Those are people who died, died
Those are people who died, died
Those are people who died, died
Those are people who died, died
They were all my friends and just died

"People Who Died" by The Jim Carroll Band

As we look back at the roller coaster ride that was 2021, it is clear that the global pandemic took its toll on our community, just as it did everywhere in America, the hardest-hit nation in the world. 

With that in mind,  we can’t help but take note of the many Taos art luminaries who passed on during that most tumultuous year. 

Some, but not all were victims of the virus. And for the most part, those who were were unvaccinated. Many passed away of other causes from homicide to old age.  But all were felled by the pandemic.

Beginning with author, journalist, professor of literature, former Horsefly publisher and editor Bill Whaley’s unexpected departure early in the year, caused by a heart attack while skiing on the mountain that drew him here in the first place, the bad news kept on coming. At times it felt that obituaries were becoming this writer’s beat.

Whaley's witty and wicked word-swipes at our local politicos, keeping their feet to the fire,  had become must-reads for many here in Taos; who could imagine that pesky insect gone? His history in the valley spanned the years between Ernie Blake's old Taos Ski Valley, and Dennis Hopper's Mud Palace heyday, and back again. From theater to the written word, Whaley's influence here was unmistakable.

When we lost long-time former Taos resident Dean Stockwell late last year, the irony did not go unnoticed. Whaley and Stockwell — fitting bookends to a vague, decades-long Taos era, all but lost and gone now.

Stockwell was considered one of the great actors of his time, beginning in childhood and continuing well into his later years. He was influential in Dennis Hopper coming to Taos and remained close to his fellow actor and artist until Hopper passed. Stockwell was, like Hopper, a visual artist as well as a thespian. Influenced by his friend and mentor, Wallace Berman, Stockwell hoarded images like a packrat. His collages (and dice sculptures) were exhibited in Taos over the years. Stockwell will best be remembered by younger generations for his work in "Dune" (the original 1984 movie), the cult favorite, "Quantum Leap," (TV series 1989-1993) and "Blue Velvet" (1986, with Hopper).

Fred Muller, included here because he created a scene that could only be described as entertaining (thereby qualifying as entertainment), at his eponymously named restaurant Fred’s Place, when there was none, like Stockwell had also relocated by the time of his death, but both left their indelible mark on the valley. Muller went on to open (and close)Taos restaurant El Meze, before heading west to California. 

Popular tattoo artist, Dano Sanchez, owner of  Magical Tattoo Taos, and co-founder of "Monolith On The Mesa," an art and music festival held annually at the Taos Mesa Brewing Mothership, was a victim of COVID-19. Unvaccinated, his tragically early death stands as a stark warning. Taoseño Ditto Eli Rinek, the talented drummer for the San Diego-based, punk-rockabilly band, Hard Fall Hearts, also battled COVID unvaccinated, but inexplicably died of other causes. Both of them were known as all-around, great guys, decent people who did right by others, lending credence to the timeworn cliché: "the good die young."

Perhaps, after Whaley, the death that hit home the hardest to the community at large, was that of Jim Wagner. His passing shook a community that had long considered him a living legend. His life story was almost implausible, but to those who knew him well, it was the key to his dedication to his craft; his practice.  From his time bartending at La Cocina, to the personal tragedy he endured that changed his life path, the outpouring of work was prolific and a celebration of life itself. In his art he transcended all suffering and so it was in life as well. He found lasting love with his beloved wife, Mary. In his work, we see his real legacy, a joyful celebration of the landscape and people, the flora and fauna, of El Norte. 

In a town known for colorful characters,  French expatriate artist, Pascal d'Aigremont was certainly one of them. He came to Taos in the 80s, but in many ways, he was more “Taos” than Taos. He had lived a storybook life that began in the Resistance in the South of France during the Nazi occupation. His father and uncles were all members. A life of adventure followed and brought him finally to the frontier; the American West. Here he stayed and painted and lived the life of a Bohemian philosopher and bon vivant until he contracted COVID. At his advanced age, it proved too much for him to endure. He left this world as he had traveled it; with his boots on.

Poet Phyllis Hotch, who originally moved here from the East Coast after having a teaching career and raising children,  before becoming a pivotal player in the development of Taos literary organization SOMOS. Serving for many years on the board, Hotch was for more than a decade its president. She and her late husband, Sy, were active in the Taos Jewish community as well. Hotch passed on of normal causes; old age. She wrote poesy right up until the end. Hers was a good, long and meaningful life. A life well-lived.

And then there was the heartbreaking tragedy of the loss of life of a young artist from Taos Pueblo who was found dead outside her home. DeAnna Autumn Leaf Suazo was renowned for her work that celebrated her combined Diné and Taos Pueblo heritage. Her murder reminds us that substance abuse and domestic violence have escalated during this pandemic, and too often, women are the victims. Indigenous women especially. 

Another victim of the pandemic in '21 was artist  Alan Heuer; in an unspeakable manner, his abandoned body was found in a field near McDonald's. Foul play was suspected. Murder and suicide rates continue to climb along with mental illness. And COVID will continue to claim more lives before it becomes merely endemic. Of that, we can be certain.  

As we turn the page on the old year, we mourn all of our losses and remember them with fondness and gratitude; immortalized in the work they leave behind; part of their legacy, and ours.

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