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The Artful Adventurer

Madeleine Gehrig is primarily interested in Modern art, contemporary Japanese ceramics, and ethnographic art from Africa, Asia, and Australia. She also loves distinctive jewelry, and is shown wearing a silver and shell necklace by friend and Santa Fe jeweler David Gaussoin.

Madeleine Gehrig Brings the World Home

DESIGN FOR LIVING BY RENA DISTASIO | PHOTOS BY KATE RUSSELL

Gehrig’s beloved Burmese mountain spirit.

In the several days after Madeleine Gehrig returns from a trip to Spain, she offers visitors who drop by her Santa Fe home little golden-colored half-moon pieces of marzipan handmade by nuns at a Toledo convent. Gehrig loves to share her finds, accumulated from over 40 years of trotting the globe, and the marzipan is a delightful surprise—lightly textured, sweet but not cloying, and utterly delicious.
It is also one of her few treasures that Gehrig could easily tuck into her carry-on.

Although the retired businesswoman and accomplished photographer balks at being called a collector, insisting that she simply buys what she likes, her accumulation of art and artifacts is nonetheless impressive, mixing African masks and Japanese ceramics, Djenné sculptures and 20th-century bronzes, Aboriginal paintings and mixed-media constructions. That very little of it ever fits securely under the seat in front of her is a tribute to her cheerful willingness to suffer for her art. She once pushed a cart holding a heavy statue of a Burmese water spirit through the airport and onto the plane, right behind her then-husband who was also being wheeled onto the tarmac because of a knee injury. “But I wasn’t worried about him,” Gehrig says, laughing. “He was in good hands. I was going along thinking, ‘Just don’t drop the water spirit!’”

She is only half joking. Along with travel, artistic pursuits are the driving force in Gehrig’s life. She credits a teacher for her love of art, but when asked about what made her catch and keep the travel bug, she shrugs and says, “I have no idea. But it was the number one passion in my life from the beginning.”

Born just outside Zurich, Switzerland, an only child of hardworking farmer parents, she knew from an early age that she “absolutely never wanted to be a farm girl.” Instead, her life after leaving home to study chemistry at a professional school in Zurich has been one of continual change and exploration. Spend a few minutes throwing darts at a map of the world and you’ll likely hit several spots she’s called home—Germany, Canada, Holland, Italy, the United States—along with more than a hundred others she’s visited.

Threads of constancy are woven throughout the years as well. For more than two decades, she ran a successful real estate and travel agency from her home base in Rome. Although she has no children of her own, she has formed a tightly knit extended family that includes an adopted son, a very close goddaughter, and a group of a half dozen or so “travel solid” friends with whom she has shared many adventures over the past 40 years.

An elegant blue-eyed blond with an air of gentle, well-mannered grace, Gehrig also possesses the self-assurance and levelheadedness that make for a world-class adventurer. Long before the word “immersive” became ubiquitous in travel circles, Gehrig and her companions were pursing experiences in the most remote, sometimes inhospitable, parts of Africa and Asia—experiences that would have even today’s most intrepid trekker Google-mapping the nearest Hilton.

The three photos are some of Gehrig’s favorite pieces, top to bottom: A “twofaced” head by Chinese artist
Wang Keping, who was a founding member of China’s first nonconformist artist’s group, Xing Xing (the Stars). The piece represents the dualities of his life as a child in Communist China—one
half Buddha, the other Chairman Mao. The bronze piece is a portion of a frieze from the 13th-century Tibetan monastery Densatil, once considered the country’s most beautiful until the Chinese destroyed it as part of their Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s. The sculpture at bottom is by Japanese
ceramist Mishima Kimiyo.

And while she concedes that she and her companions no longer wish to crawl in and out of tents, neither are they slowing down. They currently plan to explore South America more thoroughly and, says Gehrig, smiling, “save Europe for our old age.”

Africa and Asia remain frequent destinations. When asked what attracts her to Africa in particular, Gehrig doesn’t hesitate. “The people. There is not one moment when you don’t see someone smiling. Yes, there is immense poverty and hardship in most of the countries, but we have always been received with open arms, smiles, and laughter.”

And then there is the continent’s absolutely awe-inspiring geography. Gehrig’s first experience with its power was back in the late 1980s during a scouting trip to Algeria for her travel agency. Her first night in the desert, Mother Nature went on a bender and sent a massive sandstorm to blow through the village in which she was staying. Later that evening, camped out on the roof of her host’s home to keep cool, she was jolted awake by drops that would soon turn into a rainstorm so fierce that it flooded the property and left several deaths in its wake. But along with the destruction came breathtaking beauty: endless lakes of water six to eight inches deep, their surfaces reflecting the seamless blue of the sky, stretching as far as the eye could see. A week or so later came another transformation—millions of bright pink flowers blooming from the water-soaked earth.

“It was deeply unsettling in some ways,” she says, “but it remains one of my most remarkable memories.”

She would be hard-pressed, however, to name a favorite destination. “It’s impossible to say. My favorite place is the last place I’ve been to.” And she does not like to repeat herself. “Especially if such a long time has passed since the last trip. It is best to keep the memories of a place when it was unpolluted or uninhabited, not destroyed.”

But wherever she goes, she is by no means a detached observer. “We sit with the people, we eat with the people, we sleep where they sleep. We have never been treated like outsiders.” And she and her friends regularly return the kindness. Several years ago, for instance, one of Gehrig’s traveling companions met a young man from an impoverished village in Burkina Faso. Together they sponsored the redevelopment of the village, everything from acquiring land to building schools. “One has to give back,” she says. “We have so little idea what goes on in the world. But even though we have such a small postage stamp of time in life, there is still so much we can do.”

Still, Gehrig does require time to rejuvenate. “The world has, what, a couple hundred countries? And I have been to about half of them,” she says. “There are many places I would still like to see—too many, frankly—but I also like to stay at home as I love to be alone.”

And since moving to Santa Fe five years ago, she has made many close friends with whom she likes to spend time. A gracious hostess as capable of organizing large dinner parties as she is of going with the flow at impromptu get-togethers, Gehrig regularly welcomes an array of friends and adopted family into her home. One of eight structures originally built as part of an 18th-century gristmill located on Santa Fe’s east side across from the river, the restored adobe home still bears many original features. In its long, rectangular layout, the kitchen, dining room, living area, guest bedroom, and bath follow one after the other. The master bedroom, bath, and small office occupy the upstairs space. Patios and gardens blooming with native plants surround the elegant, cozy house, which is decorated with Gehrig’s keen eye for color and pattern. And while the artworks inside must number in the hundreds, they are lovingly and thoughtfully displayed, without any one piece overwhelming the other.

“Because I travel so much, I don’t collect any one thing,” Gehrig explains. “Every time I go, I discover something new—another culture, other ideas. The world is so infinite.” Still, her democratic eye does skew toward certain cultures and themes, namely ethnographic art from Africa, Asia, and Australia. These objects both remind her of her travels and also serve as tangible testaments to the commonalities that bind humankind, regardless of cultural differences. One of her first-ever purchases is a wooden ancestor piece from Africa, carved upon the death of a loved one and placed outside the family home in the hopes that the deceased spirit will enter the effigy, offer protection, and bring good luck. She also has pieces from the Amazon and Indonesia that serve the same function. African initiation masks, a section of a bronze frieze from a now-destroyed Tibetan monastery, and paintings from Australian Aborigine artists all reflect the shared human impulse to make sense of our world and our place in it.

Gehrig’s home is a stylish sanctuary, but her preferred method of travel for many years rarely involved anything more glamorous than a sturdy backpack, tent, and Jeep. Those immersive experiences also helped forge the tight bonds of friendship she shares with her travel companions. “These relationships are precious,” she says. “It is so important when you travel, especially to places that are difficult, to have companions with similar values and temperaments.”

Gehrig’s love of abstract imagery is revealed in her collected American and Italian paintings and Japanese ceramics, as well as in her own photography. “Having traveled all my life, I started early to make photos in order to remember my trips,” she says.

But the photos are more than just snapshots. She has had several exhibitions of her work in Rome and two others in Santa Fe, one at the Center for Contemporary Arts (CCA) and another at Victoria Price Art & Design. She has enjoyed brisk sales of a series of unusual boxed photo cards and is also planning a small book of her abstract photography.

Despite her wide-angle view of the world, her camera eye aims at its details—her big love is macro photography and the infinite beauty of the minutely scaled. The end result in both cases is a search for communion among people and cultures, the natural and the human-made. Hence, the forms revealed in an up-close view of a Shanghai skyscraper are echoed in another photo of windblown patterns on Saharan sand dunes and still another of the geometric structure of Italian roof tiles.

But whether she is hiking a remote section of the Himalayas, hunting down a treasure, or distilling portions of the world with her camera, Gehrig always remains solidly herself. Asked if she ever feels overwhelmed or unmoored in her travels, she says firmly, “No, never. I live in my own skin, I see with my own eye.” One gets the sense that she is too busy participating in life to indulge in much navel-gazing. “We are all just little ants, you know? And I’m one of many, neither positive or negative, important or unimportant.”

Perhaps her most unique discovery of all is not how different we are, but how alike. In our impulses to create art, to adorn our bodies, to connect to our ancestry—and in the end to make our marks and leave something positive for the future.

From the Fall 2013 / Spring 2014 issue

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