What was it like to live in a commune? Find out during a Chautauqua lecture at the college
Roberta Price was an observer, participant in movement for 8 years
FARMINGTON — Historically speaking, hippies haven't been portrayed in a flattering light by the media or academia, Roberta Price says.
"Sort of a mix of a pernicious social virus and an amusing Halloween costume" is how the author, photographer and lawyer describes their treatment over the years.
This weekend, Price will do her part to remedy that situation with a presentation of her Chautauqua lecture "Across the Great Divide: A Visual Journey Through Time and Space to the Communes of Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado" at San Juan College.
The program focuses on the communes that dotted the region from 1969 through 1977.
Price, a 1968 Vassar graduate, was pursuing an advanced degree at the State University of New York in Buffalo, when she was awarded a grant to photograph communes in the Southwest. She wound up spending eight years in the region, documenting everyday life by photographing such activities as farming, construction and leisure-time pursuits.
Years later, Price would chart her experiences in the 2004 book "Huerfano: A Memoir of Life in the Counterculture" and in 2010's "Across the Great Divide: A Photo Chronicle of the Counterculture." Her countercultural photo archive, containing some 3,500 photos and other materials, was purchased by the Beinecke Library at Yale University.
Approximately four years ago, Price adapted her writings and photographs of her experiences for a Chautauqua presentation for the New Mexico Humanities Council. She has delivered the program at locations throughout the state and in southern Colorado, but this will make the first time she has presented it in Farmington.
Price said she was motivated by the desire to provide another perspective on what that experience was like and the people who adapted that lifestyle.
"It was mostly people in their early 20s, and there may have been many foolish or stupid things about that movement," she said. "But there were many noble things and ideas that have taken off from it, too, including environmentalism and organic food."
Price was joined in her adventure by her husband, and the two eventually settled in a community of artists in the Huerfano Valley in southern Colorado. They built their own house at the end of what could only generously be described as a road and settled into a life of poverty in a home that featured neither electricity nor running water.
She theorizes that the southern Colorado-northern New Mexico area served as a magnet for people like her because of a handful of factors, including the cheap land. She pointed out it has a long history of attracting intentional communities, such as religious communities, and the art and literary colonies established by Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos in the early 20th century.
No doubt the Southwestern landscape was a powerful draw, as well.
"There was the visual beauty of the area, which, whether they were on drugs or not, is something people respond to," she said.
Price said she and her husband were idealists who had grown disillusioned with American society as the Vietnam War raged and explained they were looking for a new, more meaningful way to live. But that didn't mean they were prepared to show the self-sufficiency that would be required of them in the communal lifestyle, she said.
"Neither of us had built so much as a bookcase before," she said, laughing.
That naivete was typical of many of the young people who populated the Southwest's dozens of communes in that era, Price said. The same booming post-World War II economy they were rejecting had allowed most of them to be raised in relatively affluent circumstances and given them the confidence to believe they could master the challenges of living in difficult circumstances.
"We grew up with the illusion that we could do anything," she said. "So we were basically taking a vow of volunteer poverty and living in a completely different way from our coddled childhoods."
Price said among young people, the war hung like a dark cloud over everything in those days. That explained the yearning for a utopian, peaceful place that emphasized cooperation over competition.
"It seemed like a positive thing to do, to go and live according to different set of values," she said.
Price and her fellow commune dwellers believed they were helping establish a model for a new and better society, she said.
Her photography would serve as a record of the movement's earlier days, she believed, and since Price eschewed the drug-fueled lifestyle that was so much a part of the era, she was uniquely positioned to be that chronicler.
"Possibly, I was the only sober person around to take a picture," she said, laughing.
But with the end of American involvement in Vietnam, the sense of urgency behind the movement faded, she said. The appeal of that spartan lifestyle also decreased as some residents grew older.
"We thought, 'This is the beginning of something that's really going to change the way people live,'" Price said. "As it turned out, that wasn't the way it was. I felt like we were doing something important, and that may have been delusional. But when you're 20 years old, it's easy to have the narcissistic idea that what you're doing is important."
While some communes have survived into the 21st century, the movement has subsided substantially since its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. Price looks back on her experiences with a good deal of fondness, but she takes a realistic approach to them, as well.
"There are people who romanticize that time as a golden age, and there are people who put it down as bunch of drug-laden and narcissistic hippies," she said. "I try to walk a middle ground. I still have a great amount of affection for people who think we should have tried to a find a way to live differently. I don't know if even the billionaires are happy."
Price's Chautauqua will take place at 7 p.m. Aug. 16 in the Little Theatre on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington. Admission is free. For more information, call 505-566-3430.
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.