Updated: Jun 15, 2018
“Myself and a few others are the end of it all.” End of an era. End of a way of doing business. End of a generation. End of several generations.
And an art. And a craft.
The speaker—“myself”—that’s Murdoch Finlayson. A character like no other. And “it,” for lack of a better word, is his profession.
The first thing you notice about Murdoch—the thing you can’t ever help noticing—is that voice. Deep. Gruff. Booming. Even sotto voce it carries across the room. But it’s all basso profundo, its timbre seasoned by, well, by substances as much as it’s something bestowed upon him.
Beyond The Voice, there’s Murdoch himself. Now 76, he’s a bit more bent over than in his youth, and using a cane to get around, but he’s still spry, still sporting the suspenders and jeans and the long-sleeve Green Acres shirts and that ginger hair reaching everywhere—like one of Gilbert Shelton’s Freak Brothers. And as entertaining and lacking in B.S. as ever. In a town drowning in political correctness and politesse and protocol and overfull with poseurs who pride themselves on being real, Murdoch is the Real Deal.
A Boston kid (though he was actually born in Hartford, Connecticut), Murdoch attended the Leland Powers School (which over the years was also known as: the Leland Powers School of Communication, Leland Powers School of Radio, Theatre, and Television, Leland Powers Theatre School, the Leland Powers School of Expression, and the Leland Powers School of the Spoken Word) and upon graduation lit out for New York and its theater scene—as a stage manager and technician. He put on shows for The Shakespeare Festival and the Provincetown Playhouse. Some of the people from troupes he managed did very well—William Devane (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Marathon Man, various Kennedys) and George Stanford Brown (star of The Rookies and a longtime TV director). There are tales, of that period and beyond (Santa Fe’s cocaine-fueled 80s), tales to be teased out of him and parsed out in later blogs, about Abbie Hoffman and Truman Capote, among others.
For now, we’ll jump ahead to New Mexico.
“I had a stripped-down VW van,” recalls Murdoch from his Casa Solana living room. There are books everywhere (all along one entire wall), and plenty of the WPA furniture Murdoch has collected over the decades. Dean, a frequent guest and Murdoch’s longtime friend from those New York theater days, is on the backyard patio reading The New York Times. Robin, Murdoch’s longtime companion, who was also part of that New York scene (down on Christopher Street), moves in and out of the room. And will shout out suggestions for anecdotes, or come up and tell them herself. Robin, who looks about half Murdoch’s age, is as averse to bullshit as Murdoch. Maybe even more so. “Everybody showed up in 1968.”
He knew Guy Cross in New York City back then, before Cross went on to start THE, the monthly arts magazine. Cross was part of everybody who showed up out West.
Murdoch and his first wife soon ended up in the cellar of someone’s expanded family house in Pilar. “We were housesitting on a 200-year-old two-bedroom adobe on the dry side of the river,” says Murdoch. “There was a trout pond above. But there was no running water. Terrible times.”
So they drove out to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury for a weekend and didn’t make it back to New Mexico for two months.
They first went back to Pilar. Then to El Rancho. Murdoch did some theater-related work—he’d brought a light show with him from New York that he called the Legion of Decency. He did three gigs in Albuquerque.
He then opened a natural food restaurant. “Where Jacob’s Shoe Repair Shop now is on Old Santa Fe Trail,” he says. “We didn’t know what the fuck we were doing but we were having fun. I was able to break out of my Lower East Side shell there.”
It’s both hard and not hard to imagine Murdoch running a natural food restaurant. The same way it’s hard and not at all hard to imagine him as a hippie. But a hippie with class and manners and a sense of how to comport oneself around others.
Robin, his second wife, officially came onto the scene when Murdoch’s daughter, Randy, was 12. It was also around that time that he got into buying and selling on the reservations. At first, mainly on the Navajo reservation.
“I got into all that stuff when I saw my first Indian dance,” says Murdoch. “It was something I recognized deep inside me. I was impressed with that stuff right away. In 1971, I started going to the Navajo reservation.
“I got lucky,” he adds matter-of-factly. “I got there right before they started shutting down the trading posts from doing any pawning.”
He’d drive around the reservations almost aimlessly. “Dumb as you could be,” he says, not with a laugh, as if to say, God, I was dumb. But again: matter-of-factly. Seeing himself for who and what he was (as he does now). Ever self-aware. Aware of who he was and where he was and how others perceived him. Which is why he’s so damn charming and refreshing to be around. His manner of self-deprecation is telling you straight-up who he is, who he was.
He started out buying jewelry in Crownpoint and Chinle.
“You had really long hair and you’d walk around playing a bamboo flute that you had in a fringe case around your neck,” Robin shouts out from the kitchen. And you can see immediately why they’re so good a couple: no sugar-coating, no nonsense. Murdoch shrugs.
Dinner back then was often a hunk of mutton and some Wonder Bread. And he’d camp out wherever he was behind some sand dunes, behind some sage or juniper. One time he got stuck somewhere outside Bluff, Utah. His truck had broken down. So he put some beer in the radiator and made it back to Bluff.
He was a white guy, an East Coast hippie, showing up unannounced. But interested. And offering money for what he interested him. But he was different, too. He wasn’t exploitative. And he didn’t go on to found an empire. He didn’t turn into a Yuppie. Or found a chain of modern-day trading posts.
Back in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, though, he hung out with the counterculture crowd. People from the Hog Farm and some of the other communes that had popped up in northern New Mexico. “That was the Great Hippie Invasion,” says Murdoch.
But as interesting as all that counterculture was, it wasn’t easy. Same with the people on the pueblos. And the Hispanics. And then later, among the various scholars and academics.
What he liked were the stories. The people. The things they made. Especially the furniture. The pieces from the Works Progress Administration made in New Mexico between the New Deal (the 1930s) and the Eisenhower years (the 1950s).
This was the heyday of the many desks, dining tables, dressers, headboards, sideboards, blanket boxes, storage chests, small boxes, lamps, picture frames, and roperos (wardrobes) and trasteros (kitchen cupboards) that had been hand-carved and hand-adzed (or after World War II—made with table saws and band saws and drills and lathes and other fine carving tools) in the style of the historic colonial designs brought over from Spain. Distinguished, too, as furniture made for the purpose of serving as furniture—not as decoration—these pieces also featured Art Deco patterns and ornate carvings and inlays and painted images.
“All this furniture here is what I know,” says Murdoch, tapping a beautiful 1958 armoire. “The guys who made all this, they’d been around the world, man. They’d seen the world and came back and made all this great furniture.”
And Murdoch was not only out there buying it up, collecting it for himself and reselling it to others who’d started taking an interest in it (for its beauty and exquisite craftsmanship and imagination), he was gathering stories. Listening to the people who’d made it. People who were literally dying off.
“Murdoch has this passion for untold stories,” says Dr. Tey Marianna Nunn, director of the museum and visual arts program at Albuquerque’s National Hispanic Cultural Center. “He’s a collector of stories. He takes extra time and interest in uncovering all the stories. So he’s this repository of stories that are not written down or in a museum. He’s a font of knowledge. I love him. He’s wonderful. And his impact has been huge, but he does it so quietly. He knows the most about Hispanic furniture here. It’s pretty uncanny.”
“I’d ride around and smoke pot and knock on antique store,” Murdoch recalls nonchalantly. “I just loved the furniture, man. I didn’t know diddly squat. But the complexities of a chair, man—that fascinated me.”
He had a friend, John Hill, with whom he’d bought and sold kachinas and jewelry. “He showed me a lot,” says Murdoch, “and I just picked up on it.”
He got into furniture while on a trip to a warehouse in Mexico. He was one of the first to bring up the Mexican furniture from Juarez to Santa Fe. It’d end up on Rodeo Drive. So he’d go get more from El Paso. Then the guys started bringing up junk, and he’d see it being sold on the corners. And so he got out. Which led to, as Murdoch so delicately puts it, “a career of dissipation.”
Or: the 80s. When a lot of Santa Fe money was being washed in Native American art.
But his love for New Mexico furniture never dissipated. “I like the weird stuff. I’m known for weird stuff,” he says. “People find me.” He pauses. “And I really like the ceremonial material stuff you don’t normally see. That’s really beautiful.”
About 10 years ago, he started a book. For the Spanish Colonial Arts Society. It was problematic at first. It stalled. But now it’s back on and he’s working on it with local writer Carmella Padilla (whose husband happens to be Luis Tapia, a well-respected santero and furniture restorer). “His experience is not from a scholarly end, but from a practical end,” says Padilla. “And the experiential, firsthand learning is often more valuable from people who made it and use it. His experience is critical more so than scholarly or academic experience.”
“Collectors,” adds Nunn, “are usually more valuable because they’re so focused. And Murdoch is very focused.”
He’s also one of the few, and one of the most outspoken and frank, about who should really have it. Who it all belongs to. “I’m anti-trader, man,” says Murdoch, who’s often referred to in the trade as a “picker,” but is obviously way more than that. And, as stated above, entirely aware of who he is and how he’s perceived. “If they want it back, they should have it back. I’ve been giving stuff back for years. It’s f’n theirs, man.”