Caretaker of precious arts legacy Couse Leavitt is nominated for Governor's Award

By Dena Miller
Posted 7/3/20

On an escarpment bounded by Quesnel Street and historic Kit Carson Road, there's an unassuming compound of adobe buildings occupying its uppermost two acres. In fact, you may pass it every day yet be unaware of its existence.

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Caretaker of precious arts legacy Couse Leavitt is nominated for Governor's Award

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On an escarpment bounded by Quesnel Street and historic Kit Carson Road, there's an unassuming compound of adobe buildings occupying its uppermost two acres. In fact, you may pass it every day yet be unaware of its existence.

Keep your eyes open for the sign that directs you to the Couse-Sharp Historic Site, the century-old home, gardens and studio of Eanger Irving Couse, and the two studios of his neighbor/fellow artist, Joseph Henry Sharp.

The two were members of the Taos Society of Artists, a fellowship of the like-minded who, in the early 20th century, introduced Northern New Mexico to the American consciousness.

Several of the site's buildings date from the early-to-mid 1800s when the site was poised as a strategic lookout across Taos Valley. In the early 20th century it became the epicenter of the young art colony flourishing in Taos.

Today it survives as an amazing time capsule in which the lives of its previous occupants are preserved with meticulous care and in exacting detail.

The existence of this microcosm of early life in Taos is a tribute to Virginia Couse Leavitt - granddaughter and only surviving member of her immediate Couse family - and her late husband, Ernest, who became caretakers of the property in the 1980s. The couple were the impetus in establishing the Couse Foundation which, since 2012, has owned and operated the site.

In recognition of her work in preserving both the site and its archival legacy, the Taos Arts Council has named Couse Leavitt as this year's nominee for the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts.

Every year since 1974 the committee for the Governor's Awards solicits nominations from both individuals and arts organizations. Awards are presented to individual artists, outstanding corporate support of the arts and major contributors to the arts.

Paul Figuero, president of Taos Arts Council, said of their nomination, "We believe Ginnie is particularly deserving of this award [as a major contributor]. With perennial dedication to her personal mission, she has engaged in historical support for and involvement in important New Mexican art history, that being the scholarly documentation of her grandfather, the painter of New Mexican and Native American life."

"The Governor's Award would be particularly meaningful and timely with the recent publication of her biography, "Eanger Irving Couse: The Life and Times of an American Artist, 1866-1936 (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019)," he continued. "Beyond this publication," though, "she has dedicated her lengthy professional career to compiling and archiving important information about not only her grandfather, but the Taos Society of Artists."

"This nomination is certainly an honor," Couse Leavitt marveled. "I'm kind of surprised by it, but I understand that the recognition it would bring is important to Taos," noting that the site exists as the world's most comprehensive preservation of TSA history.

"My husband and I understood that we possessed something that existed nowhere else," she said. Along with the collections and documents already safeguarded there, many extended family members contributed their own heirlooms. "We were all in concert with this."

A tour of the site

It is a remarkable and most worthwhile place to visit and, if you're lucky, Couse Leavitt will personally guide you through the property.

As you enter the main building and pass through the museum's office, you're transported back in time. The gracious dining room, living area and vintage kitchen feature early New Mexican furniture, and the Couse's collections of santos, blue willow china and regional artifacts.

Move into Couse's studio, where a partially finished painting rests on his easel next to brush and palette, as if the artist had just stepped away for a moment. Native American pottery shares space with the works of Couse and his friends; costumes and beadwork await the return of his models, often Ben Lujan.

Couse's darkroom is just off the main studio and, likewise, has not been touched by the passage of a century.

Couse Leavitt's father, Kibbey, converted the garage into a machine shop when the family moved to Taos to care for the aging Couse. "There my dad developed a prototype for a mobile machine shop," Couse Leavitt explained, which was later mass-produced and which supported the military during World War II.

Turn-of-the-century technical manuals fill the workshop's shelves; the inventor's drafting table, instruments, records and plans are also on display.

But perhaps Couse Leavitt's favorite spot in the home is also its most hidden: the secret playhouse. Hidden behind a faux linen closet door, the diminutive space is chock-full of toys and child-size furniture. An outdoor "rooftop" play area has a slide into her grandmother's historic terraced garden.

If she's unavailable, one of the many volunteer docents will be happy to serve as your guide. "This has always been an enormous undertaking and, of course, we have had a lot of help, from the 60-plus volunteers to the board of directors of the foundation," she said.

Couse Leavitt and the foundation aren't satisfied with simply being guardians, however. They are activists, moving the Couse-Sharp Historic Site into the future.

With an initial endowment from the Peter and Paula Lunder family, the Couse Foundation has launched an $8 million capital campaign to turn the former Mission Gallery, adjacent to the site, into a state-of-the-art museum facility.

"The Lunder Research Center will house original documents and correspondence, photographs, prints, negatives, sketchbooks and original works of art. It will also include an extensive library and scholarly papers relating to the Taos Society of Artists, Native American art and other ethnographic items," said Davison Koenig, the site's executive director. He noted there is overwhelming support for the center from museums, scholars and donors across the country.

"Our story is a significant national one," he explained. "It's one of Taos being an intellectual center as much as a collective community of artists."

"The arrival of those who would come to be known as the society was a perfect storm of circumstances, the timing of which coincided with a burgeoning interest in the American Southwest," Koenig continued. "They didn't just visit here; they settled here. And so they became a colony with a common and concerted vision, which was to share with the rest of the world an authentic depiction of Native culture and the American Southwest landscape."

Dean Porter, director emeritus of the Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame, said in his letter of support for Couse Leavitt's nomination, "Virginia and Ernie preserved the Couse home as it was when the artist died in 1936. Quietly, [they] spearheaded a national movement, keeping the memories of her grandfather and the Taos Society of Artists alive. Without Virginia's selfless devotion for her grandfather, and the art of the Taos Society of Artists, it would be all but forgotten."

Thanks to the efforts of Couse Leavitt and the Couse Foundation that will assuredly never happen.

The Couse-Sharp Historic Site, located at 145 Kit Carson Road, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the New Mexico Register of Cultural Properties.

To request an appointment-only tour of the property, call (575) 751-0369 or visit couse-sharp.org.

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