Monday, January 24, 2011

Profiles: Introducing Karen Young of the Mabel Dodge Luhan House staff

Today I interviewed Karen Young, my first profile on the remarkable women who staff the Mabel Dodge Luhan House. Although her main duties involve educational programming and marketing, like her co-workers, Karen’s life extends beyond the walls of the Mabel Dodge. Here’s her story:

Karen Young feeding breakfast to her alpacas

A background in anthropology and work in archeology led to Karen’s first trip to Taos in 1969. Through a private field school for high school students conducted at Southern Methodist University’s Fort Burgwin,  11 miles outside Taos, she and her archeologist  husband Jon spent four seasons with students from Picuris Pueblo, California and other states conducting a month-long dig at Pot Creek site. During that time, the two became acquainted with the Kit Carson Foundation director Jack Boyer, in charge of three museums--the Kit Carson Home, the Blumenschein Home, and the Hacienda de los Martinez.

Five years later, the couple packed up the family and moved to Taos, a move made possible by Karen’s creativity. With Jack Boyer’s support, she wrote a successful National Endowment for the Humanities grant and created a job for herself and Jon developing an interpretive plan for the Blumenschein Home, the Martinez Hacienda and the Taos Morada. During this time, the Youngs lived in a part of the Blumenschein Home while they built their first home—an adobe designed by Karen.

The NEH grant funded the Young’s first year in Taos, allowing just enough time for Karen and Jon to provide the family with a roof over their heads…the interior was still under construction. Karen remembers the day they moved in -- May 8th -- because it snowed. After the NEH funding ended, Karen and Jon scrambled to survive. Painting fences, sporadic jobs at the Katchina Lodge and the Abominable Snow Mansion, and other seasonal work kept them afloat until George and Kitty Otero, then owners of the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, asked them to help run the Global Realities program. Months later the Forest Service hired Jon as Forest Archeologist, and Karen’s Museum Studies degree landed her a job at the Millicent Rogers Museum. For the next seven years, work there as museum educator and acting director carried her through divorce, and almost through building her own pumice and adobe home.

When the Millicent Rogers Museum hired a new director, Karen suddenly found herself without a job due to cutbacks. Now single, she despaired at being unemployed and at the possibility of having to leave Taos. One day she ran into Pablo Trujillo, whose group Los Alegres had played traditional Hispanic music at the Mabel Dodge, at the post office. When Karen told him her news, he asked to see her hands. Examining them, he announced: “You’ll stay here. You have callouses.” Stay she did, finding work as director of the Northern Pueblos Institute through Northern New Mexico Community College, as co-director of the Taos Historic Museums (formerly the Kit Carson Foundation), and most recently back at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House.

Another kind of work opened up for Karen when her world took on a new dimension in the 1990s. She became interested in alpacas after meeting Phil Switzer from Estes Park, Colorado who brought some of his animals to the annual Taos Wool Festival in 1994. Right then Karen decided she would like to raise alpacas. She consulted with Phil who told her to talk to other breeders and attend alpaca association meetings. As it happened, the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association held its annual meeting in Estes Park the following year. Karen attended the conference, went to lectures, talked to breeders and invested $5 in a raffle ticket for two machos or male alpacas. At the end of the conference, she checked to see who had won the raffle. Someone replied: “It was someone from New Mexico…name started with ‘W’.” Karen’s hopes were dashed, but only until someone else said: “Oh, the last name was Young.”

That’s how Morning Star Alpacas got its start…and that’s another story. Today Karen owns 31 alpacas. She manages to sustain them and her business through the occasional sale of an animal and the wool, and sometimes she shows her animals. Yet the alpacas help sustain Karen—caring for them keeps her active. She finds great joy in watching these calm, gentle animals from her living room window. The alpacas’ cycle of breeding, birthing, and aging echoes the change of seasons in Nature, and in Karen’s life in Taos.

Double rainbow over Karen's home
 In closing, I asked Karen to answer the question "What is it about Taos that invites women to be remarkable?" Her multi-pronged answers follow: "An environment that reaches out and enfolds you; finding new strengths with each challenge met; support from all cultures." I particularly liked her last statement: "The surprise of finding you've sincerely been accepted into the community." And the community benefits from Karen's presence.

Adios for now,