. In Santa Fe, with my friends Mac and Alan, I began exploring the City Different. This excerpt from “In Search of America” recounts my first meetings with artist Tommy Macaione.

Santa Fe Winter Scene by Tommy Macaione
Santa Fe Winter Scene by Tommy Macaione

Winter snow was melting the afternoon Alan rushed into our dorm and announced to Mac and me that he had discovered a great painter. He sat down on the edge of Mac’s bed. “He’s as good as Van Gogh. You’ve got to see him.”
He drove us down the hill to Canyon Road and parked in front of a one-story stuccoed house. A hand-painted sign above the front door read:
PAINTINGS – Tommy Macaione—El Differente
El Differente had a painting propped in his window, an intense landscape reminiscent of Van Gogh.
We jumped out of the car. Alan knocked on the screen door and Tommy called, “Wait! Wait!” Moments later he pulled the door open, and through the screen said, “I can’t let you in yet. I can’t let my babies out.” He pushed his dogs aside with his feet, all the while talking loudly to them. We entered a tiny living room empty of furniture but stacked with paintings. The paintings were in various stages of completion. They were painted with thick daubs and streaks of color, wild profusions of emotion. But on one wall he hung two conventionally rendered paintings—one of a pair of flamenco dancers, another of a pipe and a bowl with fruit. “I hang those,” Tommy said, “so that people will know that I can paint like that, if that’s what they want.”
A stench filled the room. Tommy’s clothes were covered with dog hair. His bed was covered with dog hair, the sheets and cover balled together. Empty dog food cans with bits of decayed meat lay on the floor next to dog turds. There were wet spots and stains where his dogs had peed.
Tommy had the title “El Differente” legally affixed to his name. And different he was. He was in his mid-fifties with a long unkempt beard, hideous breath, and hair that shot out in all directions. He was missing several teeth; those he had were brown and yellow.
“I’m having a terrible time,” Tommy told us, “I’m STARVING. Things are worse, Alan. I passed out just the other day and the day before that, too, I’m so hungry. I haven’t enough to even feed my babies.”
His eyes watered and he spoke frantically, in a rush.
“We can help you out, Tommy,” Alan told him. “How about coming up to dinner this evening?”
“Boys, do you mean it?”
“Sure we do,” Alan said.
“I love you boys,” he said, grabbing Alan and hugging him. “Can you drive me downtown? Do you have time? I have to get some bones for my dogs, they’re starving. God would be very angry with me if I let them die.”
“Sure,” Alan said, “let’s get in the car.”
Tommy sat up front with Alan. His smell sickened me. Mac and I rolled down our windows but the rush of air could not eliminate his odor.
We drove to a grocery store where Tommy walked to the meat department and returned with large bags filled with bones and meat scraps. Meanwhile, I bought a box of spaghetti, several cans of tomato sauce, Italian sausage, two loaves of bread, and a can of soup.
“This ought to hold you for a while,” I told him.
He cried and hugged me.
I was happy for him and envious of his intensity and dedication and lack of inhibition, but his sentimentality embarrassed me.
That night Alan brought him to the dining room, a large hall with balconies and clean light wood tables. The hall was clean, spare, modern. Tommy wore a torn corduroy coat with bulging pockets, baggy pants thinning at the knees, and old cracked shoes with knotted laces. With his wild hair and unkempt beard Tommy looked as out of place as anyone could. But we were proud of our find; after all, we were mingling with the townspeople.
That struck me as the big gap between us and the other students: they had little to do with the town. Their interests were in the program, themselves, and a handful of friends. We, on the other hand, lived only partly for St. John’s. You might say the books were for us a jumping off point, a different way of exploring the world, a kind of background to it. The real thing was life, people.
“God bless you boys, God bless you,” Tommy kept saying.
When Kyle our waiter told us the selections, Tommy said excitedly, ”You mean I can have a choice?”
Alan said, “Sure. And if you want more later you can have it.”
When Kyle brought our orders Tommy immediately pitched into his food, gobbling it and talking while he ate. “St. John’s is a great school, a great school. You boys are very lucky to be here. Me, I didn’t have a college education. I went to art school. I knew very early I wanted to be a painter.”
“Have you always made your living as a painter?” I asked.
“A living!” he practically screamed. “I can’t make a living at painting now!”
“Right,” I said.
“I was a barber for years, in New York. When I came to Santa Fe in fifty-three I was a barber.”
His fingers were greasy from picking up food with his hands. When bits of meat and vegetables became entangled in his beard, he did not notice.
“If you boys want to do me a favor,” he said loudly, his mouth filled with food, “something God will bless you for, get me a show at St. John’s.”
“All right,” Alan said, “we’ll do that.”

Periodically the college hung an art exhibit in a gallery on the balcony overlooking the dining hall. We arranged Tommy’s show through Colonel Deal, who crated the exhibits. We arranged to meet Colonel Deal at Tommy’s studio. Colonel Deal brought his station wagon and selected the paintings and we stacked them in his car and in Mac’s. We spent the afternoon hanging the show while Tommy walked around, jabbering excitedly, “God will bless you. I pray for you. You are good boys for doing an old man this kindness.”
We had Tommy to dinner several more times. For fifteen years Tommy had starved in Santa Fe. Whenever things got especially tough he took out a large ad in The Santa Fe New Mexican—the town paper—pleading for help. He traded paintings for the ads. Now he thought his fortunes were changing. He thought that with a show at St. John’s he would begin to attract wealthy buyers. He wrote prices of three and five hundred dollars on small cards in a scrawl and posted them next to the paintings. Then he scratched out those prices and scribbled in higher ones.
For days afterwards we spent hours with Tommy in Mac’s room before a tape recorder as he told us his life story and his theories of art. He wrote huge summaries of these in his large hand on greasy papers. All this was for a biography and artist’s statement, which we were to type up and photocopy and put in a stack in the gallery. We never wrote the biography or the statement. Tommy kept walking or hitchhiking up to St. John’s to see the show. Benevolence and gratitude changed to indignation. He railed at us.
“For two months now you’ve done nothing,” he would say. “That’s not right. You made a promise and if you’re gentlemen you’re supposed to stick to them.”
He was right.

 Tommy painted outdoors around Santa Fe in all weather. I remember his large paintings of hollyhocks that grew in profusion along Santa Fe sidewalks. Tommy was most interested in flowers, shrubs, and bushes, sometimes set against houses. In winter he wore several corduroy jackets and torn trousers, painting outside on the bitterest days. I saw him painting one evening at dusk to catch the last of the flowers before the autumn frost. When Tommy was not painting or begging scraps for his dogs, he would walk all five of his pets, getting the dogs and himself entangled as they dragged him across Santa Fe.
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1 thought on ““In Search of America” (and Santa Fe) – excerpt from a new book by Robert Wolf”

  1. Thank you for such a moving piece of writing-by both the blogger (I’m guessing that is you, L. Matthews,) and by Robert Wolf. I love his book title:
    “In Search of America.” It makes me want to cry because it is of a time that was also my youth. The story is compelling. I grew up in New Mexico, but left in 1969 for college and then life in Texas, Minneapolis, NYC and Long Beach, California. It has been my own “search of America.” I have returned to New Mexico for many visits with friends and family over the years. I first came to Santa Fe as a little girl with my parents and grandparents, who were in business and politics. Having returned many times as an adult, I always wondered about St John’s. What a great story this excerpt of the book is. Robert Wolf and his friends didn’t just stay up in the ivory tower, but instead came into the world of Santa Fe and discovered Tommy Macaione, the painter, dog lover and eccentric human being. His painting shown here is indeed reminiscent of Van Gogh, but it is also very much a beautiful view of Santa Fe in winter. I can’t wait to read “In Search Of America.” Save a copy for me, please. Wish I could attend the opening!

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