Piedras Marcadas Canyon, New Mexico: An Early American Workspace

In the heart of the sprawling, cookie-cutter Albuquerque suburbs that Breaking Bad has recently made famous lies Piedras Marcadas Canyon, named by the early Spanish settlers of New Mexico for the hundreds of ancient petroglyphs that mark its black basalt rocks.

Visiting on an August afternoon, with the blasting sun silencing the houses as they lapped at the edges of the canyon, we took a tour of one of the world’s first workspaces: the open mesa.

Most of the petroglyphs here were made between 400 and 700 years ago by the Ancestral Pueblo people, who used stone tools to chip away the shiny black surface, or “desert varnish,” on the volcanic rock, revealing the lighter rock beneath.

Generally, though, as we learned in the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, Native Americans don’t view what their ancestors did here, or anywhere, as art. Not because it isn’t beautiful, but because the distinction between something that is art and something that is not art is not one they were interested in making.

A jackrabbit bounds across the arroyo, sometimes leaving tracks, sometimes not. He is not interested in his tracks, and doesn’t care how long they will last.

Art or not, making tracks in rock is hard work. We talked to a New Mexican who claimed that everyone who grows up near the petroglyphs has tried to make their own – and failed pretty miserably. The precise tools that were used, the method, the amount of time it took, whether the carving was done under the hot torch of the sun or in the cool evenings and mornings: all of this is beyond the memory and history of the current Native American tribes.

The government trail markers diplomatically mention “many complex and dynamic reasons” why the Ancestral Puebloans marked these rocks: maybe as trade routes, as sacred places, to record the passing of events, or for communication.

Though many can recognize clan symbols in some of the glyphs, their exact meaning and purpose are for the most part a mystery. Even if their meaning and purpose were known, it isn’t considered by the Puebloans to be appropriate to share this kind of interpretation and information with others.

Originally an iron works factory, the building was abandoned for twenty years before Yellin fulfilled his creative vision and turned it into a unique educational environment. Now, it is a stunning space where artists working in different mediums can create and collaborate, interested individuals can explore artistic territories by enrolling in one of the many classes offered, and anyone can come read a book in the garden, immersing themselves in the creative and supportive atmosphere.

This may be a national monument, but it isn’t a welcoming environment. Bouldering up the side of the canyon on rocks that are too hot to put your hand on, we find glyph after glyph and make guesses. Chickens, salamanders, a thunder god, an armadillo? A man with a large nose. Is that a man riding a dinosaur? Surely not. Handprints. Deer? Sheep? Crosses and brands and cows, which the government trail markers say note the beginnings of Spanish influence.

The reality is that nobody really knows exactly why each petroglyph was made, and in that sense they have become art: their interpretation is open to everyone who takes the trouble to seek them out, and the meaning each of us brings to them is equally valid – or invalid.

 

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