Interviewsand Articles


Following Taya

by Richard Whittaker, Sep 22, 2011



As many readers of this magazine will know, Taya Doro Mitchell is unusual. [see issue #16] What readers won't know is that, at the age of 74, Taya left East Oakland and moved to a small agricultural community on the Rio Grande in New Mexico. It wasn't that Taya was tired of her practice of decorating the new bullet holes in her windows from nighttime activities in her neighborhood. She had lived there a long time and wasn't afraid, she told me, even coming home late at night-which was typical. And she was content with solitude, she assured me. 
     Taya was a psychiatric nurse and worked late on a large ward that handled patients with few resources for paying fees. She was on good terms with her neighbors and they kept an eye on each other. Her husband, a retired postal worker, had died about six years earlier, and Taya continued to live as before in her small house. While she had cared for her husband as he declined into Alzheimer's, and partly to while away the time, slowly and steadily she adorned all the walls and ceilings in her home with a dazzling array of found and made oddments. A habitue of thrift shops, she developed a keen eye for the box of ratchet-tabs (fifty cents), or the basket of brightly colored plastic thingies. She had a little band saw she used for slicing things like a piece of ornate ceiling molding, for instance, yielding dozens of interesting profile shapes. She would carefully paint each one and they would be added to the thousands and thousands of other whatnots in all kinds of patterns on her walls. 
     In the 1970s, Taya had attended the San Francisco Art Institute, where she got a baccalaureate degree. But the institution turned down her application for their MFA program, so Taya went her own way. Her ambitions to become an artist had never really been her own. People were forever telling her she was an artist. The truth is, she had always maintained the habit of making things-jewelry or sewing or putting together some little construction or another. As a child, her mother had always told her, keep your hands busy. And she did. 
     Having been exposed to a new world of art at SFAI, the range of things she made expanded to include paintings and sculpture. The rebuff from SFAI hardly slowed her down. She continued on her own, unhindered by ideas of what was or was not an acceptable way to make a painting or a sculpture. She pleased herself. It was a felicitous way to pass the time. In fact, she purchased a storefront a block away from her home. She needed the extra space to work, and her idiosyncratic paintings and sculptures had accumulated. But why limit oneself to visual expression? She also took up both the piano and violin. 
      Taya first came to my attention, thanks to LA artist Michael McMillen and Phil Linhares of the Oakland Museum. It was just lucky timing. A lunch date happened to follow their morning visit to her home. 
     Linhares' discovery of Taya Doro Mitchell is an amusing story. One day Taya was looking through her mail and paused at a solicitation from the Oakland Museum. She noticed a little box you could check if you chose to donate real estate. At the time, she had less than a year before retirement. She'd been thinking about that. Never having spent a minute trying to promote her work, she was suddenly feeling like lightening her burden of worldly goods. Why not just give the whole thing, studio and all, to the Oakland Museum? As Taya had told me before, "Sometimes I act on an impulse." She checked the box and put the card in a mailbox. 
     Well, offers of real estate get attention. In a matter of days, two young women from the Oakland Museum were at Taya's front door. She gave them a tour of her house and then took them over to the studio. There's a nice word I learned from an English photographer that fits here: the two women were completely gobsmacked. They rushed back to the museum and told Phil, who wasted no time getting over to see for himself. 
     I can attest to the effects of a first exposure to the interior of Taya's home in East Oakland. There's a visual shock that registers in the chest and affects the breath. Likely it will be accompanied by a religious exclamation like "Oh my God!" -or the equivalent.  
     Right away Phil gave Taya a show of her sculpture at the Oakland Museum's City Center space. And this marked the end of Taya's isolation, at least until she left town for the little place in New Mexico where she knew no one at all. 
     Taya and I hit it off. Later I introduced my wife and several friends to her. Ann Weber had set up a weekly artists' breakfast in Emeryville, and we invited her to join us. This little group lasted several months and was, as such things often are, a mixed bag with one reliable exception, Taya. Whenever she spoke, I was glad to be there. One never knew what to expect from her, but whatever it might be, it would hold everyone's attention. 
    On her last visit to the breakfast group before leaving for New Mexico, she handed a little cloth bag to Edythe Bresnahan. A few of us remained sitting after Taya had left and I asked Edythe, what's that? She didn't know. 
   "Well, let's find out!" 
   Edythe carefully opened the little bag, revealing, to everyone's amazement, a handful of silver coins-old silver dollars and half-dollars-and there was a second little package wrapped in fragile old paper. Spreading the coins out on the table she carefully unwrapped the last bundle. More silver coins! My God! They had to be worth several hundred dollars. 
    "Why did she give these to you?" I asked Edythe.   
    "I have no idea!" she said, as surprised as everyone else. "Last week I did mention how much I loved the beauty of old coins."
About a year later, I visited Taya in Belen, the little town she had moved to. My wife had something to do with that. She had lived in Albuquerque for a couple of years and had fallen in love with New Mexico, as so many do. Living in the Bay Area, she still dreamed of finding some little place there she could visit for part of the year. I'd been touched by New Mexico, too-enough to take an interest in the prospect. But circumstances had never lined up well enough to convert fantasy into action. 
     Her sudden embrace by the artworld, thanks to Phil Linhares, added a new dimension to Taya's thoughts in the face of impending retirement. Phil had been arranging little art tours and bringing people through Taya's home. Maybe it could be turned into an Oakland Museum art satellite. New possibilities were in the air, and about that time Taya learned about an artists' residence program in Roswell, New Mexico. It lasted an entire year! She even drove out to Roswell to take a look and decided to apply for it. She liked the isolation of the place, the landscape-everything. Maybe that's when she started thinking about leaving Oakland.  
     "Hey," I said to my wife, Rue, one day, "Why don't you talk with Taya about New Mexico." Just a year earlier my wife had been in New Mexico and had spent a couple of days looking at properties with a real estate agent. She'd looked at places in a hundred-mile radius around Santa Fe. I was thinking maybe they could find a little place and buy it together. By then Taya's application had been turned down. But now she had an interest in New Mexico. 
     Long story short, they headed off to New Mexico together. Taya already had a lead on a property for sale south of Albuquerque. The place had a tenuous connection with the Grail, a Catholic lay order of women that Taya had belonged to for several years when she was younger. She had joined the Grail as a teenager in the Netherlands in an early bid for independence from her family. It had eventually led her to the U.S. (Cincinnati, Ohio). After a few years she left the Grail and made her way to the Bay Area. 
    So Taya and my wife got on a plane for Albuquerque. They had a real estate agent and a list of places lined up to look at from the Albuquerque area to Taos. The first place they looked at was a funky, pseudo-adobe thirty miles south of Albuquerque, on eleven acres, a few miles from the small town of Belen. They took a little walk-through with the agent and after this fifteen-minute look-see, Taya said, "I'll take it!" As my wife puts it, "My head began to spin." 
     When they got back, Taya started wondering how she was going to get financing, I recommended a friend, a loan broker I trust implicitly. It was an experience he later came to describe as "working with artists." Eventually Taya was able to strike a deal on the property and she put her Oakland studio on the market. Then she moved to New Mexico. 
     Some weeks later, much later than promised, the un-vetted company she'd hired to move her belongings delivered them-dumped them might be a better description. There was considerable damage to her paintings and sculptures, but Taya put her dismay behind her in short order. There were more important things to worry about. She now was the owner of eleven neglected acres completely gone to weed, three or four outbuildings in poor repair and a poorly-designed house. 
    Both my wife and I visited Taya on separate occasions and once together during the winter of 2009. On one visit I vividly remember standing with Taya looking out across her eleven acres toward the Rio Grande, which lay about a half mile away. The sandhill cranes and geese were stopping over in great numbers on their way north or south. In the distance, the air was filled with the sound of shotguns being fired, over and over and over. "The sheriff is probably out there, too, firing away." Taya said ironically. 
     Even for Taya, the first year was not an easy one. The stories she told me can wait for another time, except maybe this one. One of her neighbors had a few horses. In Taya's new situation, all kinds of work was needed around the place. Why not some bartering? The neighbor's teenage son would contribute some labor and a few of dad's horses would be put out on Taya's eleven acres to eat whatever they could find to eat. So Taya found herself with three horses literally in her backyard. 
     "I'm afraid of horses," she told me. "And so I thought this would be a chance to see if I could overcome that fear." Each day she would watch the horses. She described their habits. The brown one was the boss. The lighter tan one was the most nervous. The black one maneuvered in between.  "I'd go out to the fence and give them carrots. Even that made me nervous." She pushed herself toward closer contact until she began walking out into the field with the horses. They were getting used to each other. Then one day, the boss horse came up to her. She was afraid, but stood her ground. What to do? "I really wanted to understand this animal."
     "Show me your teeth," she said to the horse. 
     She told me she didn't know why she suddenly wanted to see the horse's teeth. But that's what came to her. "And do you know what happened? He showed me his teeth! He just sort of opened his mouth and pulled his lips back."  
     It's just one of those stories that confounds the mind. 
     For Taya, perhaps it was a year of living dangerous-ly. On the other hand, perhaps more so, it was a year of living somewhere else, very much else. Along the mountains to the west, storm clouds would gather as the sun was setting and curtains of rain would fall. As the darkness gathered, there would be incredible lightning displays. "It was so beautiful," she said. And there was all that time to look out into this new world. "I realized it was like the rural Netherlands in some way," she told me. It was a hard year and then, at a certain point, periods of fierce joy began to appear. 
At some point living there, Taya decided she needed a nice clean building to house her artwork, something inexpensive. Maybe she saw an ad pinned up at a second-hand store in nearby Los Lunas -"Affordable Steel Buildings." She made a phone call. It's how she met Kurt. He came out and they walked around. They pointed and talked. It could go right here, or how about over there? At some point, as I remember her telling it, something came over her, something like I think I'll keep this guy. I paraphrase. She sat down on a bench next to him. She made a move.
     My wife and I have a friend in Albuquerque, Dianne Edwards of the New Mexico Tea Company. And when Rue introduced Taya to her it had gone well. Three artists. And Taya's property included a couple of funky casitas. Put them together and what do you get?  A little painting retreat.
     That's how Rue and Dianne met Kurt. "He has a lot of energy," Rue said. The second day of their retreat, as Rue tells it, "Here comes Kurt towing something behind his truck. He's got these two giant lazy-boys, one for each of them. He got them at a swap meet."   
Not that Taya was looking for a husband. But if she had been, would leaving a sophisticated urban area full of all kinds of interesting and educated people to install oneself in an unfamiliar rural backwater be just the perfect strategic move? I've heard middle-aged women despair of their situation-so many women out there, so few men not married or already dead. The desperate hope. The competition. I suppose it hardly seems fair how things played out. 
Rue and I visited Taya and Kurt a few weeks ago They're married. Taya walked away from her property at Belen. She says she left 160k on the table. Taya is not a wealthy woman. For decades, she'd been frugal and worked full time to save up a little money. But what the hey? There are times when the best move is making another leap and Kurt is neither short of funds, nor tight-fisted. Neither is he a lot of other things, like a bleeding heart liberal. "I'm to the right of Genghis Khan," he confided over some of the best home-cooked burritos I've ever tasted.  
     "Kurt likes to cook," Taya explained. And he likes to keep busy, too. Kurt has built several companies up from scratch and sold them. He believes in hard work and trusting his wits. And, as a right-wing Jewish businessman selling steel buildings to ranchers in the southwest, he's also an outsider. How else would a true boho like Taya and someone who might seem the exact opposite find true love?  
     Kurt is putting his skills to work helping his artist wife become as successful as he can possibly make her. And Taya is enjoying having a new husband. "I like having someone to take care of," she told me. "If I had to choose between making art and having someone to take care of, I'm not sure what I'd choose." 
     Kurt owned a nice piece of property in the town of Aztec, New Mexico in the Four Corners area, and he took Taya up to see it. It was either move in with her in Belen and help turn the place around, or start fresh there in Aztec. The property has two small spring-fed ponds and overlooks the town. The choice was not too difficult. 
     Kurt and Taya spent nine months converting a double-wide into a carefully constructed hybrid fantasy. Kurt's cowboy pictures are hung alongside Taya's outsider art. And there's lots of rough cedar trim that Kurt got at a great price from a barn tear-down. And there's lots of room for Taya's new chili pepper red Hummer, a loving gift from Kurt. 
    But what to do about a studio on the new place?  They pondered that and one day, as Kurt told me, he decided to drive into town and look around. "Do you know what happened? I spotted this little sign on the Aztec Theater. It was for sale." 
     Again, long story short, Kurt and Taya bought the place. The city fathers are quite pleased. It's going to be a new cultural center, a perfect second life for an abandoned theater. 
     "I want this to be a place where other groups of people can come in and participate. There are lots of ways that could happen. I'll use it as my studio, too. And it can be a gallery, as well. I don't have to just show my own work." Taya and Kurt are planning to call it the Aztec Outsiders. As she said, "I always knew there was another chapter in my story." 
Here's our interview with Taya from issue #16 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine


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