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Out of the Limelight, onto the Mesa

From the Women of Distinction series
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Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project Founder Katherine Wells moved to New Mexico from California in 1992 with hopes of settling down and enjoying a peaceful life. Instead, the 188-acre property she purchased in Lyden turned out to be a goldmine for petroglyphs. The continuing discoveries on her property prompted Wells to start the Project in 1999 and donate 156 acres to the Archaeological Conservancy in 2007 to start the Wells Petroglyph Preserve.

This is the seventh entry in "Women of Distinction," a series of profiles being published weekly this summer about women who make a difference in Northern New Mexico communities.

Being publicly recognized for her work was a feat Katherine Wells was never supposed to accomplish.

Not because she wasn’t deserving of the honor, but because she originally moved to New Mexico to escape the limelight and the crowd.

Wells received the 2019 National Heritage Award for Lifetime Achievement from the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division on May 17 at the Meem Auditorium in Santa Fe.

It was just the icing on the cake the founder of the Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project deserved to taste after starting the nonprofit organization in 1999 in an effort to preserve what is now estimated to be 100,000 petroglyphs on the Mesa.

“I was very surprised,” Wells said of receiving the award. “I would not have been surprised to get an individual award because other people in the Project have gotten individual awards in the past, but the Lifetime Achievement was a huge surprise. Some people who have won it before me are big heroes, so I’m in great company. I’m astonished, so to say.”

Moving to New Mexico from California in 1992 was supposed to be a lifestyle change to smaller surroundings. Something less crowded and more peaceful, she thought.

But the 188-acre property Wells and her partner, Lloyd Dennis, purchased on Mesa Prieta in 1992 had ideas of its own.

katherine wells feature 1995 on mesa with dog shaggy

Katherine Wells and her dog Shaggy pose for a picture on Mesa Prieta in 1995.

Located off what is now a secret location in Lyden along the 12-mile long, 36-square mile area that is the Mesa, the property Wells and Dennis bought was a choice made to escape the ever-growing, overcrowded and traffic-filled Los Angeles metropolitan area.

While she did escape those features of the big city, Wells would not escape being part of big-time contributions in New Mexico’s archaeological history. In fact, she wouldn’t just be a part of the largest petroglyph site in the state, she would own the whole thing.


Wells was born and raised in Kansas City, Mo. during the end of the Great Depression, where she was the youngest of four children.

As a child, her biggest influence was her aunt, Alice Pettit.

“She was a stimulus for me,” Wells said. “She was my role model who did things.”

Pettit, a very religious person, was a nurse in World War II who was trained in bible school traveled to Africa as a missionary for 15 years.

“Nobody else in the family did anything (special),” Wells said. “I’m looking at her and thinking, ‘If she can do things, then maybe I could do things.’”

Besides Pettit, Wells’ grandmother was influential to her because she brushed off her artistic nature and skills.

Her grandmother was self-taught, but also talented, and prompted Wells to pursue a bachelor’s degree in art and English at the University of Wyoming, where she graduated in 1960.

Following college, Wells moved to Claremont, Calif. — 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles in the Pomona Valley — after a brief stint in Venezuela.

katherine 1971 teaching at montclair high school

Katherine Wells in 1971 teaching at Montclair High School.

In Southern California, Wells furthered her education at the Otis College of Art and Design, which led to a teaching career at Montclair High School, just south of Claremont.

She also dabbled in a graphic design and silk-screen printing business with a friend for about 10 years, she said.

“We did a whole line of products that were sold throughout stores all over the country,” Wells said. “We did products that were screened on canvas, muslin and other fabrics.”

Emerging artist

Combined with her teaching career and business was Wells’ true passion: creating her own artwork.

She specialized in mixed-media sculpture as an artist, and after she and Dennis became drained from the hectic lifestyle in Los Angeles, they sought other opportunities in northern California and the southwest.

“There were just about 40 million too many people,” she said. “It always bugged me. The more people there were, the harder it was to drive and it was just crazy. I thought, “I can get out of here, so why don’t I?’”

Wells said she and Dennis had a tough time agreeing on potential properties to buy through the duration of their search. Ideally, they were looking for land with a few acres and a house. Northern New Mexico became the ideal choice for the couple after scouring other opportunities in Arizona, Utah and the Golden State’s upper portion.

Her goal was to thrive in the art scene, something in which nearby Santa Fe could easily assist, given its large art market.

“I was hoping to live my quiet life as an artist and sell my work in Santa Fe,” Wells said. “The Project was a wave that eventually rolled right over my art time. I had to choose, and the petroglyphs had a lot more people involved. It was yelling louder at me and it was like having two babies, but the Project yelled a little louder.”

A ‘few’ petroglyphs

What led to Wells creating the Project in 1999 and eventually donating 156 acres of her land to the Archaeological Conservancy in 2007 to create the Wells Petroglyph Preserve, was a realtor’s suggestion that she and Dennis take a look at a larger property with a “few” petroglyphs.

“We were never interested in big pieces, but I was tired of looking,” Wells said. “Real estate shopping is tiring, but Lloyd was interested in it and I went along with it just to make him happy.”

However, it only took one look up the hill for Wells’ eyes to be convinced to end the long, drawn out search for a new home.

As she scanned the area, she was drawn to a gigantic boulder up on the hill — just above where her current straw bale house now sits on the property — where she saw it virtually tattooed in petroglyphs.

“When the realtor mentioned petroglyphs, I said, ‘Yeah right, a couple of scratches on a rock, more likely,’” Wells said. “I thought the Native Americans and the government owned all the petroglyphs, but I was wrong. I saw that boulder and ran up there in about two-tenths of a second, and I said, ‘I’m done shopping, I’m living here.’”

‘The wallpaper effect’

Wells said on the first visit to the property, she probably saw 20 petroglyphs. As she settled in after purchasing, it didn’t take long for her to realize and understand the potential the property played in the cultural history of the area.

“I started walking around and I was finding more, more, more and more petroglyphs,” she said. “After a few weeks, I realized this was a major place. Nobody was paying attention and local people didn’t know anything about it. I call it the ‘wallpaper effect.’ Where you are, you don’t notice the background where you live because it’s just the background. The petroglyphs were the background to the local people, but they weren’t background to me, they were the foreground.”

In the following years, Wells got involved in community efforts in Velarde and near her property to fight mining, with the goal to preserve the petroglyphs. She declined to go into detail about those three-to-four years, only saying it was an extremely rough time for her.

Although, that rough patch would lead to the formation of the Project.

“It may be fair to say that the birth of the Project came from a concern for mitigation and preservation of the area,” said Project Director Jennifer Goyette, who has been with the organization for five years. “It’s been a slow, long haul to build relationships with businesses and landowners, and just to build awareness of this place.”

Establishing the project

The Project’s main goal is to preserve and record all of the petroglyphs on site.

Thus far, Wells said about 60,000 have been recorded, dating back to three different time periods in New Mexico’s history: the Archaic, the Pueblo IV and Historic periods.

The first images were created on the black basalt boulders in the Archaic period before the Ancestral Puebloan people arrived in the Rio Grande Valley, around 1300 A.D. The Pueblo people are estimated to be responsible for about 75 percent of the petroglyphs on Mesa Prieta.

Besides having the most petroglyphs of any site in New Mexico — including towering high over the Petroglyph National Monument’s estimated 25,000 on Albuquerque’s West Mesa — what makes the Mesa Prieta site unique is the direct link between the cross of cultures between the Pueblo people and the Spanish settlers from the Historic period, who arrived in 1598.

The Spanish would add thousands of petroglyphs over the next three centuries of crosses, horses, churches and European heraldic lions.

Anamorphic flute player petroglyphs depicted as animals document that first contact between the Spanish and Pueblo people.

“Not only do we have the most petroglyphs in New Mexico, but it is also right on the Camino Real: we have the direct Spanish Influence since 1598,” Project Docent Russell Martenson said in a tour of the Preserve this spring. “We have the mingling of the Spanish and the Indians, and that’s what makes it special and unique.”

Mesa Prieta flute player petroglyph

A petroglyph at Mesa Prieta.

Wells made a major decision in 2007 when she agreed to donate 156 acres of her property to the Conservancy for the perpetual protection of the land. The donation became known as the Preserve.

In return for the donation, the Project can use the Preserve — which has grown to 181 acres thanks to the Conservancy — for docent-led tours and education.

It can be confusing to many at first, but the Project is a separate entity from the Preserve.

“First, there’s the Mesa, which is the 12-mile long, 36-square mile area,” Goyette said. “Then, there’s the Preserve that was given to the Archaeological Conservancy for a mechanism to preserve this space as long as possible. Then, there is the Project: we are privileged to use the Preserve for tours, education and outreach, but we also use our recording program to record all the petroglyphs on the entire landmass.”

Dedication to education

With the cross cultures of the Pueblo people and the Spanish settlers setting the foundation for what Northern New Mexico has become today, Wells said when the Project started, she “felt all along from day one, we need to do as much as we can for the local kids of the Hispano and Native cultures.”

That mission was first accomplished through the formation of the Summer Youth Intern Program in 2001.

The two-week internship program just finished its 18th consecutive year in June.

It aims to teach students STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) techniques while learning to professionally record petroglyphs in the same fashion that the adult volunteers and professional recorders do.

“We have a nice partnership with Northern New Mexico College now,” Goyette said. “For the second year, we’ve offered dual-credit to eligible students through Northern who are eligible to participate. Because of how strong of a program it is, we’re eligible to participate (with Northern).”

The American Rock Art Research Association awarded the internship program with its 2008 Education Award, and in 2011, the program won the National Take Pride in America Award for Outstanding Public-Private Partnership with the Bureau of Land Management.

Supporters and donors of the Project donated enough money to send five of the interns to Washington, D.C. to accept the award.

“Sending those students to Washington, that was a big deal,” Wells said of the students in the program. “A lot of them have never even been on a hike or seen a petroglyph.”

The second award-winning educational pathway Wells helped create is the fourth through seventh-grade curriculum titled, “Discovering Mesa Prieta.”

The STEM-based curriculum, which nears 300 pages total, has been used in schools as far north as Taos, as well as in Albuquerque.

Former Project education coordinator Esta Gutierrez was heavily-involved in the curriculum and was responsible for training teachers at the Project’s Professional Teacher Development Workshops.

She said Wells’ dedication to education is one of the founder’s most paramount features.

“Katherine is very, very dedicated to the educational component,” Gutierrez said. “She really believed in the importance of this site and knew it was the right of young people growing up here to have the opportunity to explore and find out about this little known place, even to those who grew up right down the road below the Mesa.”

The curriculum was first started in 2002, and will have a new update to its online profile later this year, which is available for free to the public. Gutierrez said the curriculum is rigorous and teachers who attend the workshops often leave with a “trunk-full” of material and lesson plans.

Students receive a field trip to the Mesa at the end of the class.

“When they get to the Mesa, they are led by a docent and they actually get to see the real thing,” Wells said. “They’ve looked at photographs, they’ve learned about respect for the past, so coming on the field trip has a lot to do with having respect for what our ancestors have left for us.”

The students from the area are learning about their own history, Gutierrez said.

“Not just people from the Pueblos either, obviously,” she said. “Most of the people living here have high percentage of Native American blood in them. Also for people who are not native to this area, it’s great to enlighten them about the beauty of what the Indigenous and Hispanic ancestors have left for us.”

Currently, the Mesa provides a unique and educational experience to over 1,000 visitors per year on the docent-led tours, which would not be made possible without the Project’s 100 strong volunteers.

However, sustaining the Project’s efforts just doesn’t depend on the volunteers. To continue to work toward the primary goal of recording all of the petroglyphs, the Project must continue its fundraising efforts.

“Aside from that, we receive grants from foundations and institutions in state and out, but more than half of our budget, which is a couple hundred thousand a year, comes from private donations,” Wells said. “We have a big donor base. We do everything but put her (Goyette) on the corner with a tin cup.”

But they could do that too, if needed, Goyette said with a laugh.

The latest fundraising event will take place this fall in October to celebrate the Project’s 20-year anniversary. They will sell Project merchandise, and host a special presentation by famous ethnologist, archaeologist, cultural ecologist and botanist Dick Ford, along with a live musical performance by Felix Y Los Gatos.

‘All I wanted’

While Wells sat at the kitchen table in her straw bale house atop the Mesa earlier this month and admired the stunning views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, she seemed nothing but content about where she is and what she has accomplished.

“All I ever wanted was my mountain views,” she said. “Whatever else happened, that’s all I wanted. It feels really good to have that.”

Adding to the feeling of ease was her receiving of the Lifetime Achievement Award in May. As Wells and Goyette talked about the honor, Goyette said Wells’ ability to make such a substantial difference all by herself is what has stood out to her the most in her five years with the Project.

“Without her, where would this place be?” she said. “It’s amazing to me to see what one amazing, dedicated person can achieve. Clearly, it took the will of many, but if Katherine had not looked around and noticed what a special place this was and bought this place and began to reach out to other people, this never would have happened. It’s a great legacy and it gives me hope — spending my lifetime in conservation and preservation — it shows you that one person really can make a difference.”

What satisfies Wells the most is the appreciation, respect and recognition she received from the archaeological community in receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award.

“When you’re a nonprofit founder, all you do is work, work, work and work,” she said. “You don’t put your head up very often and look around, so it’s nice when you do put your head up and someone noticed.”

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