An artistic existence

If there ever was a town where life imitates art, and vice versa, it's Santa Fe. The town's faux adobe buildings - houses, hotels, government buildings - create a Spanish Mission look so appealing they could sell miniature versions to put under Christmas trees.

But it's the town's high-altitude setting of crystalline air under a big serving bowl of bright blue sky that has drawn artists here since the 1920s. Shadows fall sharply, and color gets bright play - the ubiquitous strings of red chiles called ristras catch the eye everywhere.

To soak up art, Santa Fe visitors typically wander the Canyon Road galleries. It's great fun, and the galleries are plentiful. This town also boasts splendid museums, including the Georgia O'Keeffe, which displays the artist's sensual paintings, and the International Folk Art Museum, filled with delightful displays of dolls and figures depicting local cultures.

The more adventuresome traveler can also track down the artists themselves - many live in high countryside studios set in old schoolhouses, tiny remodeled churches and handcrafted homes.

Some locales are real galleries, open year-round, but the way to catch up with lots of artists is during two Open Studio weekends in September for the High Road Art Tour.

It's a matter of picking up a map, then heading out on country roads, where waving yellow flags signal a studio stop. As you drive the high country roads, it becomes obvious why artists live here - the landscape urges experimentation, with snow-capped mountains in the distance, purple asters and wild sunflowers bobbing along the roadside, the sky that improbable blue.

When I visited in late September, the artists were all talking about the previous night's snowfall - early, and though it didn't stick to the ground, it hints at a long winter. For some of these remotely located sculptors, ceramists and painters, snowy roads will make a trip into town a challenge.

For the visitor, it's interesting to speculate about these artists' lifestyles of isolation and contemplation - how some are choosing nature as their only constant companion.

My friend Judith and I poked along all day on the High Road Art Tour, stopping at well-established galleries such as Ojo Sarco Pottery, where I found a fabulous blue-glazed sushi plate - a second with only slightly blemished glaze selling for a steal of a price.

Sometimes we planned our stops at established galleries; other times we stopped at driveways sporting yellow flags.

Later, on the road to Truchas, we found a small community of artists that included Jan Janas, whose contemporary paintings are brilliantly colored, some of them surreal. Her silk scarves and clothing are more classic, in gorgeous colors. Like many Santa Fe artists, Janas is the real deal - her work commands a pretty penny, and is well worth it.

And though I had hoped to do some serious holiday gift-buying, the day's trip produced very little in the category of potential holiday gifts. Those I would have to seek in Santa Fe itself, a veritable playground for shoppers for unusual crafts, jewelry and bright Southwestern clothing.

We ended our drive with a stop at Santuario de Chimayo, the American equivalent of Lourdes. This tiny church built in 1816 has a reputation as a sacred healing place. At the very least, it's a charming example of Spanish-Pueblo architecture.

A brightly painted altarpiece draws the faithful, and off to the left is a small room with a hole in the floor.

Scoop up the sandy dirt with a red plastic shovel and help yourself to its healing power, to be rubbed on ailing bodies. Testimonials come in the form of lined-up crutches, photos and letters about alleged powers to heal.If the church at Chimayo doesn't leave you feeling chipper, there's always Gabriel's restaurant on the way back to Santa Fe. This popular New Mexican restaurant rollicks with happy locals, and the waiter prepares guacamole fresh at your table.

That's an art unto itself, as are the delicious margaritas. But be wary of those: New Mexico's high country roads are famous for reckless drivers.

The first time you see someone driving backward at a high speed, you'll get the picture.

There's more than one kind of individualist living in these remote hills. «