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Natural and cultural beauty etched into New Mexican expanse

Gov. Bill Richardson gives an artist a tour of his beloved state.

September 27, 2009|Judith Fein

SANTA FE, N.M. — The sun beat down on the weathered wooden buildings of the deserted western town. Four cowboys circled on their mounts, anticipation flashing in their eyes as they looked out toward a long, dusty road.

Then he appeared: 6 feet 2 inches tall, black cowboy hat pulled low over his eyes, chaps covering his legs. He strode past the saloon, the telegraph office and the freight depot and called for Toby, his horse. Then he rode out into the desert scrub, as the rest of the cowboys trailed after him.

It was almost a movie moment. In fact, this was a movie set at Bonanza Creek Ranch, about 20 minutes from Santa Fe, where "Lonesome Dove," "Into the West" and "Silverado" were shot. The star of the show this day was New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, former U.N. ambassador, candidate for the presidency, negotiator for the release of hostages.

The First Cowboy took time out of his schedule to show me his New Mexico, the 47th state admitted to the union a little more than 97 years ago. With its sweeping vistas, wide-open spaces and collision of cultures, it's a visual and cultural buffet that captivates the governor, who makes the Energizer Bunny look like a slacker.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, September 29, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Gov. Bill Richardson's New Mexico: The photograph of the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico on the cover of Sunday's Travel section was reversed. Getty Images, the agency that supplied the image, had incorrectly scanned a film transparency into the digital format backward, resulting in the flopped image.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, October 04, 2009 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Gov. Bill Richardson's New Mexico: The photograph of the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico on the cover of the Sept. 27 Travel section was reversed. Getty Images, the agency that supplied the image, had incorrectly scanned a film transparency into the digital format backward, resulting in the flopped image.

So here we were, hanging out. It was his job to show me some of his favorite places. It was my job to try to keep up with him. Richardson, 61, who has spent a couple of decades in the saddle, had Toby plus his trainer with him, and he was clearly comfortable and in control. I was jelly-legged with fear as my steed and I tried to keep up.

"This is what I do for fun and relaxation and to get away from work, staff, BlackBerries and the relentless pressure," Richardson said as I clutched the reins. "I go riding once a week. I love the savage beauty of the landscape and the rhythm of the horse. It's like being on a boat on the ocean with the wind, the air, the peace. It's a dialogue between me and my horse."

He paused and glanced at me in an avuncular way, sensing my conversation with my horse wasn't going all that well: "Keep your heels down, sit up straight, don't hold the reins too tight."

Richardson looked out over the seemingly endless expanse of high desert in his adopted home. It may be his upbringing that makes him especially suited to govern this state. His father, an American, met his mother while working in Mexico City, but before their son was born in 1947, she traveled to Pasadena to ensure the child would be unquestionably an American citizen.

He spent the next 13 years in Mexico, then went to prep school in Concord, Mass., on his way to Tufts and then to Washington, D.C. He moved to New Mexico in 1978 and won a seat in the House in 1982. After his U.N. ambassadorship and a stint as President Clinton's Energy secretary, he returned to New Mexico in 2002 and was elected governor the same year. He explored a presidential bid in 2008 but ultimately chose the land of real horses over Washington horse trading.

We rode from the movie set out through the scrub, sand and shrubs of the surrounding landscape, and then looped back to the western movie town. After we dismounted, I joined R.C. Brown, the governor's driver, as he drove Richardson by car to the top of Museum Hill in Santa Fe.

"I'm a pottery man, and this is my favorite museum," Richardson said, as I followed him into the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. "I like Indian art the best, and Barbara [his wife] and I own a Fritz Scholder painting and a T.C. Cannon."

Shelby Tisdale, the director of the museum, greeted us and applauded Richardson's good taste. "Scholder and Cannon were the beginning of the modern movement, away from traditional works on paper," she explained. Scholder, who's considered the first Native American artist to portray the "real Indian," produced paintings, lithographs, photographs and sculptures and influenced a generation of contemporary native artists.

One of his best-known students was Cannon, who helped expand the boundaries of Indian art by painting Native American themes and people in a bold, contemporary, vividly colored, highly decorative style. Cannon was killed in a car accident in 1978.

"I also collect R.C. Gorman," Richardson said of the Native American lithographer and master of unique, fluid, contemporary American Indian portraits whose accessible style makes them immediately identifiable.

"He was a personal friend. He did fund-raisers for me," Richardson said of Gorman. "We'd raffle off some of his prints when I was a nobody running for Congress in 1982."

Native artworks

The museum exhibits about 12,000 years of Native American history, has world-class historic and contemporary collections and is integral to the story of New Mexico native art.

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