line of sight

In the foothills above Santa Fe, artist Hillary Riggs fashions a home from her aesthetic vision of color, texture, and form.

This article first appeared in Winter 07 Su Casa

Hillary Riggs presses a button, and after a few seconds water emerges from a pipe embedded in rocks on the sloped land under one side of her house, where pillars support the structure. The water divides around a group of stones, reunites, and begins its downward course. It tumbles and flows over and around rocks of various sizes and kinds, making its way 65 feet down the slope. Then it gently sinks into an underground tank beneath a flat bed of stones near the lower level of the house.

Standing beside the bubbling, chattering flow, one would swear it was a natural mountain stream. Yet with another touch of a button, the stream subsides and stops. And the only water used is rainwater from rooftop collection, stored in underground tanks and recycled once it reaches the bottom of its fall. Any overflow from the tank continues down the hillside in a natural drainage path, supporting trees and plants along the way.

The falling stream is more than a delightful drought-conscious water feature at Riggs’ home in the foothills southeast of Santa Fe. It also represents the junction of engineering and aesthetics, science and art, the two streams of creative energy constantly at work and play in the homeowner’s life. Riggs is an artist who creates mixed media fine art, custom furniture, and carved and painted architectural elements such as cabinets, doors, window valances, and room divider screens. She also designs and builds outdoor art and decorative features, including pebble mosaics and pond-free waterfalls. Collectively these endeavors fall under the business name Quimera, a Spanish word referring, among other things, to a moment of epiphany emerging from a dream.

Riggs grew up in Mexico City, the daughter of American artists who owned a weaving company employing craftspeople hand-dying and weaving textiles and rugs. She studied art at the University of Guanajuato in San Miguel de Allende. After living in Mexico for most of her first 30 years, Riggs and her then-husband, the late Graham Nugent, moved to Dixon in northern New Mexico. For a number of years they ran Sombraje, a company producing twig-accented furniture, home decor panels, and screens. Riggs sold Sombraje in 1995 to focus on custom furniture and fine art.

In designing her house, Riggs envisioned a space where both she and her 26-year-old son, Alex Nugent, who is a physicist and mathematician working in computational neuroscience, could live and work on their various creative ventures, where clients could view her art and consult on commissioned projects, and where she would also be comfortable living alone. Initially she imagined two separate structures for the studio and living space. The buildings would be connected on the tree-covered hillside by a walkway/art gallery. This idea evolved into a more cost-effective design where everything is under one roof, yet still retains the concept of separate spaces for the diverse aspects of her life.

“The challenge was that I need a lot of space for the kind of work I do, producing and showing large works of art, and at the same time I want parts of the house to feel cozy and comfortable when I’m here by myself,” Riggs explains. “I sat down and made a list of every single thing I needed for my work, for pleasure, for living in, etc. I figured out the minimum amount of space for each area, the feeling I wanted, and the usefulness, down to the loading dock off the studio. This house is very intentionally planned. The planning phase was the longest.”

Riggs then worked collaboratively with Santa Fe architect Rod Gesten to translate her concept into a buildable form. Getting it built was another story—more on that later.
Today when Quimera clients visit, they’re immediately immersed in the colors, textures, and forms of Riggs’ aesthetic sensibility. The north entrance, a carved and spiral-painted door of the artist’s design, opens into a wide hallway gallery with rich mauve and gold-colored walls and ceiling that help define the art space. Wall art and sculpture fill the hallway, and a door to one side leads to Riggs’ bilevel studio. In the studio, slanted north-facing windows provide even light, and a loading door opens to a parking area on the lower level.

For most clients there is no need to venture farther into Riggs’ living space. At the same time, because the gallery hallway opens into a free-flowing living, dining, and kitchen area, the house easily lends itself to larger gatherings, such as art receptions or entertaining with family and friends. This part of the house is accessed directly through a lower-level west entryway used by those who visit on a more casual basis.

Also off the living area is a short stairway rising to the office Riggs and Nugent share. Nugent holds five U.S. patents related to artificial synapses for use in computing, with a dozen more patents in process. Together he and Riggs cofounded an intellectual property holding company, KnowmTech, LLC. The two also collaborate (along with Santa Fe writer Michael Hice) in producing a series of audio CD road trip guides for northern New Mexico. Galloping Galleries CDs are intended to be played while driving along specific routes such as the High Road to Taos or the Turquoise Trail. They point out sites of interest, offer historical and cultural details, and incorporate local music.

The three businesses are run out of the office, and recording and production for the CDs also takes place there. With its own bath and stacked washer/dryer set, the space originally was to have been Nugent’s bedroom suite. Once they moved in, however, mother and son decided the room, with expansive western views out a wall of windows, was best suited for creative activity. Nugent’s private space is now a cozy room tucked into the uphill side of the house.

For her own private space, Riggs designed another upper level on the far end of the house from the studio/gallery. It contains a comfortable library/sitting room, bedroom, master bath, and covered patio accessed from the bedroom. The sitting room is semi-open to the living area below for heat and air circulation but is scaled to feel welcoming and quiet. “This is a wonderful party house—we had my nephew’s wedding here—and at the same time, if I’m here alone I can go into my little apartment area upstairs,” Riggs notes. “I wanted to be able to inhabit parts of the house and let the rest of the house drop away from consciousness. But at the same time, I wanted it to be open and flowing.”

Along with designing the house itself, Riggs and Gesten spent almost two years working their way through Santa Fe County’s mountain-special review process for building on a slope. In full support of strict regulations regarding drainage and other slope-related issues, Riggs wanted a house that fit the hillside and its demands, rather than seeking variances. Today the property above the house is gently sculpted into a series of water-retaining terraces planted with native vegetation and trees. Other drainage features include underground tanks and a water collection system covering 75 percent of the roof area. (The multilevel roof also has two reinforced sections for decks with breathtaking views.)

With permits and the architect’s cost estimate in hand, Riggs put the project out to bid. She was in for a shock. Even though she planned to do much of the finish work herself and with artisan colleagues, every bid she received was at least double Gesten’s estimate—and double Riggs’ construction budget. “I hear this story all the time. It happens with all architects,” she observed. “So, it was a big crisis for me. I thought I was going to have to ditch the plans completely, or cut way back.” Finally she decided to close her small leased Palace Avenue gallery, which she’d opened just before September 11, 2001, and which was suffering from the effects of the ensuing tourism slowdown.

She also decided to act as her own general contractor. She read books, giving herself a crash course in contracting and building, and then began calling subcontractors. Fluent in Spanish, she was able to communicate easily with Spanish-speaking crew members. More importantly, she was intimately familiar with the architectural blueprints, having completely internalized the home’s design. As a result she was able to catch mistakes and save money and time. She knew, for example, that a bathroom sink pipe was being installed six inches off. The workmen doubted her calculations, but when they measured, she was right. “It’s all about a million details,” Riggs says of the building process. “I saved money in a thousand different ways.” The house was completed in nine months, construction came in under the original estimate, and the results exceeded expectations.

One major component in the project’s success was Riggs’ ability to tap into a long-standing network of northern New Mexico craftspeople with whom she collaborates on her artwork. She thinks of it as the equivalent of working with Renaissance-era artisans, all with their own studios, and each contributing a particular skill to a creative endeavor. Woodcarver Carlos Rascon, woodworkers Dan Stubbs and Steve Sovelove, metalworkers Michael Wright and Michael Forloney, and wood finisher Desideria Rascon have collaborated with Riggs for many years. Others came on specifically for this project. Nugent designed and engineered the waterfall, having grown up in northern New Mexico and spent much time around rivers and streams.

Once she moved into her home, Riggs became aware of an unplanned effect of its location and design. “There’s a synergy between space, place, and who you are, which is so counter to the American idea of building sameness everywhere,” she reflects. Living in a house rooted in the mountainside, yet open to the sky and endless views, the artist has seen a change in herself and her work. For one thing, the road trip CDs would never have happened if she and Nugent weren’t living there, she believes. “If you have a far line of sight, your curiosity expands. You wonder, what’s over there? You’re part of a much bigger space that is crying out to be explored.”

Gussie Fauntleroy, a longtime Santa Fe resident, writes on homes, art, and architecture for national and regional magazines, among them Art & Antiques, Southwest Art, New Mexico Magazine, and Native Peoples Magazine. She is the author of three books on visual artists.