A July 2003 trip
to Abiquiu by Idler
Quote: Fewer places are more conducive to intense reflection than the powerful yet tender landscape near Abiquiu, New Mexico. Lovingly depicted in the work of Georgia O’Keeffe, this country has to be approached on its own terms in order to apppreciate its enduring appeal.
There is, in short, much more to this country than Georgia O’Keeffe. Abiquiu casts a spell over those susceptible to its austere charm. It is a place of solitude, providing sustenance for the spirit as well as the eye, home to Islamic, Presbyterian, Penitente, and Benedictine communities in isolated spots nearby.
An early visitor remarked, "This country is very beautiful and also very difficult…it is not a country of light on things. It is a country of things in light." In 1917, Georgia O’Keeffe summed it up well as she first grappled with the emotions the landscape evoked: "Well! Well! Well!…This is wonderful. No one told me it was like this!"
If this sounds snooty, then be assured that it isn’t. Just don’t come expecting to find anything tailored to tourism. The people here are gentle and courteous, but clearly not the least bit interested in changing things for the benefit of outsiders. In many ways, Abiquiu remains true to its pueblo roots, with the same respectful ‘pueblo etiquette’ expected of visitors.
In keeping with Abiquiu’s ‘minimal impact’ tourist policy, tours of Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in the village are strictly regulated. Since the number of visitors is limited, it’s essential to book weeks or even months in advance to be assured of a spot.
Having said that, this is also prime auto touring country: Highway 84 from Española all the way up to Chama provides some stunning views as well as many roadside spots of historical and geological interest.
The Abiquiu Inn provides maps (used as a placemat in the café) that mark the locations of local points of interest. The staff at the inn are also very obliging about giving specific directions to places such as the White Place which are a bit off the beaten path.
After long hours travelling, I’m bone weary and glad of his assistance. All I’d wanted was to pitch my tent, crawl in, and sleep, but the fragrance of cedar wood campfires and the dramatic orange sunset act as a tonic. I look around with renewed interest. Laid out on a hillside overlooking Abiquiu Lake, with sweeping views of Cerro Pedernal (Flint Mountain), Riana is just what I’d hoped it would be: ruggedly handsome yet welcoming.
The campsite I reserved, however, is adjacent to a large and rather boisterous youth group. Nothing against youth groups, but I’m just not in the mood. "Um, do you think…?" Bob breaks in before I finish. "I can show you a real nice site, very private, the best in the campground," he confides. I follow him to another loop and there, as promised, is a lovely site (#23) shaded by piñons and junipers, with an even better view of dramatic, flat-topped Pedernal.
As I drink a cup of tea the next morning after sunrise, I reflect on just what brought me here. There’s a lovely inn at Abiquiu, but the idea of camping had seized my imagination. I wanted to be out among the plum-tinted hills, to watch the reflection the fiery sun cast moving across the lake, to hear coyotes howl in the still of the night, and to wake in the shadow of O’Keeffe’s beloved Pedernal. In these and in more practical matters I am not disappointed.
There are 54 campsites at Riana, some suitable for RVs with hook-ups for water and electricity. Most sites feature picnic tables beneath ramadas -- there is generally little shade. (I’d been lucky to snag one of the few shady spots.) There are basic amenities, such as grills and lantern posts, but nothing fancy. New Mexico is undergoing a protracted drought, so on my first visit to the bath-house I’m not surprised when the shower produces a 5-second burst of warm water with each push of the ‘on’ button. Counting just how many bursts are needed to bathe provides a diverting lesson in water conservation.
Less amusing is the notice on the bulletin board warning campers about Hanta virus. Luckily, the drought is as hard on virus-carrying deer mice as it is on other flora and fauna. Still, I can’t help but listen for small scurrying sounds outside my tent at night.
Another consequence of the drought is that the shallow lake is closed to motorboats, a bonus for those seeking tranquility. Sitting by the lake contemplating nearby Pedernal is as good an introduction to New Mexico’s spare beauty as any I can think of.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on August 15, 2003
Riana Campground at Abiquiu Lake
P.O. Box 290
Abiquiu, New Mexico
Restaurant | "Cafe Abiquiu"
The café at Abiquiu Inn is the sole eatery in town, but it doesn’t take a mean advantage of this fact. Catering to both locals and passers-through, it serves good Southwestern, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean fare in a charming setting. The inn, which is run by the Dar al Islam mosque, is surrounded by a green oasis of thriving gardens. The café is part of the complex that houses the Abiquiu Inn, Galleria Arriba, and a gift shop. Stopping for a meal at Café Abiquiu, with its Turkish rugs, rainforest art, and Pueblo Indian artifacts, becomes something of a multicultural experience.
My first meal there was breakfast. I’d arrived early at Abiquiu Inn, the starting point of the O’Keeffe tour, and the smell of freshly brewed coffee reeled me in. Before I knew it, I was seated at an oak table with the sunshine pouring in the window. A steaming mug of coffee, a flaky pastry, and the day’s prospects before me –- I was mightily tempted to linger, but with minutes before the tour’s departure, I couldn’t.
After the O’Keeffe tour and an hour spent in Galleria Arriba and the attractive gift shop, it was lunchtime. What a happy coincidence finding myself at the café once again. I was soon ensconced at a garden-side table with a monstrously large glass of ice tea and a platter of chicken tamales before me. Served with tortilla chips and salsa, a side of pinto beans and salad, the tamales were moist and not highly seasoned. The flavors of the dish spoke for itself -- honest, uncomplicated, and without pretension. It was, I reflected, very much like Abiquiu itself.
The following night, tired after a day’s hiking and wandering, I’m heading back to the campsite and there –- once again –- is the café, like a beacon. This time I’m seated near a large party of summer residents from Ghost Ranch, which gives me ample opportunity to eavesdrop as well as look over their food before ordering. The Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes coming out of the kitchen look tasty, so I indulge in my passion for falafel. The hot brown nuggets are served with warm pita bread and tangy yogurt-based dip. Greek salad makes a nice accompaniment to this, departing from ‘standard issue’ in the choice of romaine rather than iceberg lettuce -– an improvement. I fall from grace and order the evening’s special dessert, a slice of pumpkin cheesecake, the swirls of adobe-colored pumpkin marbling the sinful slice. More coffee, more lingering . . . Café Abiquiu is a place I’ll remember fondly for a long, long time.
Abiquiu, New Mexico 87510
Initially set up as a dude ranch by wealthy easterners, Georgia O’Keeffe fell under its spell the instant she saw its fluid, voluptuous hills and wind-sculpted cliffs. She moved there and immediately began to paint, later purchasing a house on the ranch. (She later bought another house in Abiquiu, dividing her time between the two properties.)
In the early 1940’s, Ghost Ranch served as a getaway for overworked Manhattan Project scientists from nearby Los Alamos. No one was told the visitors’ names or occupations, but eminent physicists such as Enrico Fermi and Richard Feynmann later fondly recalled their stays there.
Scientists of a different stripe flocked to Ghost Ranch starting in 1947, when an expedition led by paleontologist Edwin Colbert discovered one of the richest quarries for fossils of the Triassic era on an exposed cliff face. There, in a layer some two feet thick, was a mass grave consisting almost entirely of skeletons of Coelophysis, a small, agile predator. The paleontology museum at the ranch displays many Coelophysis fossils as well as those of phytosaurs, immense crocodile-like creatures whose remains no doubt spawned the local legend of Vivaron, the child-eating serpent demon.
Today, in contrast to its turbulent and mysterious past, Ghost Ranch serves a quiet retreat run by the Presbyterian Church. It also hosts numerous elderhostel and arts programs. Outside visitors are welcome provided they check in first at the office, which has maps of local hiking trails. The small paleontology and anthropology museum next door is well worth a visit, too.
What strikes the visitor familiar with O’Keeffe’s work, however, is that if anything her painting understated the drama of the landscape. In the clear desert air, the majestic sandstone cliffs seem closer than they really are, with the gleaming red, chocolate, purple, and yellow hues tempered by the shadows of passing clouds. I hiked out to Chimney Rock, a popular Ghost Ranch landmark. Up and up the trail went, yet Chimney Rock seemed no closer. Finally, reaching the top of the plateau revealed sweeping vistas of the Chama River valley, Abiquiu Lake, and the mountains and mesas of The Faraway, as O’Keeffe dubbed it.
Juan de Dios Gallegos, a local Indian rancher and hunter of legendary skill, knew of O’Keeffe’s fondness for bones and once gave her the skull of a prized steer. She sketched it and then gave the drawing to Ghost Ranch’s owner. The famous emblem serves as the ranch logo to this day.
Off highway 84
Abiquiu, New Mexico
Attraction | "A tour of Georgia O'Keeffe's Abiquiu home & studio"
It took several years for O’Keeffe’s plans for the house to reach fruition. The death of her husband, photographer Arthur Steiglitz, intervened and three years were needed to settle his estate, plus the start of WWII brought shortages of materials and labor. Still, with the help of her assistant, Maria Chabot, the work slowly progressed.
Several things about the house appealed to O’Keeffe. Strongest, perhaps, was her affinity for a door in the wall of the enclosed patio, which she painted almost obsessively. She was also excited about the possibility of having a garden. O’Keeffe, who was ahead of her time in terms of nutritional as well as artistic ideas, found obtaining fresh produce at her Ghost Ranch house extremely difficult. The Abiquiu property, with its hereditary water rights and fertile soil, soon boasted an abundant garden. Lastly, the enclosed walls of the old residence offered the promise of privacy, while the views of the gentle hills and winding roads nearby made appealing subjects.
To visit O’Keeffe’s home is to gain an understanding of how important control over her surroundings was to her. She supervised the smallest details of the house’s reconstruction, down to the precise shades of mud used to stucco the traditional walls and flooring.
In keeping with the artist’s rather exacting standards, tours of O’Keeffe’s house are conducted so that visitors clearly understand what is required of them. No photography or note taking is permitted, and the small group of visitors is shuttled by van to the house at a precise time to limit traffic flow through Abiquiu village. Reservations for the hour-long tour need to be well ahead of time, as the tours, which are conducted three days a week April-November, are booked weeks in advance.
It is worth the effort, however. The knowledgeable docent explains in detail how O’Keeffe built the house and furnished it with almost monastic simplicity. Most interesting to me was the discussion of recurrent themes in O’Keeffe’s art that were inspired by the house, such as the enigmatic patio door. Using large laminated copies of O’Keeffe paintings to demonstrate her points, it was easier to understand what O''Keefe was trying to achieve. A painting that had seemed puzzlingly abstract, for example, resolved itself the instant I saw what O’Keeffe had seen: the shape of the road coming from Española toward Abiquiu.
Georgia O'Keeffe Home and Studio
Abiquiu, New Mexico
There proved to be more history -- and more poetry -- in and around Abiquiu than I had imagined. Perhaps the explanation lies in the Pueblo Indian belief that a person''s very thoughts and emotions are absorbed by the landscape. Thus, echoes of the distant past can resonate even into the present. Or perhaps I was merely susceptible to the suggestion that this could be so. In either case, certain places near Abiquiu harbor echoes from the past.
POSHUOINGE To the non-archaeological eye, Poshuoinge (po-shoe-WIN-gay) looks unprepossessing. Unlike the well-tended Ancestral Pueblo ruins at places such as Mesa Verde and Bandelier, there is little to commemorate this as the site of a once-thriving village. Yet a hike to the mesa top site reveals what is not evident at ground level: the defensive advantages of this location. At the time it was built, nomadic Athapaskan tribes (ancestors of the Apaches and Navajos) were already making incursions into northern New Mexico. It was probably such an attack on the pueblo which caused its inhabitants to suddenly flee, abandoning even their most precious possessions. They left behind a legacy, however: present-day farmers near the mesa still use the acequias (irrigation ditches) dug centuries ago by the ancient community.
To find Poshuoinge, keep a sharp eye out for a small sign on the left side of the road heading north to Abiquiu. The ruins are near the roadside about a mile south of the old settlement of Santa Rosa di Lima di Abiquiu. A short trail winds around the side of a mesa to its top, where there is an interpretive sign showing an artist''s rendition of what the site may have once looked like. The mesa vantage point provides memorable views of the Chama River Valley, with the dark backdrop of Monte Negro beyond.
SANTA ROSA DI LIMA DI ABIQUIULess than a mile from Poshuoinge along Rt. 84 are the ruins of first settlement at Abiquiu, Santa Rosa di Lima. All that remains are the thick walls of the church which once doubled as a refuge. Outposts such as Abiquiu were under constant attack from marauding bands of Navajos, Apaches, Utes, and Comanches, who raided the settlement for supplies, horses, and slaves. Abiquiu was a poor community, consisting largely of Genízeros (Pueblo Indians living alongside the Spanish). The first settlement was not a success. The settlement and its church, constructed in the 1740''s, had to be abandoned during the 1750''s when especially fierce raids forced the villagers to retreat to the more defensible position at the site of present-day Abiquiu. The ruins stand as a poignant reminder of the hardships these early settlers endured.
PLAZA BLANCA - "THE WHITE PLACE" Tucked back into the folds of the land, Plaza Blanca is an eerie geological formation of luminous gray stone formed from volcanic ash some sixty million years ago. The soft rock has eroded into stately tapered mounds, which seem like sentinels guarding the canyon’s entrance. The wind- and water-worn forms are pale versions of the sandstone hoodoos seen in places such as Canyonlands National Park in Utah. Getting to this quiet, unearthly place requires driving along unpaved County Road 155 for several miles, bearing right at the fork in the road after about four miles. Walk back toward the rock formations and then down alongside them for the best views. In the shimmering heat of mid-day, the profound stillness of Plaza Blanca is uncanny; it is little wonder that O’Keeffe came here often to paint the White Place.
DAR AL ISLAMBefore the fork in the road leading to Plaza Blanca is the entrance to Dar ar Islam Mosque, which was originally meant to be the center of an ideal Moslem community set in the New Mexican desert. While the grander designs of the community never came to pass, the mosque and madressa (school) that were built are exquisite, the sole examples in the U.S. of a North African style masjid. It is said that the construction techniques used date back to Egypt’s ancient Valley of the Kings. The mosque, which was built of hand-made adobe brick, faces East towards Mecca. Set against the gently rolling hills and dark juniper-studded mountains, the Dar al Islam mosque seems far removed from the materialistic concerns of the secular world, existing in harmony with its austere surroundings.
RIO CHAMA O’Keeffe painted this winding river time and again, most notably in her Blue River series. Just north of Abiquiu, Rt. 84 climbs upward flanking a steep cliff. At the apex, there’s a pull-out on the left which overlooks the Chama River. It is here that artists set up their easels to paint the famous view of the river flowing through the surprisingly green bottomlands of the valley. Flanked by the soft forms of water-loving cottonwoods, the river emerges from the red foothills, meandering seductively on its way toward the village.
PEDERNAL Cerro Pedernal (Flint Mountain) is sacred to several Native American tribes of the Southwest. With an almost sentient presence, its distinct, flat-topped shape presides watchfully over Abiquiu. Georgia O’Keeffe was obsessed with Pedernal, painting it over and over again. "It''s my private mountain," she used to say. "God told me if I painted it often enough I could have it."
The view of the mountain from the shores Abiquiu Lake is particularly fine, though it is sadly ironic that when the Army Corps of Engineers built Abiquiu Dam, they flooded an area rich in prehistoric sites in order to create a lake that virtually no one in Abiquiu wanted.
PIEDRA LUMBRE What can be said of the Piedra Lumbre, or Valley of the Shining Stone, other than that it is most fittingly named? Some ten miles north of Abiquiu, the cliffs running alongside Rt. 84 suddenly explode in dramatic crests of fiery red, dusky purple, and honey yellow stone. The rugged cliffs, spires, and stone formations of the Piedra Lumbre present an almost complete geological record of this area, from ancient Chinle sandstone formed some 200 million years ago upwards through the Jurassic, Cretaceous, and Mesozoic eras. The scenic pull-out for Piedra Lumbre along highway 84 proved too distant a view for my liking, so I parked on the steep shoulder of the road near the most towering formations, which rose like the skeletal backbone of some terrestrial leviathan from the face of the earth.
GHOST RANCH Ghost Ranch is a bewitching place – literally. Once believed to be the haunt of malevolent witches, the ranch sits on a broad llano (grassy, almost treeless plain), ringed by the dramatic red and yellow cliffs so often painted by O’Keeffe on one side and the chain of mountains that includes Pedernal on the other. The ranch is well suited for its present use as a retreat and center for paleontological and anthropological study, though its winding canyons retain a wild, almost forbidding atmosphere.
ECHO CANYON The last, and perhaps most appropriate, destination in this timeless land is Echo Canyon Amphitheater, a striking geological formation set in a massive, tricolored cliff some 17 miles north of Abiquiu. The cliff’s strata each represent a different sedimentary layer: the top layer is limestone and gypsum of the Toldito formation; the middle layer is composed of Entrada sandstone; and the bottom layer is crumbly red Chinle sandstone and siltstone. The amphitheater was formed by the collapse of the rock face which left an immense hollow cavity. A ten-minute walk on a well-paved path takes the visitor to a viewing platform set at the base of the cliff. From this vantage point the immense size of the amphitheater is better appreciated, but the real draw is the incredible echoing of even the smallest of sounds.
White-throated swifts nest in the cliff face crevices, their high-pitched calls ringing through the canyon as they flit endlessly back and forth. It doesn’t seem terribly extravagant to imagine that the resulting echoes are the responses of ancestral swifts from long, long ago.
From the days of the first Spanish mission at Santa Tomás Apostole de Abiquiu in 1754, Abiquiu had a reputation as a being a region beset by sorcerers (maleficios) and witches (brujos and brujas). Male witches, in particular, were considered especially malevolent. Ominously, the struggling young community was best by a gruesome and mysterious illness, which claimed the lives of Christian and Indian alike. Then harvest after harvest failed, grazing livestock inexplicably died, and young women were possessed by demons and fell writhing to the floor during mass. It seemed the place was accursed.
Franciscan friars responsible for the spiritual guidance of the Genízaros (Indians from various tribes who had been abducted and enslaved to the Spanish or Pueblo Indians who lived willingly alongside the Spanish) wrote to the governor in Santa Fe complaining of the interference of local sorcerers, whose ringleader was one Miguel el Cojo (Michael the lame). Rounding up fifteen Genízaros accused of witchcraft, the authorities demanded that they reveal secrets of their demonic rituals, believing that the persistence of pagan beliefs was responsible for the community’s trouble. Threatened with being burnt at the stake, El Cojo divulged the location of pagan idols, and yet even after these were destroyed the witch-hunt continued.
A search of the surrounding countryside revealed numerous Native American sites, many of great antiquity; all "pagan" symbols such as petroglyphs were eradicated. Still, the Abiqueños whispered that the brujos had not been entirely vanquished. Everyone knew, for example, that they could be seen abroad at night, when they took the shape of tecolotes (owls). The pagan ceremonies, too, were never completely forgotten.
In the 1860’s, in the canyons of the vast Piedra Lumbre north of Abiquiu, shepherds circulated stories of ghosts who haunted the desolate area. They refused to take sheep into one narrow canyon in the northeast in particular, as they claimed that at night white ghosts sailed up the cliffs walls emitting the moans of the damned. There were stories, too, of a great snake that slithered from the base of the red cliffs at sundown to search for its favorite prey –- young children.
It was here, near the base of these cliffs, that two brothers built a homestead in the late 19th century. The narrow canyon provided an ideal holding pen for cattle, but soon rumors spread that the Archuleta brothers were not ranchers but rustlers who used the remote canyon as the base of their illegal activities. Even worse, it was said that the brothers invited unsuspecting travelers to stay at their ranch then murdered them in their sleep, appropriating their possessions before burying the bodies in the red hills behind their homestead. People in the area began calling their ranch Rancho de los Brujos, and it was said that the ghosts of the Archuleta brothers’ victims haunted the place.
Like all good tales involving evildoers, the story of the Archuleta brothers ends in greed resulting in self-destruction. The younger brother went to a cattle sale Santa Fe, returning with a sack of gold which he then hid from his older brother. When the younger brother would not divulge where he’d buried the money, his brother killed him in a fit of rage. The murderer then turned on his brother''s widow, threatening that if she did not reveal where the gold was hidden that he would feed her daughter to Vivaron, the great snake said to lurk among the cliffs of the Piedra Lumbre. The terrified widow managed to escape with her daughter in the night, seeking refuge with relatives in Santa Fe.
Decades passed before the daughter dared return to search for her father’s buried treasure, but she found nothing. However, she recounted the legend of Vivaron to Arthur Pack, the wealthy easterner who had purchased the ranch and established a dude ranch there. Pack naturally dismissed the tale as a myth. Not long after, however, an amazing cache of dinosaur remains was found at Ghost Ranch, including the exposed skeleton of a phytosaur at the base of a cliff, thirty feet long and resembling nothing so much as a giant serpent.
It’s easy to dismiss these tales of witches, giant snakes, and buried treasure as mere tales of the superstitious. And yet, as I hiked along a rugged path winding through the painted hills of Ghost Ranch, it struck me that I, too, would not want to be caught wandering alone near the base of the towering cliffs after sundown.
O’Keeffe first saw New Mexico while passing through on during a trip to California in 1917. She was instantly smitten with the pellucid quality of the light and the transforming effect it had upon the landscape. She reveled in the vast horizon, the promise of limitless expanses, and the absence of limitations that is the allure of the West.
And yet her artistic life at that point was firmly tethered to the East. An even stronger tie was formed when she met and eventually married Arthur Stieglitz, a confirmed urbanite fond of observing there was nothing west of the Mississippi worth seeing (having never actually been there himself, however). Much older than O’Keeffe and initially her mentor before becoming her lover, Stieglitz was a gregarious man who was continually surrounded by people. O’Keeffe, whose fierce independence was near legendary, felt increasingly cramped by the constant stream of visitors and the predictable yearly schedule that Stieglitz insisted upon, with winters spent in New York and summers spent upstate at his family’s house at Lake George. The world was closing in on her.
For years O''Keeffe hoarded the dream of someday returning to New Mexico. In 1925, some seven years after her initial trip, she chanced on a magazine article on New Mexico by Mabel Dodge Luhan, doyenne of the Taos artist colony. Although she was scarcely acquainted with her, O’Keeffe penned Luhan a heartfelt letter, closing with the words, "Kiss the sky for me – You laugh – but I loved the sky out there."
In 1929, O''Keeffe''s life came to a personal crisis expressed in the form of illness. Emotionally and physically exhausted, she completely stopped painting. It was while she was recuperating that O’Keeffe turned to her dusty but unbroken dream of returning to New Mexico, hoping to restore both her health and her artistic vision. "I am West again."
O''Keeffe decided to accept the longstanding invitation that Mabel Dodge Luhan had extended to stay at her artist colony in Taos. The moment she was back West, her heart soared. It was an almost transformational experience. She wrote to Catherine her sister, "I am West again and it is as fine as I remembered it – maybe finer – There is nothing to say about it except the fact that for me it is the only place."
The vigorous outdoor lifestyle of the Taos colony restored O’Keeffe’s health and spirits. She especially revelled in the great expanse of the intensely blue sky. Most tellingly, she felt a renewed urge to paint; and paint she did, tentatively at first but with increasing confidence. Her idyll ended in the fall when she returned to New York and Stieglitz. It was no surprise to either of them when she returned to New Mexico the following spring, establishing what became the pattern of her life: spring and summer in New Mexico, fall and winter in New York.
"But it is not for me."
From the first year onward, her return East each autumn became a duty rather than something she would have willingly chosen for herself. Increasingly, she found she could not work back East. There was the constant presence of Stieglitz’ coterie, of course, but she also felt out of tune with the eastern landscape. It had an inhibiting effect on her. The sky seemed claustrophobically low; the dense greenery and above all the sense of enclosure restricted her. After some years shuttling between New Mexico and New York, she began to withdraw emotionally from the East : "It is a lovely country with many trees but it is not for me," she wrote.
In contrast, both her pen and her paintbrush sang the praises of New Mexico, which she dubbed The Faraway. "Lake George is not really painting country," she wrote. Whereas "out here [New Mexico], half your work is done for you." She loved "the sun that burns you to your bones" and the shapes of the hills.
O’Keeffe’s approach to art was somewhat revolutionary for its time. She realized early on that the power of a painting arose not simply from the skill of its technical rendition of a subject but in its emotional rendering of it as well. In her view, the visual perception of the world was secondary to the artist’s emotional perception of it. This intensity of her emotional response is reflected in her painting.
"New Mexico is an artist’s dream."
It was almost inevitable, given her philosophy, that O’Keeffe would settle in the place that held the greatest emotional resonance for her. "A red hill doesn''t touch everyone''s heart as it touches mine and I suppose there is no reason why it should," she wrote. She considered New Mexico, with its vivid colors and intense light, "an artist''s dream" and was fascinated with what she called "the unexplainable thing in nature," which may have been equivalent to the unexplainable thing in herself.
Trying to get to the heart of this "unexplainable thing," she painted certain objects and scenes repeatedly, never tiring of them. It was as though these inanimate objects - a skull, a river, a mountain - were talismans. The line between self, emotion, and object became blurred. Of things in the natural world she noted, "we have shared their cause."
"Would you give me your arm?"
After Stieglitz’ death in 1946, O’Keeffe severed her ties back East and moved to a small house on Ghost Ranch. Her life became much simpler, stripped down to basics. This is reflected in her fascination with bones, which are almost emblematic of her painting. At the same time, she began to cultivate and carefully control her public image. She was more than an artist; she had become an icon. It is sometimes observed that O’Keeffe''s greatest work of art was her own life, and in some ways this was true. But this shallow assessment ignores her greater achievement, the struggle for a completely independent and intensely personal artistic vision.
In one of the savage ironies that fate delivers, O’Keeffe began losing her sight beginning in the 1970s. Of the slow progress of her macular degeneration, she wrote, "If you didn’t come to it gradually, I guess you’d just kill yourself when you couldn’t see."
Still, she stubbornly persisted in setting her own agenda and was reluctant to recognize her limitations. A turning point came one winter day when she was out walking with a companion along an icy arroyo. He solicitously offered her his arm, but O’Keeffe disdained it. "That offends me," she pronounced. The two continued onward. As the light faded, O''Keeffe had even greater difficulty keeping her footing on the icy path. Finally, acknowledging defeat but still holding her head high, she loftily asked, "David, would you give me your arm?"
Georgia O’Keeffe died in 1986 at the age of 99 in Santa Fe. Her last years were difficult, but she never complained. She once said, "When I think of death, 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."
~~~~~~ Postscript ~~~~~~
On the plane trip home from New Mexico, I gazed out the window, recalling O’Keeffe''s fondness for clouds. Her delight with the view from airplane windows expressed itself in a series of "Above the Clouds" paintings done in her later years, immense canvases much larger than any she’d produced before.
When the airplane landed, I was still thinking of O’Keeffe, feeling an affinity for this woman torn between the East and the West. As I emerged from the airport, the sultry humidity of a MidAtlantic July afternoon assaulted me. Everything seemed so unrelentingly green and overgrown, too, producing a feeling akin to suffocation. Above me, the sky was threateningly low, an enveloping gray mass pressing down from above. I could easily have stretched up to kiss it, but I had only the desire to push it away.