Outside the First Church of Nuclear Disarmament, Los Alamos, NM

New Mexico: New Art – Part IV — Aberrations under the Desert Sun

Final addition in the NM series featuring the First Church of Nuclear Disarmament and the Shidoni Foundry continued from Part III the Revere of the Ravine . . .

Perhaps it is this very rift between the dreamscape and reality that distinguishes great art in this land of many artists though such work is more often an oddity than the norm. Take for example the ruins of the First Church of Nuclear Disarmament and the Black Hole Surplus store tucked away on an unassuming back road in the town of Los Alamos.  

Outside the First Church of Nuclear Disarmament, Los Alamos, NM
Outside the First Church of Nuclear Disarmament, Los Alamos, NM

Founded by a former Los Alamos National Laboratory worker, Ed Grothus, Grothus became a local legend (and cult figure), after leaving his position at the lab in opposition to its militarization and forming the “Church of High Technology”.

Dedication outside the church to Nuclear Physicist and Peace Activist Joseph Rotblat (one of the scientists who worked on the nuclear bomb during the Manhattan Project)

Active in the peace movement of the 70s, Ed adopted a performance-art-persona, cum-circus-side-show act, as a self-anointed Cardinal, preaching “A Critical Mass” from the pulpit of the wood-framed church each Sunday. A machinist by trade, Ed purchased and collected the remains from the lab as they came up for salvage, selling them at his adjoining store, including, as noted by daughter Barbara, a Marley camera (one of the first cameras capable of recording a critical mass/nuclear explosion at thousands of frames per second and weighing upwards of 600 pounds).  Ed’s followers included the curious from far and wide, detractors from the community, as well as a following of artists who rummaged through the leftovers from the lab for their own creative creations, including artists Larry Bell and the late Tony Price

Scrap yard
Black Hole Surplus Store next to the First Church of Nuclear Disarmament

Ed died three years ago, and the church now has a lonely ghost-town feel to its grounds.  Barbara, herself an artist, was at the time of original writing, in the process of selling off what she could of her father’s substantial collection.  Though there has been discussion of preserving the grounds in a ‘peoples’ museum’ how to memorialize a living history that is a taboo subject amongst the local and outlying populace becomes a thorny subject as is the larger dilemma of who preserves history and how.  In a capping disappointment, thieves at the time had recently broken into the property stealing many of Ed’s favorite personal mementos, including the Marley camera.

Preparing to leave at the end of my travels, I drove out to the Shidoni Foundry burrowed along a twisting back road outside of Santa Fe.  Lithe, crawling, contorting sculptures decorated the expanse of the 8 acres of land with several massive figures emerging from the foundry ovens and crowded together awaiting their next destinations–the heat was everywhere like a fire inside of an oven.  What better place for a foundry.   

Grounds, Shidoni Foundry
Grounds Shidoni Foundry

The owner greeted me on his motorized scooter, oxygen tank alongside, and terrier running ahead – pick some apples from the trees, he suggested – which I did.  Beautiful, bright, red apples that later became some rather tasty pies.  Back in the 70s the owner had intended to turn the grounds into a commune, Woodstock-style, but somehow the dream had fizzled out and here it was in its current incarnation.  I wouldn’t have known the difference . . . from outward appearance the dream had succeeded quite well.

I left New Mexico little more resolved then when I arrived.  The complexities of the cultural landscape never fully disentangled itself and that is really the only way to enjoy the rich, varied, scope of New Mexico:  to accept it at face-value but to also attempt to see what dwells beneath the surface, down below in the caves.  Artists thrive where complexity exists and while the art may not always be ‘good’ it will soak up its surroundings, creating something intuitive and bright, or at least something that is not afraid to venture into the heat and see what contorted, new, aberration appears.

Sculpture Shidoni Foundry

This article begins at New Mexico: New Art — Land of Entanglement.

Postscript: I’ve been thinking about how the shift in the lab became more and more militarized and that this was not always the case, or perhaps expectation of the workers, Grothus, Rotblat, others I would expect, and that perhaps it speaks to a larger possibility in thought overall — the technology of government need not always be for war and the possibility of art as political thought.  The Spirit Gardens deconsecrated church in Hedley also reminded me of the First Church of Nuclear Disarmament, a thousand plus miles away, seeding thoughts to come?. . . others?

Originally posted 2014

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