You might wonder, as you drive around the quiet heart of the town, who inhabits these unassuming casitas along Burch and Los Panditos streets - and who might that solitary character be, meandering about the lovely open fields, someone evidently immersed in her own thoughts, as if composing sentences or melodies in her head?

The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of Taos comprises 11 casitas on 15 pastoral acres - incorporating the dream by its eponymous founder since 1954 to create a haven where artists of all stripes could enjoy the freedom to create for a stint of three months, unimpeded by demands of promotion and commission.

Three casitas have studios for visual artists, three are composer studios and the rest furnish secluded abodes for writers, screenwriters, filmmakers and poets.

Nicolas Knight, the director of the foundation since 2015, when he took over from his father, Michael Knight, who had served as director for 17 years, is adamant about preserving Helene Wurlitzer's vision. "We don't expect artists to create a piece to donate to the foundation," he explained in a recent interview. "We don't expect them to do anything. We prefer to give them time and space to create."

And Taos has plenty to inspire them. "Writers love it because of the characters - Taos is full of characters!" Knight exclaimed. "Visual artists pull from the variety of landscape, the gorge, the light, the pueblo. For a lot of them it is their first exposure to Southwest and Native art, and they incorporate that in their work, and take it with them."

He noted that 20 percent of each season's crop of residents is international, though this year with the pandemic, the summer session was canceled and many artists found it hard to get here. Residents must take a COVID-19 test when they arrive and strictly observe the 14-day quarantine.

If you haven't heard of the foundation right in our midst, that was part of the initial plan cooked up by Wurlitzer (1874-1963) - née Billing, who hailed from a German family in Cincinnati and married the heir to the Wurlitzer musical instruments family - and her Taos friend Henry Sauerwein, who would become the first director (and remained so for the ensuing 42 years).

Wurlitzer "never tooted her own horn or waved flags" for her philanthropy, Knight related, as she aided many of her Taos artist friends in their hour of need such as Earl Stroh, Andrew Dasburg, Rebecca James, Emil and Mayrion Bisttram, and Tom and Dorothy Benrimo.

Wurlitzer instilled that sense of humility in Sauerwein. Knight relates the story about Sauerwein that when someone asked him to put up a big sign out front for the foundation, he responded by putting up a small No Trespassing sign.

"We don't want artists to be disturbed in their work," noted Knight, and that has been the mantra for 66 some years.

The foundation is only recently coming out of its shell, as it were. Notably, in 2018-2019, the Harwood Museum of Art exhibited "The Legacy of Helene Wurlitzer," featuring works by 30 alumni of the foundation. Knight, in his short tenure, has created an extensive website and streamlined the application process online - more than doubling the number of applicants, who are then chosen by at least three jurors in their field.

A capital campaign is in full swing, and Knight hopes to raise funds for the restoration and preservation of the campus, including the acequias on the property - one of which has been cleared and is running for the first time in three decades.

On the horizon, Knight expressed wistfully ("If I had $40 million"), he is yearning to build a combined art school, gallery and performance space, and expand the student scholarship program.

Listen to Knight speak about the HWF mission on Monday (Nov. 23) at 9 a.m. on KNCE, 93.5, where he will be interviewed by Taos Center for the Arts' executive director Colette LaBouff.

"I interviewed Nic because TCA recognizes what an important part of Taos history HWF is and the contributions it makes every year by nurturing artists by providing them space and time to make," LaBouff explained. "The foundation is both historic and also relevant right now - particularly in a time that is challenging for all, including those who compose, write and create."

The program is part of an ongoing series of conversations about the humanities thanks to a National Endowment for the Humanities CARES grant TCA received this year. Go to tcataos.org/calendar for upcoming events. All events are free.

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