Imagined Wests
A few years ago, I chanced upon a rare treat. Artist Paul Pletka had loaned his multilayered 2014 painting Pietà to the New Mexico History Museum and, upon hanging it, gave an impromptu interpretation of its characters and meanings to a group of onlookers. He noted how the Christ figure was in fact a statue, but one with very real wounds, and that the Virgin Mary holding him was not only human but a Mexican Indio. Behind them, a group of contemporary men wore masks typical of Latin American ceremonies. The colors of their shirts and emblems on their vests held meanings that invited us to look beyond the vibrant colors and neo-realistic composition to witness this cultural twist on a traditional European tableau.

More recently, I stopped in my tracks at the Albuquerque Museum, where Pletka’s 2002 El Cuerpo de Cristo had joined the long-term Common Ground exhibit. As often as Ranchos de Taos’ San Francisco de Asis church is painted, photographed, and sculpted, perhaps no one else has imposed upon it such a literal interpretation: the church as the body of Christ. Courtyard walls take the form of lanky arms and Pletka’s trademark enlarged hands. Christ’s face serves as the entry through which devoted parishioners enter.

Layer such a fantastic point of view with painterly precision and you’ve got an artist worthy of public acclaim and scholarly attention. In Paul Pletka: Imagined Wests, he gets that treatment, with an essay by Amy Scott, chief curator at the Autry Museum of the American West, and a foreword by James K. Ballinger, former director of the Phoenix Art Museum. Consuming most of this oversize book are more than 80 full-color reproductions of Pletka’s explorations into Native and Hispanic culture—past, present, and future—thoroughly researched and reimagined. Iconography from Tlingit, Eastern Orthodox, Japanese, and Moorish cultures joins that of Lakota, Navajo, and Spanish. The dead return to mingle with the living. What is real? For the most part, Pletka declines to say or even to take what another artist might consider an easy political stance.

A California native raised in Colorado, he moved to Taos in 1969 and now lives in Tesuque. Born of pioneer stock that barely escaped the Dakota War of 1862, he turned his attention not to his own forebears but to those who were ultimately displaced—and how they survived. Raised by people who carried the immigrant’s wariness, he well understood a world that he says can seem “exaggerated, operatic, dangerous, and uncertain.”

He plows that mindset and a deep respect for his subjects into work that demonstrates the care he has taken to learn about those peoples and represent them accurately and compellingly. Rather than define the hidden mysteries he portrays, Scott writes, Pletka is “compounding them, emphasizing the unreal, imagined, or mental elements … in ways that differ distinctly from the romanticized ethnography” of the often criticized Taos Society of Artists.

“To this day,” Pletka writes in his artist statement, “indigenous cultures continue to fire my imagination and influence my work, where I am and always have been an observer and an interpreter.”

Imagined Wests will be available in late September. Pletka discusses his work at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe on October 7, at 2 p.m. (505) 476-5200; —Kate Nelson

Frank Waters Remembered in Letters & Commentary
By Alan Louis Kishbaugh (UNIVERSITY OF NEW MEXICO PRESS, 2017)
When he first met Frank Waters in the 1960s, Alan Louis Kishbaugh approached him as a young fan of Waters’ written works, many of which addressed indigenous beliefs and practices in the American Southwest and Mexico, including Book of the Hopi (1963) and The Man Who Killed the Deer (1942). Los Angeles resident Kishbaugh’s first letters to Waters at his Taos and Tucson-area homes reflected that distance with an awkward formality and apologies for taking up his time. By the time of Waters’ death almost three decades later, their relationship had developed into a close friendship that entailed many visits, exchanges of books and ideas, and introductions that wove them both into a web of common acquaintances.

This blossoming over time is illustrated in the letters the two exchanged over the years. They are gathered together in Deep Waters, interspersed with Kishbaugh’s narrative providing additional background and context for names and events mentioned therein. Their content brings a personal insight to some of the metaphysical inquiries that were pulsing through the culture of the times and were explored in Waters’ books, many of which reflected a love for the land and the Native cultures that lived upon it. The letters also shed light on some of the frustrations and triumphs that any author experiences in trying to be published. Kishbaugh, a representative for publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux, couldn’t interest even his own employer in some of Waters’ manuscripts.

Someone seeking deeper insight into Waters’ ideas may have to look elsewhere, for this tome concentrates on the personal relationships, travels and other day-to-day concerns that make up anyone’s life. Those details, though, offer a trove of information to scholars wanting to learn more about Waters and his life. —Jackie Jadrnak

Making and Claiming Mexican American Identity
By Robert Con Davis-Undiano (UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS, 2017)
After a couple of generations of mixing by Spanish and indigenous populations in the Americas, the ruling classes constructed a complicated matrix of rank and shame based on an individual’s percentage of European blood. In Mestizos Come Home, Robert Con Davis-Undiano, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and executive director of World Literature Today magazine, traces the journey of the mestizos who burst through those boxes and rejected stereotypes reflected in skin color to instead embrace and celebrate their rich history and culture.

That movement particularly exploded with protests and civil rights battles in the middle of last century, when many spoke out to define their own communities and identities. The author relies heavily on writings of activists and authors such as Rudolfo Anaya and Tomás Rivera, as well as visual art, to illustrate the values that united mestizos, especially the Mexican Americans who are the focus of this book. Those values include a bond to the land as a sustaining force, the celebration of the body and emotional life in equal balance with the mind and reason, a frank recognition of the inevitability of death (as expressed in Day of the Dead traditions), and a devotion to family and community.

Davis-Undiano explains the concept of Aztlán, the historic home of the Aztecs before they traveled south to Mexico City. Some claim that ancient homeland was in New Mexico, giving Mexican Americans a claim to a place where some residents today view them as interlopers. Davis-Undiano also points out the decades of deceit that deprived many Hispanic communities of their land in the Southwest.

While taking an academic approach, his book offers a clear vision of the Mexican American culture with an eye toward expanding appreciation for all it has to offer. His references to other authors also open the pipeline for readers who want to explore more mestizo voices and writings. —Jackie Jadrnak

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, the U.S. Army was a far-flung group unaccustomed to fighting major military campaigns. Their ranks totaled around 15,000—about a quarter of the number of mail carriers the government employed. Fearing a Confederate invasion of New Mexico Territory and California, the Union sent its troops to the Pacific and the Río Grande. They left in their wake a power vacuum among Anglos, Hispanos, and Indians on both sides of the border.

That scramble for control of the sparsely peopled and rugged Southwest is the focus of Civil War in the Southwest Borderlands, 1861–1867. Andrew E. Masich doesn’t spare the reader illuminating details as he digs into a remarkably broad swath of time and geography, stitching together a new history of the region that is simultaneously political, social, and cultural. In straightforward, thoughtful, and not-too-jargony prose, Masich compellingly details how a distracted U.S. government fractured an already fragile balance of power between disparate groups—ones that still call the Southwest home. It’s an academic history, but not a wonkish one, and it’s supplemented with photos, charts, appendices, and a glossary that are useful references for even the casual reader. For history buffs, it’s a fascinating framework through which to understand the effect of America’s most crucial time on our region. —Andrew Roush

Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War
By James McGrath Morris (DA CAPO PRESS, 2017)
With a shared experience of driving ambulances in World War I, John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway found common ground in their struggle to express the effects of that war and develop a new form of literature for their “Lost Generation.” But as much as the authors shared, often serving as early readers and critics of each other’s works, their diverging perspectives and personalities also tested their friendship. With a clear, direct narrative, Tesuque author (and New Mexico Magazine contributor) James McGrath Morris offers insight into what brought these writers together and what tore them apart. An eye for telling detail makes the postwar world come alive for readers, along with the pair’s travels from Paris to Spain to the United States, from snow-covered mountains to humid seashores.

The Ambulance Drivers provides basic biography, along with the writers’ interactions with each other and their common friends. Don’t worry if you happen to be unfamiliar with their writing—samples and descriptions are included to impart the literary flavor of their works.

Today, while Hemingway makes the reading list of almost any high school English class, Dos Passos is lost to many readers. Yet, at the time they were published, Dos Passos won the most literary acclaim from critics—even while readers more enthusiastically grabbed Hemingway’s books off the shelves. The two differed in their aims: Dos Passos wanted to change the world; Hemingway wanted to offer a reflection of the way it was. Dos Passos saw war as a shameful oppression of soldiers and a waste of their lives; Hemingway viewed it as an unavoidable reality that offered a true test of manhood.

Morris, whose past biographical subjects have included pioneering black journalist Ethel Payne and media mogul Joseph Pulitzer, brings these writers to life. Who knows? Maybe it will inspire you to pick up some of the stories told by Hemingway and Dos Passos. —Jackie Jadrnak