THE EMERGENCE OF A HIP desert art town follows a certain pattern. It starts with the rise of an industry in a small community: maybe a military base (see Marfa, Texas, and Slab City, California) or a mine (Jerome, Arizona, and Madrid, New Mexico). The industry lures job- and adventure-seekers to the relatively remote town. After a heyday in the early part of the 20th century, the industry shuts down. People move away. The century marches on. The infrastructure crumbles. Stately buildings gather dust. Depending on the unique character of the abandoned industry, a fascinating and often beautiful sort of dilapidation seeps into the place’s pores.
Then, gradually lured by this still alive, gently breathing history, along with a low cost of living, natural beauty, and a growing collection of like-minded folks seeking creative freedom, the artists move in. The art town, as it is now identified to visitors and outsiders, becomes a layered installation all its own. It whispers of its complex past from under fresh bursts of paint, in haphazardly placed murals, through found-object assemblages, and in newly opened galleries.
All these factors converge in the continuously rising artistic profile of the peculiar town of Carrizozo, a former railroad hub at the intersection of U.S. 54 and U.S. 380 that now hosts a growing arts district, a thriving creative scene, a new film center, and an enthusiastic community.
“They like the wide-open spaces,” says Warren Malkerson, owner of the Tularosa Basin Gallery of Photography, who estimates that the town’s population of artists is “at least 90.” “We call it the ‘Bowl of Eternity,’ ” he says of the region’s alluring geography. Thirty-five miles east of the Trinity Site and 30 miles northwest of Ruidoso, Carrizozo rests at the northern end of the 65,000-square-mile Tularosa Basin. To the northeast, Carrizo Peak towers over the crossroads town; the Sierra Blanca range looms to the southeast. Three miles to the west, the town’s unusual landscape is rounded out by the inky presence of the Carrizozo Malpais, a 40-mile-long lava flow that erupted from Little Black Peak around 5,200 years ago.
Carrizozo’s dramatic environment is ground zero for artistic inspiration. But the area’s intriguing past also stimulates expression. At the Carrizozo Heritage Museum, Soul of the West Bootique owner and docent Gwendolyn Rogers, clad in a vintage leopard coat, takes me on a whirlwind tour through the place’s unique history. She remembers an oft-repeated remark from her former teacher, historian Dr. Bill Thorpe. “He said, ‘If you go somewhere and tell people you’re from Lincoln County, nobody knows what you’re talking about. But then you can say one of three things—Billy the Kid, Smokey Bear, Geronimo—and somebody, I don’t care where in the world you are, will know something about one of them.’ ”
The museum, located at the edge of town in a former 1940s icehouse and power plant, is filled with treasures from the area’s railroad and ranching past, including re-creations of a schoolroom, ranch kitchen, homesteader’s cabin, millinery, and barber shop, as well as the largest collection of barbed wire I’ve ever seen. As Rogers and fellow docent Rick Geary, a local illustrator, cartoonist, and graphic novelist, walk me through the rooms, the past leaps out and overlaps with the present. Major players stand out: Lincoln County War instigator and ranch owner Lawrence Murphy, played by Jack Palance in the movie Young Guns, and the widow Susan McSween, who became known as the Cattle Queen of New Mexico for the giant ranch she headed nearby after the war.
As Geary’s 2020 book Carrizozo: An Illustrated History recounts, the town—located in “a fierce realm of scorching sun, wailing wind, and deadly beasts”—took off in 1899, when it was selected for a station stop on the El Paso and Northeastern Railway. Named for the abundance—hence the extra “zo”—of the carrizo grass that grew in the area, Carrizozo built its character from the ground up before hitting its peak population of 2,000 in the early 1920s. Architect Frank English, a resident, constructed at least 30 Craftsman-style residences that imprinted a certain style on Carrizozo.
The street closest to the railroad tracks became the center of town. A 30-room hotel, which included a 24-hour lunch counter, welcomed railroad visitors as the town’s social center. But in the manner of many towns built by the railroad, Carrizozo hit a decline after the last passenger train departed in 1965. The population has rested at less than 1,000 for decades.
More than a century later, historic 12th Street remains the town’s nerve center, only weirder, as it’s currently alive with artists, studios, galleries, and—crucially for the new economy—an art supply store, Zozo Bazaart. Running parallel to the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, 12th Street’s newly repaved intersection with U.S. 54 is now marked by an array of vibrantly hued sculptures of flowers created by 20 local artists.
Carrizozo’s colorful new presentation at that corner is designed to get motorists to slow down and notice its face-lift. The flower installation coincides with the culmination of an $8.5 million road reconstruction project on the stretch of U.S. 54 that runs through town. The new look, on the main drag through the historic commercial district, includes sidewalks and lighting designed to match the character of the city architecture. As a result, several commercial buildings on the National Register of Historic Places are undergoing renovations and readying for new businesses—and a fresh wave of visitors. On World Art Day (April 15), the unveiling of the flower sculptures took place alongside a raucous set from the N’Awlins Gumbo Kings as well as a fashion show, a poetry reading, and open houses at the galleries and shops that line 12th Street.
“It was magical,” remembers artist and gallerist Cynthia Johnson of her first weekend in Carrizozo, when she came to town for an opening at Malkerson Gallery 408. “This place draws the most amazing people—people who could live anywhere in the world and choose here. I can’t even explain that.” She relocated from Los Angeles to take over another gallery space on 12th Street in 2018. This year, Johnson’s Rendezvous Press printed a slew of World Art Day commemorative poster prints, featuring the work of 30 local artists presented by local sponsors. Johnson, who has steadily spearheaded and grown World Art Day events since her arrival in town, aims to use the celebration to secure Carrizozo’s place on the artistic map.
Joining her in the quest to raise Carrizozo’s profile is Mike Lee, who opened Fast TV Network Studios this spring after repurposing the historic downtown’s Nike Ballroom into editing and production facilities. The new business indicates growing interest from the film industry in the town where The Book of Eli (2010), This Must Be the Place (2011), and Wander (2020) were filmed.
Who you meet in Carrizozo is as important as the art you see. Joan Malkerson, Warren’s wife, kicked off the 12th Street renaissance when she opened Malkerson Gallery 408 in 2005. Her ongoing installation, The Painted Burros of Carrizozo, began soon after the move, inspired by an old photo of donkeys being led up the street. The herd of nearly 30 aluminum burros, colorfully decorated by artists, can be found throughout the town as mascot sentries on rooftops, along the roads, beside businesses, and gathered in the courtyard of 408. “People started to stop and ask, ‘What’s with the burros?’ ” Warren remembers. The couple have now sold more than 500 burros to visitors, who have taken them to 38 states.
Then there’s Paula Wilson, a nationally known mixed-media artist who moved to Carrizozo in 2007 to be with her husband, woodworker Mike Lagg. The three-building suite they own serves as both their studios and the artistic social center of Carrizozo. Every Friday from noon to 1 p.m., the weekly art event known as MoMAZoZo draws a crowd of visiting enthusiasts and locals who participate in a hands-on art-making activity.
Locals know to bring recyclable glass to the former loading dock outside Wilson’s studio, where an ever-growing installation now glitters in the sunlight. “If there’s enough interest,” says Lagg, “we play the glass-smashing game.” Bottles are tossed into the loading dock, with points awarded for breakage, style, and sound. The winner gets a custom-made “toothpick trophy” from Lagg.
In 2015, Warren Malkerson opened the state’s largest photo gallery at the end of the street, which has turned into a flagship of sorts. The Tularosa Basin Gallery of Photography, which for seven years has shown the award-winning images from New Mexico Magazine’s annual photo contest, specializes in reflecting New Mexico back to itself. The gallery is a place to see—and includes the eclectic Carrizozo Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an impressive collection of rock instruments and memorabilia hosted on Saturdays by collector James Lane, whose roadie and groupie stories belong in the movie Almost Famous. In the adjoining building, a collection of spacious, light-filled studios rented out by the Malkersons invites artists to stay awhile.
“I’m so stunned by everything,” says Prima Jalichandra-Sakuntabhai, a conceptual artist from Los Angeles who moved to town this spring for the Carrizozo Artists-in-Residence program, begun in 2017 by Joan Malkerson and Wilson. Provided with a residence and studio for a monthlong stay, Jalichandra-Sakuntabhai had just arrived in Carrizozo when I met them for dinner at Wilson and Lagg’s house. The visiting artist’s awe at the sheer amount of strange beauty and artistic allure seems to sum up the general feeling of visitors when they first hit town: “Every time I step out of the house, I’m like, Oh my God.”
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GET TO KNOW ZOZO
See and shop. Decorate empty walls with the help of the Tularosa Basin Gallery of Photography, which features an impressive collection of images taken in New Mexico by an array of photographers. Stop by the gallery on Saturday and head downstairs to see James Lane and his Carrizozo Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which includes a guitar signed by members of Pink Floyd and much more. Malkerson Gallery 408 presents exhibitions throughout the year, featuring the work of artists Joel Becktell, Matt White, Joan Malkerson, Susan Weir-Ancker, Marcus Abel, Alfonzo Lucero, and more. Every Friday from noon to 1 p.m., MoMAZoZo hosts a hands-on art happening. The new kids around the block, Farris & Farris Arts, sell a lively collection of paintings, artworks, and jewelry by San Antonio, Texas, transplants Susan Brumfield Farris and Aaron Farris, who is the newest member of the town's board of trustees. In the same building, Soul of the West Bootique represents the best collection of Western, vintage, and just plain cool clothing in Lincoln County. Look out for the annual Darlins of the Desert Vintage Market, a shopping extravaganza held September 30. Step back in time at the Carrizozo Heritage Museum, where you can purchase Rick Geary’s graphic-novel retellings of the town’s history and the Lincoln County War.
Refresh yourself. Sip on a lavender latte and munch on a gooey ham-and-cheese croissant at Honey Girl’s Café, where local artists gather to start the day. Arrive for a Friday night of live music and gourmet pizza at Rosey’s Pizza, a converted house with a pink burro outside. The specials are ridiculously good at the Valero station, where a small price gets you a hefty burger or delicious enchilada plate. Enjoy biscuits and gravy or huevos rancheros at the Four Winds Restaurant.
Stay longer. Check in to the clean, family-owned Four Winds Motel & RV Park. El Mistico Ranch, located in nearby Nogal, offers glamping experiences on Airbnb, while scenic campsites can be found at Valley of Fires Recreation Area.
Explore more. Hike the Malpais Nature Trail at Valley of Fires Recreation Area and step onto the alien landscape created more than 5,000 years ago by the Malpais Lava Flow. Check out 21,000 petroglyphs, made between 400 and 1450 AD by the Jornada Mogollon people, at Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, 30 miles southeast of town. Drive 12 miles to White Oaks, a former mining town that’s home to the No Scum Allowed Saloon and the White Oaks Miner’s Home Museum.
Play pickleball. As with most of America, the pickleball craze has hit Carrizozo. “Our youngest player is 28 and our oldest is 82,” says Robyn Nelson, organizer of Zozo Pickleball. A Street Ball Tournament takes over 12th Street on Saturday, June 10, to raise funds to build proper pickleball courts in town. Complete with vendors and open galleries, the tournament hosts two sessions, at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Anyone can register to play; email email@example.com or call 307-331-2000 for more information.