TAOS, New Mexico — About 30 minutes north of the town of Taos, up a winding road through towering pines, is Taos Ski Valley. Legendary among skiers for its steep terrain, backcountry access, and intimate feel, the ski area at Taos is an extension of the town itself — quirky, homey, and full of character and history.
These characteristics have largely informed the revamp of the ski area, instigated by a change of ownership in 2014, when Louis Bacon — a billionaire and philanthropist invested in land and water conservation — purchased Taos Ski Valley from the Mickey Blake and the Blake family. Mickey’s father, Ernie, founded the resort in the 1950s. The crown jewel of Bacon’s overhaul is The Blake, an 80-room LEED-certified hotel at the base of the mountain which, through its art and architecture, pays respect to the region’s ample cultural influences.
The Blake’s, which opened for the 2016-2017 ski season, has an impressive art collection that also serves as a de facto Taos history lesson. Steven Rose, the director of Residential Planning at Taos Ski Valley, led me through the Blake’s halls and explained the significance of the many works. “We have all these cultures that come together in Taos,” he said. “Taos is the end of many roads. It’s the end of the Santa Fe Trail, El Camino Real, and it’s the northernmost of the 19 pueblos [in New Mexico]. It’s the eastern edge of the Navajo migration lands, it’s the western edge of the Plains tribes’ migration lands, and it’s the southern end of the Ute migration lands. Then you drop into the mix the artists that came in 1898 and created an arts colony here, and Ernie Blake and ski culture.” Guests at the Blake can also sign up for art tours of the hotel during their stay.
The entryway is decked out with photos of the Blake family, ski ephemera, and even a handmade map made by Ernie Blake that indicated where the ski trails should one day be. The lobby features large-scale oils by Taos Society artists Walter Ufer, E. Martin Hennings, and Oscar Berninghaus. The Taos Society of Artists was formed in 1915 to promote the work of a group of artists that congregated and worked in town, dating back to 1898. Though the group disbanded over a century ago, they formed the basis for the Taos Art Colony.
A set of Gustave Baumann prints flanks the elevators. Baumann settled in Santa Fe in his late 30s and lived the rest of his life in northern New Mexico, chronicling the region primarily through his woodblock prints, though he was also a skilled painter.
The collection continues upstairs, in the hallways leading to the guest rooms. A complete set of 10 lithographs, made from pen-and-ink drawings that Georgia O’Keeffe made throughout her career, line one hallway. Only 250 sets of these lithographs were made, and the Blake’s is set number 167. Each is framed in one of O’Keeffe’s signature “quarter-round” or “clamshell” style frames.
O’Keeffe first traveled to New Mexico in 1929 with Rebecca James, and then returned almost every subsequent year. James, who met O’Keeffe through her husband Paul Strand (a protégé of O’Keeffe’s husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz) had visited Taos once before in 1926. In 1933, she left Strand and settled in Taos permanently, and later married a local rancher. Inside the Blake’s spa, two delicate, reverse oil-on-glass paintings by James are featured, along with a Nicolai Fechin portrait of James and a set of photographs, including one that features both James and O’Keeffe.
Outside the spa is a set of Edward Curtis photographs. Curtis was famously supported by some of the most influential men of his time, including Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan, and his photographs are some of the most frequently reproduced of the 20th century. (In the intervening decades, Curtis’s photography has become somewhat controversial.)
Ernie Blake, a German Jew, emigrated to Switzerland as a young man and eventually to the United States. He had hopes to join the 10th Mountain Division, but instead was recruited to join the OSS (the precursor to the CIA) due to his facility with languages. After the war and before heading West, Blake was involved in interrogating Nazi war criminals. Later, he was made an honorary member of the 10th Mountain Division’s Southwest Chapter. One hallway at the Blake features archival images of the 10th in training.
The hotel’s restaurant, named 192 for the tail number on the plane Ernie was flying when he spotted the ski valley, is home to two more Ufer oils, as well as one of the quirkier pieces in the collection: a reindeer head sculpture made by Santa Fe artist Geoffrey Gorman, who works with recycled and found materials.
The Blake is also home to many local craft works, including an extensive pottery collection, most of which is housed in the spa. There are also many beautiful textiles, two of which are displayed in 192.
I grew up in a ski town where a normal Saturday meant riding a rickety double — that means two people per lift — that lasted at least 20 minutes, snowblowers pointed straight into your face, over and over. (We thought it was fun.) That double is now a high-speed quad, and it rises out of a “campus” that could be any ski resort, anywhere in the country. Multi-story caramel-colored chalet-style buildings with massive mirrored windows loom around skating rinks, fire pits, and fur-lined tourists. Top-40 songs blare from hidden speakers. Perhaps I am too young to be waxing poetic about the good old days, when skiing was charming and didn’t cost $130 a pop. But still, I find it heartening when ski areas commit themselves to something other than generic resortiness. The changes at Taos come with some local grumblings, no doubt, but the Ski Valley’s new ownership has an apparent commitment to the region’s history and culture.
The Blake art collection is open to the public at the Taos Ski Valley (116 Sutton Place, Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico) 24 hours a day.