‘ . . . the shafts of light, the sense of time suspended, the frozen moment,
then and there connecting me to O’Keeffe forever . . .’
By Tony Tedeschi
Anyone who has taken a flight across America can’t help but notice how all those green squares across the middle of the country give way to shades of brown as you approach the Rockies. As the flat earth rises into mountains, the terrain displays variations in shape and color, but still betrays a forbidding landscape, begging the question, how could anyone choose to live there? Nonetheless, for decades, the part of that dry earth in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico, has attracted artists, writers, musicians, jewelry designers and assorted other craftsmen, along with movie stars and a complement of millionaires. I had journeyed here determined to find out why.
I knew from working on my master’s in English Lit that D.H. Lawrence had a ranch in Taos. George R.R. Martin, author of “A Song of Fire and Ice,” adapted for TV’s “Game of Thrones,” lived in Santa Fe. Acclaimed opera stars performed at the dramatic, open-air Santa Fe Opera. Ansel Adams shot his famous black-and-white photograph, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,” just north of Santa Fe. Georgia O’Keeffe painted hundreds of her works in and around her home in Abiquiu, an hour’s drive north.
When O’Keeffe died in her 99th, year on March 6, 1986, Edith Evans Asbury wrote in The New York Times: “As an interpreter and manipulator of natural forms, as a strong and individual colorist and as the lyric poet of her beloved New Mexico landscape, she left her mark on the history of American art and made it possible for other women to explore a new gamut of symbolic and ambiguous imagery.”
I was intrigued by the description of O’Keeffe as the landscape’s lyric poet and by the comment about the ambiguity of her imagery. It seemed that if you could decipher O’Keeffe; somehow see, even feel, what she saw and felt, you could understand the magic of this place, feel the pulse of the earth here, strip away the clutter to its very soul.
Each year, my wife, Candy, a nurse practitioner in women’s health, lends her considerable talents to train medical personnel for the Indian Health Service. I tag along, when I can manage it, this year determined to dig into O’Keeffe.
I’d always been drawn to the artist’s work, the dominant spirit reflected there, representative of a woman with the courage to live amidst these badlands. O’Keeffe went wherever her spirit pointed, despite admitting, “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.”
Perhaps there is something in the rich soil of the heartland, places like Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, where O’Keeffe was born in 1887, that infusion of spirit that keeps its offspring pressing toward some sort of ultimate discovery, even if the forward motion occurs while you are, inexplicably, rooted in a place. I knew for O’Keeffe the locus of that world was Abiquiu, but it would require some grounding in the resultant artwork to begin to understand her sense of place.
At the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, I was drawn to the similarities of style between O’Keeffe’s work and those of other artists whose paintings hung near hers, concluding that her influence on their work was obvious. But the dates on the paintings of the other artists either preceded O’Keeffe’s arrival in New Mexico or were contemporaneous with her early period there.
Then, why O’Keeffe as lyric poet of this landscape? Was it the volume of her output, hundreds of paintings over many decades? Was it the celebrated status she brought with her, a result of exhibitions at the prestigious 291 Gallery in Manhattan, where her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, showcased her work? The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, a short walk from the Museum of Art, would surely provide some direction.
Immediately apparent is the boldness of her work, those gaudy colors: pink, beige, salmon, maroon, in the geological layers of the mesas and mountains, a sense that she is trying to penetrate the spirituality beneath a kind of surface tension. In one painting of the flattop mountain opposite her home, “My Front Yard, Summer, 1941,” the mountain seems almost an airship, hovering above a valley dotted with trees. “It’s my private mountain,” she wrote. “It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”
“Easter Sunrise, 1953,” is even more intensely spiritual: rays of sunlight forming a cross above a road that snakes below her home, past cottonwoods, whose limbs appear upraised in acknowledgement of the light. Those cottonwoods were the subject of numerous paintings, indicative of O’Keeffe’s not having to leave her home to create great art. It took years for her to convince the previous owners – the archdiocese of Santa Fe – to sell her the house, but the inspiration she drew from the location, from the moment she set foot on the property, made her need to live there imperative.
Where her art has generated recurrent controversy it is in the perceived sexuality depicted in some of her paintings, particularly her treatment of flowers. In paintings like, “White and Blue Flower Shapes, 1919,” there is little imagination required. However, O’Keeffe left such interpretations to observers, who simply, “took the time to notice my flowers [and] hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.”
For me, such depictions were examples of O’Keeffe trying to bore into the essence of a subject; flowers being something people simply lingered over for a moment, drawn briefly to the color or aroma. Whether it were a mesa or a flower, O’Keeffe sought to see it beyond the reflected light of a simple definition.
It all demanded a visit to O’Keeffe’s home and studio in Abiquiu. A tour of the grounds reveals a garden where she grew flowers and vegetables, a courtyard where she let ambient light play on the walls, rooms large and small with divergent design themes and an expansive studio opening onto a vista depicted in a great deal of her work.
“She would wrap herself in a blanket and wait, shivering in the cold dark of a sunrise to paint,” Asbury wrote in The Times, “would climb a ladder to see the stars from a roof . . .”
In one small room, I felt the intense sense of an otherworldly connection. Something about the assemblage of elements, the blanched skull with the great antler rack, contrasting the muted grey of the wall where it hung, ninety degrees from a weathered exterior door, the cracks in the ancient wood directing shafts of sunlight onto the floor. One of those rare, frozen moments in time. The room, the shafts of light, the sense of time suspended, the frozen moment, then and there connecting me to O’Keeffe forever.
“When I think of death,” she said, “I only regret that I will not be able to see this beautiful country anymore . . . unless the Indians are right and my spirit will walk here after I’m gone.”
Thoughts of that moment still give me a chill. Editor’s Note: This story originally ran in our favorite travel webzine: www.neverstoptraveling.com.