The Old Pink Schoolhouse / Tres Piedras, New Mexico
Jul 6, 2016 | By: Kent Barker Studio
In the mid 90's I was living in Taos and shooting a lot for various Conde Nast magazines. Got an email one day from Conde Nast central saying that they were going to revive House & Garden and were looking for interesting homes for the initial issues. The very first thing that popped into my mind after reading this was the amazing home and gallery of friend Ken Nelson. Ken had relocated to Taos from San Cristobal, Mexico and taken up residence in an old adobe schoolhouse in Tres Piedras (about half an hour west of the gorge). We all know people that are incredibly talented. Some are great painters or sculptors, others have a gift for cooking or putting clothes together. Well, Ken had a unique talent for putting spaces together. His sensibility was eclectic & ethnic... but also highly refined. I absolutely LOVED his home, which was known to all the locals as The Old Pink Schoolhouse.
So...I visited Ken a week later and shot some polaroids. Mailed them to Conde Nast and within two weeks received the go-ahead to photograph the place on spec. What this meant was that they would pay me a guaranteed initial fee to shoot and then, if the story actually ran... I would receive full rate. Sounded great to me, so I dove in. Was shooting with a very interesting camera at the time...the Fuji GX-680. It was a medium format camera that could best be described as the marriage of a Hassleblad and a view camera. It shot 120 roll film like a Hassleblad but had swings and tilts on the lens plane like a view camera. My film was Fuji Velvia, the richest and most saturated transparency film available!
Pictured above is the entrance to the schoolhouse. The structure was comprised of three rooms. Ken is seen through the doorway, sitting in the gallery area. The stairs visible in the foreground lead to the two other spaces. Ken lived in the space to the left and kept the other as a guest room. As you can see in the photo, he used everything possible to put the space together. The bench and the mask had come with him from Mexico. The paintings and sculptures were from local artists. He grew the flowers himself and collected the other leaves and branches from the landscape.
The "gallery" was a large rectangular space that had originally been used as the gym in the old schoolhouse. It's large industrial size windows bathed everything in a gorgeous light and the wood lattice work ceiling added a golden glow. What I most loved about the place though were the walls...royal blue meets vibrant yellow! (with a dash of orange and green)! And then there was all of the "stuff". A cacophony of items thrown together in the most unusual, yet beautiful way.
In the above detail from the back wall of the gallery you get a closer look at the eclectic way in which Ken decorated. The red outlined painting in the upper right was an old piece from Mexico, as were the animal heads. Just about everything else came from local artists, including the table and the cross on the wall. Love the big rock on the floor!
The table was a decoupage piece that Ken created from a junk yard find. All of the imagery came from old magazines and he painted the detail work on the backs of the chairs. I loved it and bought it from him after finishing the shoot.
Pictured above is the work table in Ken's kitchen. The stove, fridge and counter were against the wall to the right. The table where he ate can be seen through the space on the left.
The detail shot was an assemblage that Ken created just above the the wall vent for his wood stove (which was the only source of heat in the winter). He used gold leaf on the wall to create the sun, then fashioned a cross out of two sticks.
Ken had a backyard area as well that he enclosed with a large wall made out of stacked fire wood. He would drive out into the wilderness, find a dead tree and then cut it up with a chain saw. He had the sculptures of a local artist on the grounds as well. I made this shot of one them shortly after sunset.
The photographs never ended up running in the magazine, primarily because a number of the paintings (by a frenchman named Pascal) were a bit too provocative. Am so happy I have this document of the place however because it was eventually sold (to a photographer from Dallas!) and Ken moved on. A testament to the Buddhist mantra that nothing lasts.