B.C. Nowlin's Albuquerque
One of New Mexico's most dynamic artists takes us to his hometown
Santa Feans love their world-class art town tucked away in the Rocky Mountains, but they also love that the Albuquerque metropolis is only an hour’s drive south. In Albuquerque the parking is easier, the shopping more varied. It’s reliably 5 degrees hotter (2,000 feet lower) and prices are cheaper. There’s five times the population, and there are the perks that go with that: an international airport and big music venues where touring acts play.
In Albuquerque, there are Indian pueblos all around, and country roads aplenty to cruise — roads that look increasingly familiar because Albuquerque is where the TV series In Plain Sight and Breaking Bad shoot. But don’t just go to ABQ on TV. Go experience its thriving vitality in person.
Duke City longtimer and figurative painter B.C. Nowlin has lived in northern Albuquerque for most of his 61 years. We talked to him about why he stays and what he loves.
Cowboys & Indians: Why Albuquerque?
B.C. Nowlin: Albuquerque and I are like an old marriage. I’m so in love with it that I’d just die without my Albuquerque fix. Albuquerque’s distinct. It’s not Minneapolis, it’s not Denver. The cultures are not so melded here. I grew up on the extreme north end of Albuquerque in an area called Alameda, so far north that my grandfather’s property is at the southern edge of the Sandia Reservation. I ran track with the Pueblo kids. There’s a sense of spirituality here.
C&I: It’s not homogenized America.
Nowlin: No! You live here, you have bones beneath your feet. Everywhere in the North Valley there are old adobe ruins and quartitos, or old adobe sheds.
C&I: What does Albuquerque have that Santa Fe doesn’t, and vice versa?
Nowlin: Albuquerque is a working, honest, raw, vital city. Santa Fe is a world art Mecca. Everybody makes a beeline for Santa Fe, but they should get off the freeway and see Albuquerque, too.
C&I: You live in a 110-year-old adobe in Corrales, and your studio is nearby in the North Valley ... .
Nowlin: Yes, my studio is on my grandfather’s old property. It’s near El Pinto Restaurant and the Sandia Reservation. It’s amid cottonwoods. The North Valley has become quite gentrified. It used to be scruffy and rural. It’s million-dollar homes now.
C&I: Any other favorite Albuquerque neighborhoods?
Nowlin: I love the South Valley. Everyone should take a long drive down Isleta Boulevard. That’s how Albuquerque used to be. More agricultural, largely Hispanic. Lots of fiestas, carnivals, and little chapels.
C&I: There’s also a lot of Indian influence in and around the city ... .
Nowlin: There are plenty of pueblos within an hour’s drive. You could go gaming at Isleta, and 40 miles away you could climb up on the top of Acoma mesa and be walking in a world that hasn’t changed for 700 years, where people light oil lamps at night. I love going to the Christmas dances at the old Santa Ana Pueblo on [New Mexico] Highway 44 toward Cuba. Great stuff!
C&I: What’s your favorite route for cruising on your motorcycle?
Nowlin: Oh, there are great places here! I go west out to the sandstone buttes of Acoma Pueblo. Or up the highway behind Sandia Crest — that’s where you ride fast and get speeding tickets. Or I take the Turquoise Trail up to Madrid to the Mine Shaft Tavern for a terrific hamburger. Or south on the back roads to Mountainair, past these old Hispanic villages.
C&I: Your art is collected by, among others, Tanya Tucker, Robert Plant, and the U.S. Senate. And one of the many things that sets your work apart is your signature: a calligraphic bird and moon symbol. What does it mean?
Nowlin: As kids on the Sandia rez, we’d sit around talking about our dreams. We’d see birds fly up along the river. I liked to walk around at night and later ride my motorcycle at night with the headlights off. They said, “You’re the night bird. You’re the bird flying across the moon.” I thought, So true.