The Awakening Museum: Santa Fe’s Best-Kept Secret

The building is a neutral tone stucco and unassuming. Its impassive face gives no inkling of the magnificence that lives within. The Awakening Museum opened in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2002 and is situated on the edge of the downtown district, tucked near the back of the Hilton Hotel.

Many of the locals don’t even know it’s there. When I asked for directions, I’d get a shrug and a blank look. If the Georgia O’Keefe Museum (one block east) is the town’s best-known art shrine, Jean-Claude Gaugy’s Awakening Museum is her best-kept secret. Gaugy is a living French artist who was first discovered by Salvador Dali in Paris at the age of 15. His work graces prestigious galleries such as the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in Washington and former president Bill Clinton even owns a piece of his art.

Gaugy practices a style known as Linear Expressionism where he carves flowing lines into wood, then paints them. The Museum is dedicated to a single work inspired by the divine and created in an abandoned high school gymnasium in West Virginia. Begun in 1985, it covers 8,000 square feet of surface, uses 400 panels of wood and took 13 years to complete. According the gallery’s reception clerk, Gaugy wanted people to experience the work in an almost accidental way.

“He wanted people to just happen on it,” she told me. Walking into the darkened room, my eyes have to adjust. The only light comes from lamps directed upward. Looking upward at the kaleidoscope of color, I can make out figures praying, angels, the Last Supper. But this is no dogmatic Sunday school lesson. Exploding far beyond the walls of organized religion, it drives directly into realms of mystery and faith.

What is the divine? Why are we here? Gaugy doesn’t present any answers. But he sure gets you thinking about the big questions. Check it out next time you’re in Santa Fe: The Awakening Museum.

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