by Tamra Testerman | September 30, 2021
The painter who traded
Taos renaissance man Ralph Waldo Emerson Meyers (1885-1948) is a “true Taos character” according to Gabriel Abrums, owner of Chimayo Trading Del Norte in the Saint Francis Plaza.
“Ralph Meyers embodies all the characteristics of what makes a person ‘Taos unique.’ He was first to establish trade with the Taos Pueblo and the first to open a trading post in Taos. He was a builder, a mountain guide and many other vocations in his lifetime. Meyers was adventurous and had a knack for moving easily in cultures not his own. He was trusted and respected and wanted nothing more than to be in the mountains … painting. We preserve his legacy at Chimayo with only a few known paintings which are rare, and Chimayo has the largest collection in the world.”
Meyers’ lifelong passion was to be a painter, so much so he identified his profession as ‘artist’ on his World War I draft card. He grew up in Denver, Colorado, and in 1910 moved to Taos to take a job with the Fire Service Guard at Blue Lake, a sacred place to the Taos Puebloans regarded as the source of all life.
Steeped in the stunning beauty and spiritual atmosphere of the mountains, this assignment changed the course of his life.
In 1912 Meyers began trading with the Taos Pueblo and surrounding areas; he was one of a few white men who was trusted by the Native Americans. As a merchant and a trader, Meyers maintained professional and personal connections. Hispanic ranchers, tourists, and townspeople were his business partners and friends. Meyers learned the local traditions of creating “beadwork, deerskin clothing, silversmith and ceremonial pieces. He employed Pueblo and Navajo Indians to make crafts and jewelry to support the burgeoning tourist trade; Queen Marie of Romania, Mabel Dodge Luhan and Millicent Rogers were his friends and clients. His role working with Native people to market their jewelry and crafts at fair prices was instrumental in the preservation of “the Native cultural traditions of woodcarving, silversmithing, beading, weaving and leather-working.”
In 1933, Meyers married Rowena Matteson. The couple ran the trading post and opened a restaurant called La Dona Luz, which they operated until he passed away in 1948. The original store, four generations later, is still operating as El Rincón at 114 Kit Carson Road. His grandson Estevan Castillo runs it. Next door, Paul “Paco” Castillo, another of Meyer’s grandsons who shares the family history and knowledge of New Mexico, hosts the La Dona Luz Inn.
Meyers’ journey as an artist in Taos began with collecting photographs, chronicling the scenery and culture and along the way learning from other artists. He built studios and was the outfitter for members of the Taos Society of Artists, guiding them into the mountains on sketching, hunting, fishing and camping trips. On these adventures, Meyers watched, listened and learned.
With this keen eye, he observed artists from New York, Europe and Russia and along the way, taught himself to paint. His work caught the eye of Russian artist Leon Gaspard, who called him “one of the finest colorists in Taos.”
Gabe at Chimayo said what makes his work extraordinary is “Meyers had no training in art and only a third-grade education. Yet he watched trained artists and taught himself to paint. As an amateur, he was never admitted to membership of the Taos Society of Artists, but was invited to exhibit six of his paintings in the Society’s first show in 1915.”
The legend of Ralph Meyers’ life is one of a “self-taught, self-reliant outsider whose life and vision helped shape the country’s understanding of the American West, and the world’s appreciation for American art. It was said of his work, ‘He’s perhaps the only one here who can paint what can’t be seen.’
Gabe said the work at his gallery is from a local collector “with a passion to collect all this artist’s work and to honor a painter whose work was undiscovered during an era when the Taos Society of Artists was documenting a period in time before things shifted. What is remarkable about Meyers is that you see the land and people through the eyes of an artist that was not formally trained. You can see how the style of Meyers’ painting changed dramatically as he was influenced by who he was painting with. There are less than a hundred of his paintings known to exist. Chimayo Trading Del Norte has the largest collection of Meyers’ known work in the world.”
Meyers’ paintings are in a few institutions including the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site, and the Smithsonian Institute. For more information about Chimayo Trading Del Norte, visit their website at chimayotrading.com.