Santa Fe, known for its embrace of free spirits, new agers, aging hippies, and visible Native American culture, also boasts an important presence in the contemporary art market. When I moved to Santa Fe in August to start a postdoctoral fellowship at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum’s Research Center in American Modernism, I knew I had landed in a good spot when I saw multiple recent works by Henry Darger, the street artist Chris Thomas, and Meow Wolf.
Although there is a strong pulse to the commercialism defining the Santa Fe art scene, which has no dearth of galleries, there is also a pretty good underground art movement—for example, the Center for Integrated Research. Given the healthy amount of art museums, serious contemporary art galleries, and excellent research opportunities, what more can an art lover ask for? Since there are numerous art and cultural outlets to explore, let me tell you of my most striking cultural experience, Zozobra, and hopefully shed some light about its history.
Will Shuster’s Zozobra, as it is formally known, is the burning of Old Man Gloom, and Santa Feans have rallied with pride around this grassroots event since 1924. Shuster founded Santa Fe’s first modern art group, Los CincosPintores, and held company with the likes of John Sloan and Randall Davey. He came to Santa Fe seeking dry air and high altitude after fighting in World War I, during which he was gassed and afterwards developed tuberculosis. Although doctors predicted that he would die within a year, Shuster lived until the age of seventy-six, passing away in 1969.
Shuster, who was born in Philadelphia, stated that he once witnessed the whipping of a gloom effigy during the famed Mummers parade. When he moved to Santa Fe, it seems that he tried to help heal himself after the war through a similar ritual.
Zozobra has always been held for the purpose of destroying evil spirits. In fact, during World War II, he made the head look like a combination of Hirohito, Hitler and Mussolini. Zozobra was known as “Hirohitlomus” that year. The burning tradition predates Burning Man and Santa Feans are proudly specific about the authenticity of their community cleansing.
Today the tradition lives on. Gloom—physical objects like wedding gowns, divorce papers, and other symbolic items that deserve to burn—is sent to Santa Fe to be put in a forty-nine-foot effigy built out of wood, wire, poultry netting, muslin, nails, screws, pulleys, plywood, shredded paper, spray paint, pizza pans and duct tape. Although one man oversees the construction, the ceremony itself is community-organized and sponsored by the Kiwanis Club, to which Shuster bequeathed the rights to Zozobra in 1964.
When the time comes in early September, Old Man Gloom is stuffed with gloom, and ceremoniously burned, accompanied by sound-bites of his own demise. And do I ever mean ceremoniously. There are fire spinners, dancers and drummers, all meticulously choreographed for the ritual vanquishing of gloom.The actual burning does not start until after about an hour and a half of fire worshipping in various groups and performances. Finally, the fervent, chanted demands to “BURN HIM!” are answered in a satisfying pyrotechnic display, and Old Man Gloom ends up in a heap of wire and ash.
All photos by Kate Lemay.