Alice Bailey’s fascination with mosaics started with a basic tile project in her guest bathroom. She loved the process, but her imagination quickly took her far beyond a Southwest-style counter and backsplash.
She made her first mosaic in 2003, covering a two-story interior stairwell wall with a narrative of her 1995 journey to Santa Fe from Washington, D.C. She took a few creative liberties. For instance, in the mosaic, Bailey and her dog travel by boat. “That’s us going down the river, shooting the rapids — which was road construction somewhere in Oklahoma that terrified the bejesus out of us.”
After that, Bailey, now 68, moved the project outdoors. And for the past 17 years, she’s been covering the courtyards and exterior walls of the custom-built home she shares with her husband, Ricardo Sanchez, 62. She’s completed 17 mosaics using plates, old teacups, and found objects from yard sales, cast-off ceramics from other artists, and assorted materials that people give to her. Among the subjects are a mermaid, an angel, and a cactus garden. The pièce de resistance is the Alice in Wonderland deck, which features eight mosaics based on Lewis Carroll’s 1865 classic, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The story has fascinated Bailey since childhood.
“There’s so much serendipity,” she says. “She gets small. She gets big. She meets all of these magical creatures.”
I visited Bailey in late May. She led me through the front gate to behold a courtyard shimmering in the sunlight. The dizzying sight promised a borderline mystical environment — a tour of someone else’s hallucination, or what it would be like to live at Meow Wolf.
This is what can happen when the creative impulse runs wild on a Santa Fe hillside.
The tall gray adobe sits at the end of a dirt road, on two and a half acres of land just private enough to offer a sense of splendid isolation. Bailey ushers me through a gate and down a winding staircase that’s topped by a trellis of pink roses. Steps and levels seem to be everywhere. A riot of color explodes from flowers, from slices of colored glass that rest on the wood pilings lining the stairs, and mosaics that, at this distance, are glittering architectural angles of potential.
“When I bring you into the outdoor space and into the patio area, I want to slow you down,” says Sanchez, an Albuquerque native who began designing the house in the mid-1990s, about two years before he met Bailey. He’s a civil engineer who runs Goodrich Roofing. “I want you to interact with the landscaping, with the mosaics, with the house in front of you. I am telling you that you’re not in the Santa Fe space or the world space; you’re in our space.”
“This is nothing compared to what it will be like in a month or two, when the gardens are in full bloom,” Bailey says as I marvel. “That patio over there is completely obscured by dahlias.” Bailey has long red hair and bright blue eyes that seek contact. In a black tunic belted over printed leggings, she’s part Santa Fe artist, part ’70s rocker.
Visitors encounter Peace Angel (2019) when they’re about halfway down the stairs. Its wings are blue and white porcelain, made from oblong shapes with curled ends that call to mind vases or somewhat surreal seashells. Printed with newspaper stories about war and peace, they come from the boneyard of Santa Fe artist Christy Hengst. (An artist’s boneyard is a resting place for discarded sculpture — broken pieces and experiments that didn’t quite work.)
“She calls them peace doves,” Bailey says. “I thought it would be so great to make wings out of birds.”
We arrive in a courtyard, at the center of which is a round, trickling fountain. A kind of New Age yoga class music emanates from an unseen speaker. We enter the house through an old wood door that was found at a flea market. Inside, there are curved walls and two-story ceilings that seem higher because each level contains a mid-level. Rooms are connected by stairways of just a few steps, and unseen passageways abound. “It’s kind of an Escher house,” Bailey says, referring to the Dutch graphic artist who made surreal, architecturally inspired drawings. “People think it’s big, but it’s just tall.” She guesses the house is about 3,000 square feet, though the layout makes it difficult to get exact measurements.
“You know those Santa Fe houses that get added-to whenever something happens? Someone has a baby? Add a room. Got a raise? Add another room. I wanted it to have that [added-to] aesthetic, but most of it was actually designed the way it is now,” Sanchez says. “We’ve added on some closet space, and increased the size of Ally’s studio.”
Bailey’s friend, Ginger Casey, describes the house as phantasmagorical. “When I walk into someone’s home that is surrounded by their own art, I always feel like I’m walking into their head. In Ally’s case, her imagination is on display in every single room. You not only have the structure of the home, but the artwork that [she and Ricardo] have made a part of the house. You can’t really separate them out. It’s all one thing.”
Bailey and I sit on a covered patio off the kitchen, next to a larger-than-life mermaid called Muñequita (2016-2017), which is Spanish for doll. She is affixed to a kiva fireplace, her tail composed of pieces of glass (made by the late Santa Fe artist Henry Summa) that look like fossilized sea creatures. Cobalt blue fish swim amid shells and the sorts of undersea knickknacks you’d find in a fish tank. A few strands of real seaweed flutter from the work’s hard surface.
“My figures always wind up being slightly autobiographical,” she says. “Red hair, blue eyes. I don’t know why that happens.”
Bailey has a background in textiles and fashion design. She’s been making jewelry since 2008, which she sells online and out of her home studio by appointment (alicebaileydesigns.com). She also makes mosaic sculptures — glittering, abstract objects with conceptual titles like Window to Another World and Chosen Path. The sculptures are her way of making mosaics she can actually sell, since she doesn’t take commissions for exterior mosaics. Both the labor and the cost would be prohibitively expensive, she says.
“It’s a phenomenal amount of work, including hauling scaffolding, tile saws, materials, and buckets of water. I have the luxury of borrowing guys who work for my husband. I couldn’t do it by myself.”
She works on one project every summer. This year, she’s replacing a spiral mosaic that’s part of a piece called Getting a Handle on the New World (2014). It didn’t survive the winter. Bailey covers the mosaics with tarps until late spring to protect them from the elements, but annual repairs are always required. Some things just don’t last, especially the found objects that she uses for additional texture, items that aren’t broken into shards but affixed whole. As we walk around, she finds such pieces that have fallen to the ground — a flower, a bird.
“Another reason I can’t take commissions is the maintenance. I can’t be responsible for whether people protect them from the weather.”
‘Curiouser and curiouser’
Last summer, during the height of quarantine, Bailey adorned the floor of the front door entryway, inside the courtyard. In Central Sun Symphony (2020), half a red sun extends through orange, green, blue, and yellow into a sea of paisley shapes.
It reminded me of the ubiquitous images of the coronavirus.
“No, they are not representative of that,” she says. “They are sound. Don’t you dare call it [a] virus in the article. I’ll have to kill you.”
Bailey leads me from piece to piece in the courtyard. The Portal (2004) covers a portion of a curving banco near the fountain. It was the first outdoor mosaic she created. Across the way is Alchemy (2013), featuring abstract shapes in rainbow hues, flowing from a central image of the Green Man, a legendary symbol of rebirth.
Around a corner, a set of stairs leads to the guest-room deck. “On your left, you see Alice Going Down the Rabbit Hole . She’s curiouser and curiouser,” Bailey says, pointing to the words she placed above the story’s child-protagonist, who wears a blue dress and resembles a blonde baby doll. “That’s Delilah, the cat in the story. And then you have The White Rabbit .”
The rabbit appears to be hopping into a corner. Opposite him, by the French doors to the guest room, The Hookah-Smoking Caterpillar (2009) features a real hookah, bursting from the wall over our heads, and brown, ceramic salt-and-pepper shakers that Bailey cut in half to look like mushroom caps. The Red Queen (2010), is on a bench, and contains a chess set cemented to the surface. A piece has fallen off, and Bailey places it on the board. Across from that is The Mad Hatter (2010). “My Mad Hatter is very Johnny Depp,” she says, referencing the actor’s turn in Tim Burton’s 2010 film. “He’s over there with his red fingernails and lips.”
How does she decide what goes where, and when?
“Really, it just comes to me, bit by bit.”
Bailey and Sanchez’s bedroom is up a half-flight of stairs, floating above the circular living room. It’s spacious and somewhat unencumbered by standard notions of doors and walls.
The master bath boasts his-and-hers sinks and vanities in a room the size of a two- or even three-car garage. There’s a slate shower with a skylight and a deep soaking tub made of red rocks. Next, we walk through Bailey’s private dressing room. The pink and sea-green floral carpet is reminiscent of old-fashioned ladies’ powder rooms. We go up a few steps and through a passageway and I don’t know exactly how we’ve come to stand on a catwalk storage space. A skylight lets in enough sun to light Bailey’s closet during the day, which is directly underneath us. “This is the genius of my husband,” she says.
Soon, she takes me outside, through what she insists is the front door. But it’s not where I came in, and I don’t know where I am in relation to the courtyard with the fountain.
This entryway became The Cactus Garden in 2018-2019, an elaborate composition of succulents and wildflowers that appears to be growing from a real flowerpot. Ceramic snakes slither along the floor. Behind us, real sunflower gardens and fruit trees are not yet in bloom. It’s the very edge of the property, but the trees make it feel like the land might roll on forever toward the horizon.
“We have done a lot to make it feel remote,” Bailey says.
Sanchez calls Bailey a very visual person who “wants to keep busy, and she’s willing to put the time and effort into making sure that everything around her is beautiful.”
Says their friend, Ginger Casey, “What she’s done is just incredible. She’s transformed the landscape.”
Bailey says she just wants to express herself. “I’m not an artist who functions from a sense of angst. I function from a center of peace,” she says during the last stop on the tour. We’re in her modestly sized studio, located near what I thought was the front of the house.
“The outward expression of the internal brings me joy,” she goes on. “I think that’s the primary goal for all of us, no matter what we do. God bless you, if you’re a bookkeeper, and numbers make your heart sing, then that’s what counts. Doing mosaics makes my heart sing.” ◀