A leading Taos scholar, author and arts advocate, Elizabeth Cunningham, died Jan. 18, according to her husband Skip Keith Miller. She was 66 years old.
“This morning a little before 3 [a.m.], Liz gently walked on. Pierre was with me, and we are now filled with a mixture of both joy and sorrow — joy that Liz is free of the horrible restraints the ALS placed on her body and sorrow at how terribly much we will all miss her,” a statement by Miller to friends and family reads. “She was the strongest and gentlest being I will have ever known, and her compassion and unconditional love was a life guide for the boys and myself."
Cunningham essentially birthed the Remarkable Women of Taos phenomenon , resulting in the 2012 yearlong town-of-Taos theme, as well as a book and a blog of the same name. She estimated the enterprise involved more than 450 women of Taos, past and present. Her book spawned The Taos News' creation of "Taos Woman."
“She was the driving force behind the original blog and website offered in partnership with the Mabel Dodge [Luhan House organization] that year and worked tirelessly to create the book commemorating the project, which was published in 2013 by the newly formed Nighthawk Press," according to an email from Rebecca Lenzini, Nighthawk Press publisher of the “Remarkable Women of Taos” book. "I will never forget the launch event for that book, which took place at KTAO on July 25, 2013, and was a rare celebration of all three Taos cultures and the talents of so many women who were present to sign their biographies. I think over 200 copies were sold that night alone."
“None of this would have happened without Liz and her talent for connecting people and finding the best in everyone,” Lenzini concluded in her Jan. 21 email. “What a thrill to have worked with her. I am mindful of her doggedness, determination, hopefulness and optimism, and her enduring spirit. Liz was truly a remarkable woman of Taos. Her legacy lives on in our hearts.”
The 2012 town of Taos yearlong recognition of the women who shaped and continue to shape the spirit and culture of Taos arose out of Cunningham’s characteristic curiosity, as indicated in her blog entry about the origins of her project.
“Some years ago, I lectured on ‘Leading Ladies of Taos,’ " Cunningham wrote. “Fascinated by the remarkable women who founded cultural institutions in New Mexico, I researched the lives and contributions of Lucy Harwood, Mary and Helen Blumenschein, Helene Wurlitzer, Millicent Rogers and Mabel Dodge Luhan.”
Cunningham created and hosted the Mabel Dodge Luhan blog, where her contributions are highly notable, as this email comment from Mabel Dodge Luhan House general manager Julie Keefe indicates:
“Liz Cunningham was an extraordinary woman in so many ways. Her official title with the Mabel Dodge Luhan House was community liaison, but she made this role infinitely more expansive because of her great enthusiasm and how passionately she felt about the House, its mission and rich history. So many in our community have learned so much from her over the years and benefited from her support and encouragement. She was not only our colleague at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, but our dear friend. Words cannot sufficiently describe how deeply she will be missed.”
Cunningham also co-authored “In Contemporary Rhythm: The Art of Ernest L. Blumenschein.” This definitive book on Blumenschein accompanied a major retrospective exhibition. In 2008, it won the Western Heritage Award’s best art book and the High Plains Book Award’s best non-fiction.
Born in Denver in 1951, according to longtime friend and writer Carrie Levin in her biography of Cunningham for Nighthawk Press, Cunningham grew up in western Nebraska, but spent her junior year of high school in Helsinki, Finland as a Rotary Exchange Student. That experience, plus three years in Austria, honed her edge for adventure.
When asked about her most memorable jobs, besides wrangling weeds, people and horses, Cunningham listed being a bed and breakfast manager at an Austrian castle, a Fulbright teaching assistant and a summer tour guide in Vienna as all topping the list.
“Liz was the kindest, most caring person I’ve had the honor of being friends with,” Levin said in an email Jan. 22. “I loved getting to know her through our mutual study of yoga and passion for local history, landscapes and archaeology. She had such an inquisitive nature and genuine care for humanity, and delighted in helping others tell their stories. She is a shining star and will be greatly missed on Earth.”
Cunningham was curator for The Anschutz Collection (1981-1994), where she organized and circulated select premier paintings of the American West. Inspired by paintings of her favorite member of the Taos Society of Artists, Ernest Blumenschein, Cunningham’s specialty led her to a 1993 Blumenschein lecture at the artist’s home on Ledoux Street.
Upon moving to Taos in 1994, Cunningham wrote on the arts, cultures and people of Taos and Northern New Mexico, including the history of the Taos Trade Fair (co-authored with Skip Miller); the history of theater in Taos; as well as essays for “The Hand-Carved Marionettes of Gustave Baumann” and “Taos Artists and Their Patrons.” She edited the prize-winning “Modernists in Taos from Dasburg to Martin,” including writing the afterword.
As for Cunningham’s Remarkable Women of Taos blog, publisher Lenzini notes, “Her blog lives on as well at womenoftaos.org, a site co-sponsored by MarkeTaos, Taos Net, the Taos Community Foundation, Nighthawk Press and Beyond Taos Art Calendar.” The book is also still in print and available from nighthawkpress.com or via Amazon.
This article first appeared in the Jan. 25-31 issue of The Taos News.