Walter Cooper with his Santa Fe Opera poster

Santa Fe is often described as a bohemian outpost where people can really be themselves. Certainly this refers to the diverse art scene and sheer number of artists who make Santa Fe their home, as well as the fluid spirituality of the place and the vast number of natural healers who attempt to treat the sick and seeking, who also flock here. But ask anyone who ever had to keep his or her sexuality a secret from friends, family, and employers, and they’ll tell you Santa Fe is a great place to be if you are gay or lesbian — and has been since wealthy East Coast families began sending their independent, decidedly unmarried daughters here in the first decades of the 20th century.

“Agnes Sims moved here from Philadelphia in the late 1930s, and she was part of a group of very extraordinary women, many of whom were lesbians,” Walter Cooper, author of the memoir Unbuttoned: Gay Life in the Santa Fe Arts Scene, recalled in conversation with Pasatiempo. “They created a colony here that was very influential. I think that’s really significant, and I don’t think that story’s been told. These women were still here when I got here, in the ’70s. They had a great culture — lots of dinner parties, lots of discussions — and they embraced the gay community.”

In Unbuttoned, Cooper pays homage to Sims, photographer Laura Gilpin, and writer Rosalind Constable, as well as numerous other men and women who populated his world after he moved to Santa Fe from New York City in 1973. The self-published memoir is a veritable who’s who of the Santa Fe art scene in the 1970s and ’80s, filled with stories, gossip, and remembrances. Cooper writes candidly about gay romance and sex, and about the friendships he made with other gay artists, including Forrest Moses, Douglas Atwill, and the late Ford Ruthling. “So much of our queer history has been swept under the rug, it’s almost as if we never existed,” he writes in the introduction. “I’d like to … capture a glimpse of Santa Fe’s unsung gay culture that continues to thrive. People tend to underrate or ignore ‘the queer factor,’ the enormous impact gay folks have made on New Mexico’s unique cultural life.”

Cooper moved to Santa Fe when he was in his early thirties, after 10 years working in the advertising industry. He spent his first year in town in Tesuque, where he performed in the chorus of South Pacific, directed by Derrik Lewis, at the Shidoni Foundry, for New Mexico’s Musical Theatre Association — just one of many endeavors over the years by residents to create a local theater company equal in stature to Santa Fe Opera. “Derrik was very ambitious and he worked very hard, but after about five years or so he couldn’t swing it financially,” Cooper said. “My part was a disaster. I fell off the stage. That was the end of my musical career.”

Cooper had always been interested in art, so in Santa Fe he took up painting, earned gallery representation, and supported himself well enough to buy a house, for $17,000, in the South Capitol neighborhood. “It needed a lot of work, but it was a charming little street. So many artists moved here then. It was possible. I think it’s much harder today. Rents are so high and the gallery system is much more competitive,” he said. He also took up photography, making male nudes his subject matter.

The book has as much personal history as social, with chapters delving into family lore and Cooper’s chronic back pain. But before his days of degenerative disc disease came the days of disco, which he spent dancing at The Senate, one of the many gay bars that have come and gone in the City Different. La Fonda had a heyday as a place for gay men to drink together — and, in the era before AIDS, its ground-level men’s bathroom had an even bawdier reputation. “It’s a very different hotel now than it was then. It’s pretty graphic stuff [in the book], but it was part of our life,” he said. Later, Victor’s on West San Francisco Street was the place to be, and for a time, Cooper recalled, you could go dancing at Gold Bar, on the site of the old El Paseo Theater downtown. “It had been a movie theater, so the floor still had a tilt to it.” As to why Santa Fe’s nightlife can’t seem to sustain a gay club these days, Cooper blamed the internet. “If you want to meet people now, you don’t have to go out in public.” Drugs flowed freely in the bars back then — uppers, downers, peyote, and other hallucinogens, as well as major amounts of cocaine. Cooper partook until one night he experienced a rapid heartbeat and wasn’t sure he’d live until morning. It was a wakeup call while he was still in his thirties. Other artists didn’t fare so well, and some who became dealers even went to prison.

One local trend Cooper discusses is the penchant for “woo-woo,” or New Age spirituality, psychology, and alternative medicine that is readily embraced by many Santa Feans. He spends several pages on the self-appointed goddess Chris Griscom and her expensive courses at the Light Institute in Galisteo. He also discusses the actress Shirley MacLaine, who brought attention to Santa Fe woo-woo in the 1980s with several books about her belief in past lives.

In one passage of Unbuttoned, Cooper recounts a horrifyingly funny experience with a high-colonic. “I participated, I tried,” he told Pasatiempo. “I made a mess of things, literally.” He is not fundamentally averse to alternative medicine, but said people calling themselves professionals were experimenting with so many unproven practices that it seemed dangerous to him, such as when his chronically unhappy neighbor, allergic to everything she encountered, had all her blood removed and put back into her body. “I had never heard of that before and wondered if it was legitimate. I asked her about it, but she didn’t want to talk about it. I believe she was being taken advantage of. I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t environmental dangers to our health and well-being, but with her it seemed to be about more than environmental causes. I think there was a lot of that in those years.”

Cooper found his alternative to Santa Fe woo-woo in the teachings of Hazel Archer, an alumna of and former instructor at the famed Black Mountain College outside Asheville, North Carolina, where her peers included John Cage, Beaumont Newhall, and Buckminster Fuller. Fuller became a close friend, and with him she built early models of geodesic domes. Archer spent her life in a wheelchair because of a bout with childhood polio. She died in 2001. “Hazel never made any money,” Cooper said. “She lived at the edge of poverty. She was a wonderful person. She was interested in the world of design and mathematics. I felt this was much more reasonable, complicated, and interesting than woo-woo, than auras, or taking inner child workshops for thousands of dollars.”

In Santa Fe, Archer taught a series of 10-week courses called “An Ongoing Perceptual Investigation, or Things Are Not What They Appear to Be,” for which she charged $58. Because her lessons continue to resonate so deeply with him, Cooper includes several pages of notes he took in her classes in Unbuttoned, preserving her lessons on Nature, Listening, Genius, Fear, Insight, and Children, among other topics, for future generations. “With Hazel there were no compromises, no half-measures,” he writes. “She burned with a vital fire. Her aim in life was simple: To make over the world.” ◀

“Unbuttoned: Gay Life in the Santa Fe Arts Scene” by Walter Cooper was published this year.

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