“It’s nice to see you again too,” I grumbled as yet another dust-clotted gale threatened to shove me off the airport walkway. Who needs expensive facial treatments, I thought sardonically, when you can get sand-blasted exfoliation for free, courtesy of New Mexico’s relentless spring winds?
I’d just flown into Roswell, where the gusts had become so strong (yet another gift of climate change) that the pilot had mentioned the possibility of redirecting to Midland at the onset of the flight. We’d managed to land, but now the challenge was to get inside the airport without getting blown across the runway, as Roswell’s airport and its singular, one-airline terminal is too small to warrant a jetway connecting the plane to the airport interior. As I struggled forward, I couldn’t help but notice that everyone was walking at an angle, a sight I would have found more amusing if I weren’t toiling to remain upright myself.
I’d flown here at the invitation of the Roswell Museum to give a lecture on its WPA history in exchange for a couple of uninterrupted days in the archive. It was the first time I’d been to Roswell since moving to Williamsburg nearly five years ago, and as I had done many times while I was living here, I’d started wondering why I’d come at all. A quick visit to the museum would soon clear that up, but out at the airport, I couldn’t help feeling that Roswell was literally trying to push me out.
For those who aren’t familiar with my working history, I was the Roswell Museum’s Curator of Collections and Exhibitions from 2013 to 2018. It was my first permanent, full-time curatorial position after spending the previous three years in internships or fellowships. Between the salary, the benefits, and the leadership role I’d assume as head of the collections department, it was too good of an opportunity to ignore. Roswell is where I really learned how to be a curator, and in a lot of ways, I feel like I got ten years’ worth of experience during the five I actually spent there. Roswell is also the place that set me on the Ph.D. path, as it was learning about its involvement in the Federal Community Art Center Project that made me decide to study art access. On a personal level, Roswell is where I met my husband, Brandon. In short, it’s a place that has meant a lot to me.
I arguably began contemplating a return visit to Roswell soon after I moved to Williamsburg. During my first semester, I finally began processing all the documents I’d collected over the years and started noticing the gaps in them. While I had plenty of material to get started on the dissertation, as well as other projects like my Scalar Book and conference papers, I knew that I’d need to eventually go back and finish that archival work. I initially thought about going after I finished my exams, but the pandemic put a halt to that. As I started developing the dissertation and expanding my topic beyond Roswell’s history, I focused on new archival repositories. Roswell was always in the back of my mind as a place I’d need to revisit at some point, but I kept putting it off due to the time and expense it demanded.
I finally started planning my return in earnest during the summer of 2022, when Roswell’s current curator, Aaron Wilder, invited me to collaborate on an exhibition celebrating the Museum’s 85th anniversary. In addition to selecting objects from the Museum’s WPA holdings and writing the texts for them, I was invited to fly out and give a lecture on the Community Art Center Project. Seeing an opportunity to finally finish my research there, I asked if I could come a few days early so that I could spend some uninterrupted time in the archives. After reviewing our respective schedules, we settled on late February 2023, as I was teaching in the fall and wanted to wait until my schedule was more flexible. The trip was set. My return was imminent.
While Roswell is an important place in my life, my relationship with it has always been complicated. The Museum itself is a gem of an institution, with wonderful collections and a dedicated staff. The community members who are involved in Roswell’s art scene, whether through the Museum itself, the Roswell-Artist-in-Residence Program, Main Street Art, or other organizations are dedicated, caring people committed to improving the city’s quality of life. During the five years I spent there, I had many wonderful things happen professionally and personally. I paid off my student loans, learned to throw pottery, and got started on the research path that continues to define my work today. It’s where I met Brandon, which was reason enough alone for moving there. And of course, Roswell is where we got our two kitties, Gustave from the Humane Society, and Iris as a stray who turned up in the outdoor cat shelter Brandon had made to provide the city’s feral population with protection during cold winter nights.
But the five years I spent in Roswell were also some of the most emotionally challenging of my life up to this point. Yes, the museum is wonderful, but it’s never had enough staff or funding to accomplish its objectives to its full potential. As a municipal institution, it’s vulnerable to the changing priorities of whatever local administration is in office. Roswell’s community is intimately connected, but if you’re looking to get out of town, the nearest city is a 3-hour drive. Lots of locals have been living there for generations and have family nearby, but if you’re from out of town, you can feel like an outsider. 2015 was an especially hard year for me, as administrative instability at the Museum and emotional crises in my personal life converged, making for a very difficult experience overall. Roswell ultimately benefitted me personally and professionally, but for much of the time I spent there, I felt isolated. Roswell is where I learned I can live far away from a city, or far away from family, but not both.
All of this is to say that I knew this trip would demand significant emotional as well as mental energy, and I had complicated feelings about returning to a place that’s impacted me so deeply in positive and negative ways. In the days leading up to the trip, I could feel the emotional weight start to bear down on me as I realized I’d really be going back to Roswell.
So how did it go? As with my time living there, I experienced both the highs and lows of being back in this city. Driving through town, Roswell looked especially brown and gray due to all the dust, and I wondered how I’d managed to live there for as long as I did. Once I entered the Museum, I started to remember why. It really is a special place with some exceptional collections, and I loved seeing how the galleries had changed since I’d left, from the addition of wayfinding signs to the shuffling of works within the galleries. I especially enjoyed seeing the 85th-anniversary show in Founders Gallery, where the staff had painted a gorgeous, trompe l’oil rendering of the original stage and curtain as depicted in a period photograph (the stage still exists but is hidden behind a wall as a storage space, to be reopened someday when the Museum has the resources and an alternative area to store frames). I enjoyed talking with the staff and learning about the projects they’d implemented since I left. A few faces I recognized, most were new, but they all shared an appreciation for the museum and its resources.
The first couple of days were the most challenging for me emotionally. When I was at the museum working in the archive, I felt fine, but the rest of the time, whether I was at the hotel or driving about town, I could feel the loneliness creeping back. I missed my husband, my cats, my house, and Virginia’s greenery. All I wanted to do was go home.
But then I experienced the other reason why I had stayed in Roswell. That night, I had dinner with my former landlords, and the warmth and love they extended revitalized me. I remembered that it was the people I knew as much as the museum itself that had helped me combat the isolation I had felt here. After that dinner, everything looked up. Once I wrapped up my research in the archive, I spent the afternoon before the lecture revisiting some of the different creative spots around town, from Bone Springs Art Space to the Miniature Museum, both of which had opened shortly before I left. Talking with the creatives behind these institutions reminded me of the passion that so many residents have for this town, and their warmth and positivity reenergized me for the evening.
All of these feelings culminated in the lecture. The talk itself went well, but what stands out to me is the audience. The staff told me that due to the pandemic’s impact on attendance, they weren’t sure about turnout, but in the minutes leading up to my talk, they had to pull out extra rows of chairs to accommodate the number of visitors. At least half of those audience members were people who had known me personally, so it felt less like giving a lecture than updating some friends on my life and work over the past few years. When I heard the round of applause following my introduction, and saw all the familiar faces in the crowd, I felt deeply moved. Knowing that all these people were still interested in me and my work after all these years touched me, and I hope they could feel my (complicated) love for this city and its museum as I told them what I’d learned.
The following morning, I drove out to Bottomless Lakes State Park before checking into the airport. Featuring a series of deep sinkholes surrounded by craggy, red boulders and glittering, peach-hued Pecos diamonds, Bottomless Lakes is a geologic wonder and one of my favorite places to visit while I lived here. During the summers, I’d come here to walk the trails and go swimming in the largest sinkhole, Lea Lake, before heading to the Museum’s clay studio in the afternoon to throw pottery. When it was too cold to swim, I’d still come out here on the weekends to go for a walk or sketch the rocks. Today, I was just here to enjoy some time outside before being confined to the airport and its ever-narrowing seating.
As I walked the trails, I started reflecting on the last few days. When I first agreed to fly back here, I had regarded it primarily as a research trip, a pause in Chapter 5 to complete unfinished archival work for Chapters 3 and 4. Rewalking the trails I used to know so well though, I started seeing the trip through a longer span of time, and began to understand it in relation to the last ten years of my life. And more specifically, I recognized that my journey with this city was about to come full circle.
As with this latest trip, I flew to Roswell when I first visited it in 2013 to interview for the position of Curator of Collections and Exhibitions. At the time, I knew almost nothing about the city and depended entirely on the staff and their knowledge. They guided me through the collections, drove me around town, and recommended which places to eat or visit. Near the end of that first trip, I took a walk from my hotel to downtown Main Street and asked myself if I was ready to live here, not yet comprehending what that would entail. I consider that trip the prologue to my life in Roswell, as a few months later I’d be driving out there with my parents. Five years after that, I would once again drive out of Roswell, but this time with Brandon driving the U-Haul and me following in my car with both cats.
In 2023, ten years after my first visit to the city, I flew to Roswell once again. This time, however, I was brought in as an expert on the museum’s history rather than a prospective job candidate with little knowledge of the institution or the city that housed it. No longer dependent on staff members, I rented a car and drove myself around town, choosing which places to visit based on my own interests and needs. During that first trip, I asked myself if I was willing to move to New Mexico. On this last excursion, I reflected on the experience of having lived here. In conversations with friends, walks through the galleries, and musings at Bottomless Lakes, I remembered why I had stayed here as long as I had, and why I ultimately left.
In coming full circle, I also recognized this latest trip, this epilogue, as the conclusion of Roswell as the primary locus of my life and interests. While I’ll always be connected to it through the friends I’ve made and the work I did there, its centrality to my life has gradually dissipated. Roswell brought me to William & Mary, but for years now, my dissertation research has been recentering away from it. Roswell is where I started painting abstractions based on my local surroundings, but I’ve painted hundreds of Virginia abstractions since then, far more than the number I completed in New Mexico. Brandon and I became life partners in Roswell, but we’ve lived together longer in Virginia than we ever did in the Southwest, and major milestones, from buying a house to getting married, have happened east of the Mississippi.
This trip wasn’t just about sharing what I’d learned and finishing archival research. It was about thanking the community for all that they’d given me while also recognizing that we’ve all moved on to other things. I won’t rule out visiting again in the future (when it comes to Roswell, I’ve adopted Sean Connery’s stance toward James Bond), but I doubt it’ll feel the same. If I go there again, it’ll be as a visitor only, one whose life is no longer intimately entwined in this place. Looking out at the choppy waters of Lea Lake, I acknowledged that this latest trip wasn’t just an opportunity to finish some dissertation research. It was about providing closure to what has been a crucial period in my life.
The symmetry of the trip extended right to the departure itself. After three days of relative quiet, the winds had picked up again, and I nearly toppled over as I headed out to the plane. Thanks for the send-off, Roswell. I wouldn’t expect any less.