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Clean and Green : Valerie Nielsen's Nurturesence 'skin food'. Taos News
A separate peace : Music on the Mesa. Santa Fe New Mexican, Pasatiempo
All-natural, organic make-up is one of the fastest-growing trends in cosmetics and it's meteoric rise in popularity has really just begun.
From the antioxidant, anti-aging, anti-microbial and cell-regenerative properties of pomegranates to similarly acting claims for coconut oil, American women and men are going green in a big way in their quest for natural health and beauty products.
And Taos has a green queen right in its midst — Valerie Nielsen’s nurturessence line of skin and body care is produced mainly from her own small plot in Talpa, plus from a few trusted local organic growers, and from wildcrafting in Taos’ high desert. “The skin is the largest organ of the body and whatever you put on your skin you’re putting into your body, so it better be of the highest quality,” Nielsen said in an interview last month. “It’s ‘skin food’. “
Taos Herb Company carries Nielsen’s nurturessence line. Rob Hawley, Taos Herb president and co-founder, says Nielsen’s product is admirable enough to meet Taos Herb Co.’s strict quality standards. “Valerie Nielsen has been a customer for many years and we've discussed her choice of ingredients through her years of her product development,” Hawley said in a December email to The Taos News. “She is dedicated to using the highest quality and most natural and effective ingredients. “Her products are made in small batches and are always fresh. Her concept of using flower essences (many of which she makes) is unique. Her pricing is very competitive with other high quality body and facial care products. The product packaging is very appealing.”
Put to bed after the first frost, Nielsen’s fall garden bears summer's skeletons of mullein, yarrow, echinacea, sage, mugwort, St. John’s wort, motherwort, lavender, chamomile, speedwell, vervain and feverfew, to name a few.She wildcrafts plantain, evening primrose and uses a lot of rosehips for tinctures, all made “alchemically,” according to moon phases, planetary alignments and other natural cycles. “I really love the energetics of it all,” she says, adding that she also gardens biodynamically, a holistic system developed by scientist /philosopher Rudolf Steiner, founder of Anthroposophy, the Waldorf educational system and other innovations.
A tall, lithe Audrey- Hepburnesque willow of a woman, Nielsen hails from New Zealand, coming to Taos in 1998 or ’99 by way of a “creative museum grant” which took her on an extended “art trip” through Europe and the U.S. and included everything from glorious national park site visits to individual artists’ studios — notably that of Taos’ revered minimalist Agnes Martin. “I came here to see Agnes Martin’s work,” Nielsen recalls with a little awe in her voice. “She took me out to lunch. She was like this icon, here was this woman doing this very minimalist art.”
Nielsen paused to point out her own abstract work adorning her studio and hallway walls. Among the abstracts, however, are numerous botanical block prints she created out of the sheer captivation by the plants’ intricately beautiful life force.
It was for a friend’s birthday party that she made a “rose toner,” enhanced with flower essences. The positive feedback from the other guests, that experienced a lift in their mood, encouraged her to consider developing the idea of a business. From there it was just putting one foot in front of the other, following her passion so to speak, and bringing her back to her own front door.
Her studio — which serves both her botanical and visual art — is spotless, dappled with light bouncing off her Talpa meadow. One wall holds bottles and racks of dried herbs. A refrigerator/freezer is stocked with oils and various essences at the ready.
“Everything is really natural,” she says. “I try to make it all as clean as I can because that’s what I want — no parabens or any of that [toxic stuff ]. I put batch dates on them so that you get all the antioxidants” that the freshest product provides. Some products have a longer shelf life because of the particular oil she’s compounded it with, “like jojoba, natural preservatives are found in radish root filtrate, neem and tea tree oil,” she says, noting too, that she makes “a kind of matrix of ingredients to extend the life.” But because she works in small batches, “nothing sits on a shelf for a long, long time” so she doesn’t have to compound industrial-grade bullet-proof (and essentially toxic) products. Once it reaches its use-by date, she pulls it, “so it’s always fresh.”
“We do not use parabens, phthalates, sodium lauryl sulphate, synthetic dyes, synthetic fragrances or petrochemicals,” Nielsen says on her website. “No animals are harmed in the making of our products, everything is tested on myself, first and foremost, then most obliging friends and family.”
The business is all consuming, yet invigorating to this young wife (of Tony Quintana), and mother to three girls (Mercedes, Carmen and Isobel). Plus, she likes the people-part of the skin care art. “People come to me with specific issues and I love that because it’s custom and there’s an interaction with another person.”
“The process of making art is very similar to making flower essences. It’s the quality of attention you have to have,” Nielsen explains. “My (art) focus has just shifted from (painting) to (skin care). I’m interested in so many things. I like poetry too. I’m still very visually oriented, I just make art differently now.”
Photographs by Tina Larkin, The Taos News
I love Taos. I’ve attended writing workshops there, and my husband and I go up for weekends now and then. For years I accepted the idea that Taos is a miniature version of Santa Fe, just sleepier and with more hippies. The more time I’ve spent there, however, the more I’ve come to realize that other than having a similar spiraling pattern to the downtown streets, the two locales are very different. There’s a quiet peace in Taos, even on its plaza, that doesn’t exist here. Shopkeepers in the tourist areas are direct and friendly, without seeming to gauge your potential to spend money. Teenagers on the street make eye contact and say hello. Taos is a little lusher than Santa Fe, and gluten-free bread more readily available — and of course, there’s its reputation for attracting independent women. When I got the opportunity to write about the second annual Music on the Mesa festival, held from June 3-5 at Taos Mesa Brewing, I jumped at the chance to see the Old 97s live while visiting Taos as a reporter.
The “Taos woman” is an absolutely real phenomenon, still going strong, that struck me with urgent force this time around, perhaps because I recently wrote about the famed Taos arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan and her cohorts. Though certainly the sensibility runs deeper than fashion, there is an effortlessness to the average Taos woman’s street style that makes Santa Fe look like a place where people dress up for dinner. I interpret it as part cowgirl, part Georgia O’Keeffe, and part punk. There is little, if any, makeup. Hair is unfussy — longish or undercut. There is a surprising lack of yoga pants. At Music on the Mesa, those not wearing jeans and T-shirts wore short dresses made of light fabric, along with boots and bare legs, topped off with straw hats to protect their faces from the sun. They danced with abandon to alt-country and Americana in front of a small, earthship-style amphitheater. They didn’t have to care if the wind blew their skirts up because, as if by prior agreement, they all wore spandex shorts under-neath — a simple solution to an age-old problem. Tattooed, bearded men flipped their daughters over their heads, and little boys spun their mothers. Everyone boogied with surprising skill as the sun sank low in the sky. It took a long time to get dark out there on the mesa, just off the road to the Río Grande Gorge Bridge west of town.
Earlier that day, my husband and I strolled around the shops on Bent Street. We stopped in Op.Cit Books (124-A Bent St.), a branch of the Santa Fe store that took over the Moby Dickens space in the John Dunne House Shops in 2015. Op.Cit hasn’t lost the feeling of the iconic Moby Dickens, and remains a great place for air-conditioned browsing. Outside, I met Valerie Neilsen, selling her brand of all-natural skincare products, called Nurturessence, from a small cart. Neilsen is originally from New Zealand and has lived in Taos for 18 years. She was an artist and painter, working coffeeshop jobs until three years ago, when she started her business. I bought deodorant from her that she swore was field-tested by waitresses. I can attest that this is a fantastic and effective product, with no resemblance to do-nothing health-food-store brands. (Neilsen also makes lotions, room sprays, and more, available at www.nurturessence.com.)
At Seconds Eco Store (120 Bent St.), which sells a hodgepodge of kitschy but upscale recycled handbags, clocks, picture frames, and jewelry, I immediately found three perfect holiday gifts for family members, even though I hadn’t been looking. I asked the owner, Sarah Basehart, if she likes living in Taos and how she makes it work financially. She proceeded to tell me about her life, eagerly and openly.
In 1991, on a road trip after a failed relationship, Basehart’s car broke down in Taos. “I had no choice but to stay. And then I fell in love here,” she said. A few years later, the couple built one of the first homes in the Greater World Community, a 634-acre earthship subdivision that functions off the energy grid and is located a few miles northwest of the gorge bridge. Her husband is a contractor, and she runs her store; they also rent out earthships through Airbnb, which gives them a tidy sum each month to sock away in their children’s college savings accounts. “It’s not an easy living,” she said, “but Taos is the greatest place on earth. I wake up grateful to be in this community every day, even after 25 years.”
After explaining that the Taos Pueblo created the town and has the ultimate say about what goes on, Basehart described the people who live in and move to Taos as willing to take risks. She acknowledged that some Taoseños think mesa residents “walk around with a beer in one hand and a snake in the other, and that’s not necessarily far off. A lot of people really do come here to lose their old lives. In a lot of ways, it’s still wild here, and the future isn’t clear-cut. You have to figure out your own way.”
The venue at Taos Mesa Brewing (20 ABC Mesa Road, El Prado) was dusty and rugged, the outdoor performance area wide open to the sun and rain. Inside, there was plenty of beer, along with a few musical acts; burgers, bratwurst, and tacos were also for sale. A selection of vendors offered items ranging from wine to vintage clothes to glass pipes. The lineup of bands for the three-day festival included some big names. On Saturday we saw Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Band of Heathens, Howlin’ Brothers, and the Old 97s, who happen to be one of my favorite bands. (Another favorite of mine, Shawn Colvin, played with Steve Earle on Sunday night. Do yourself a favor and get their new Buddy Miller-produced album, Colvin & Earle.) My main interest was the Old 97s, who came on at 9:30 p.m., but the people-watching and music were worth sitting on a blanket on the ground for six hours, getting dirt kicked on me by the dancing crowd.
During the Old 97s sound check, a half-dozen little boys near the stage started throwing LED-lit objects high into the night sky and watching them fall. It was beautiful but sort of dangerous. A festival official eventually called the “LED boys” (as he’d dubbed them) around and calmly told them they had to stop because their toys were starting to land on random adults, and “no one enjoys getting angry at other people’s children.” The kids nodded solemnly. It was all very respectful. The divisions between generations seem unusually permeable in Taos.
The Old 97s put on a good show, made even better by the intimate venue and fresh air, as well as the lighting on stage, which approximated the colors and saturation of a mesa sunset. Brilliant flashes of lightning illuminated the sky to the east. I danced and sang along and then we left, exhausted, before the final band, Last to Know, played. It seemed like the drive back to our rental house across from Kit Carson Memorial Park should have taken longer. But as far from civilization as it felt, Music on the Mesa was just 10 minutes from the center of town.
The next morning, we went to Taos Diner (908 Paseo del Pueblo Norte) for breakfast before coming home to Santa Fe. The service was friendly, the portions generous, and the coffee memorably good. But the green chile wasn’t as spicy or flavorful as the green chile in Santa Fe — something I’ve noticed before at other Taos restaurants. And so, although I will be back often, I can’t move there unless they get that straightened out. ◀