Hasta la Vista

cozy jewel

Artist Diane Moreno found a rickety shack above the Pecos River and created a uniquely rustic hideaway that feels a million miles away from her Wichita, Kansas, roots.

This article first appeared in Spring II 2008 Su Casa

You’ve seen those houses—rusty roofs atop melting adobe walls, window frames warped and slumped. The backcountry of northern New Mexico has plenty. These homes are reminders of the early homesteading days, and it’s easy to dismiss them as ruins. But despite their humble appearance, 22 years ago, Diane Moreno bought one. “I answered an ad, and the owner first showed me the view overlooking the river, probably realizing that was the best feature,” she says. The house was indeed rundown. “But I fell in love with it.”

Today, even with a new roof and stucco, the house still looks a little rickety. Maybe the more appropriate word is rustic—a little overused but
definitely applicable. It easily belongs to the land. After the closing, wondering what in the world she’d gone and done, Moreno fully embraced her project, turning this 60-year-old mud hut with no bathroom or heat into a home.

Located 30 miles south of Las Vegas, New Mexico, way off on a winding side road, the house faces the main thoroughfare in south San Isidro. “I imagined we’d all walk to the village well with jars on our heads,” she laughs, remembering how much the place looked like a Third World country to her. She’d lived all her life in Wichita, Kansas. But the stark contrast between here and there is precisely what drew her to New Mexico.

With very little money, and using materials close at hand, Moreno has created what friends now affectionately call a “hobbit house.” Throughout the process, she has done most of the work herself. When she wanted flagstone flooring and couldn’t afford it, she “just followed the cracks in the concrete floor and painted the shapes red.” At the time she was dating a stonemason, and even he couldn’t tell the difference.

Then she wanted a Navajo rug. “I love those rugs, but they’re way too expensive,” she explains. “So I painted one.” A cheery rug of stripes, rectangles, and diamonds lay under her dining table for years—until Moreno’s Moroccan phase hit. Ready for a change, she got down on her hands and knees and re-created the Navajo runner with geometric motifs, turning it into a kilim.

Every corner has a personal touch. Moreno made the kitchen shelves herself then trimmed them with old lace. She fashioned the cabinets from weathered planks. She transformed an aging greenhouse into a new dining room. A few winters ago, she reupholstered a chair that’s now so much fun, it could be in a Dr. Seuss book.

Her home’s interior has experienced numerous changes. At one point Moreno whitewashed the low ceilings. When her parents visited, her father asked when she was going to paint the second coat. But she streaked it on purpose “to look like a cabin.” In keeping with the trends, she faux painted the walls in the living room, choosing a saffron and muted yellow mix. “It was just a watered-down paint that I rubbed on, nothing fancy,” she says. The fanciness comes with the 6-by-3-foot panel of gold joss papers to which she applied acrylic. Other rooms throughout the house are peach or beige. The concrete kitchen floor is now blue with yellow designs—another Moroccan motif.

The interior coherency works thanks to Moreno’s cleverness. Stand in the middle of any room, and you’ll find something out of the ordinary: dressers painted bright blue. Lace curtains hiding a closet. Gewgaws of crosses, tassels, little framed stitcheries, and tin ornaments saturate the house with hominess. An ocotillo branch illuminated with small lights leans near a door. Fringe hangs from passageways. Only a few years ago Moreno finally added an indoor bathroom that’s sunny and roomy; her bronzed baby shoes sit in a window.

The woodstove, her only source of heat, is from a bygone era. When she wanted to spruce up a banco near the stove, she fashioned a façade of river stone. “The worst part was carrying all those stones,” Moreno says, “but when I moved here, this is what I wanted. I wanted to work with my hands.”

For 10 years Moreno worked as an insurance adjustor in Kansas. “I was ready for a change and took a cooking class in Taos,” she says. “I couldn’t believe how different it was here and drove around wondering if I could fit in.”

The answer was a resounding yes, though it wasn’t easy. The banks here wouldn’t lend money to a single woman in Kansas; the banks in Wichita wouldn’t finance property in New Mexico. “It took two years; I eventually worked something out with the owners,” she explains. Moreno moved in 1988. She lined up a job with a Santa Fe insurance company, but a week after her arrival, the job fell through.

“It caused some panic,” Moreno says. “But all my life, I wanted to make my living with my hands, so losing the job forced me into a lifestyle I’d only dreamed about.” She began making nichos out of weathered, wormy wood. “I walk my dogs every day, and I’m always looking for gnarled knots of wood and weathered limbs that I can use.” After she started attaching tiny hinges on the doors, she began working with tin. The tinwork evolved into quirky, sometimes winged beings she calls ZinTins. Now Moreno’s hard-pressed to keep up with the demand. For years she participated in the local art tours and always sold out.

When it came to her home, Moreno wanted to retain the old-world look of the village. She crafted a cedar fence from latillas she cut herself and made a welcoming bright-purple gate. The fence outlines the front of her property and hums with bees in the honeysuckle during the summer. An arbor of willows curves over the entrance to her vegetable garden. Last year she grew five varieties of pumpkins.

Moreno’s house is now the stuff of legends. Recently five women from Africa in town consulting with the art world in Santa Fe spent days touring large million-dollar houses. Their guide, a friend of Moreno’s, finally wanted to show them another kind of home. They got out of the car in the dusty little village so far from the art center and immediately began taking pictures. Something about Moreno’s house strikes a deep chord, perhaps one of nostalgia for things handmade. Her handiwork exudes whimsical ingenuity, an artistic flair that trusts that things from nature just come together how they will.

In the beginning Moreno shored up some old sheds for storage, but when she learned that she could indeed make a living with her hands, she added a few sturdier outbuildings. One is a woodworking shop. Another is a small guest house that has doubled as a gallery. From its porch lies that great view of the river. Moreno reports that the land adjoining hers belongs to actor Val Kilmer, whom she hasn’t met yet.

Although she now has a lovely home, Moreno’s first year living here was “awful, awful” because of the isolation, which she still finds difficult sometimes. “Also, I’d never been around so many ravens. One morning I thought one was trying to communicate with me. That’s how far gone I was,” she laughs. Then again, maybe the ravens were talking to her. This is why you see so many old rundown houses. For centuries people have felt the land in northern New Mexico speak to them.

Cindy Bellinger, an award-winning author, took top honors in the 2007 New Mexico Book Awards in two categories. Journaling for Women won for best self-help book, and Waterwise Garden Care won in the gardening category. When not writing, she is always fussing with another house remodeling project. She lives in Pecos, New Mexico.