Dreamy Obsessions and Finding Your Way Back Home
Artist and icon Georgia O’Keeffe’s was born in 1887, and lived almost for a full century, in a world that was constantly changing, but she remained remarkably timeless in every aspect of her being. Miriam Parkman tells us the fascinating story.
Everything Georgia O’Keeffe made, painted, and sculpted is like a dream for any modern-day branding expert–she made paintings that became popular and sold well. She developed a personal, consistent style of clothing, which consisted of equal measures of androgynous artist and the dream of the Old West. She made a home for herself in an inaccessible region of New Mexico, which was quite an exotic place in those days. Every last object in her house reflected her as a person: minimalist and stripped bare, each with a clearly defined place and purpose. She married Alfred Stieglitz, who has been referred to as the “Father of Modern Photography,” and from the very first, she was a popular subject of his. This resulted in a kind of precursor to today’s Instagram feeds, in which her everyday life was documented for posterity.
From Desert Kitsch to Dreamy Obsession
I was in my second year of the advanced textile crafts program at Handarbetets Vänner (“Friends of Handicraft”) when one of my teachers brought a book on Georgia O’Keeffe to our class. I knew I’d seen a picture of her before–she was that artist with the dark eyes and the lined face who wore a square, Spanish hat, and who made kitschy paintings of the desert, with animal skulls and flowers, which my friends’ parents brought posters of back from a museum visit in the 1980s. In my mind, she was I associate her with the 80s. When I opened the book, I saw pictures of dreamy landscapes; mountains, cliffs, and hills in rusty red, orange, beige, and burned ochre, streaks of green minerals, sage-bushed desert plains, topped with turquoise skies and fluffy clouds. I was moved by them, and I become one of countless art students who have obsessed over O’Keeffe in the last 50 years.
“I feel at home – I feel quiet – my skin feels close to the earth when I walk out into the red hills as I did last night – my cat following along like a dog.”
The Sun Prairie, Wisconsin Years
Georgia Totto O’Keeffe was born on her parents’ dairy farm in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. During her teens and early youth, she occupied herself with training in classical painting, until her health issues and her father’s bankruptcy put a stop to that. Lacking financial means, she needed a source of income, and thus spent 1912–1918 living and working as a teacher in Amarillo and Canyon, Texas. Her afternoons were spent on the porch, producing lots of watercolors of the open vistas of Texas, its rugged settler towns, rickety pinwheels, and saturated, shimmering sunsets. Because of the shortage of time and daylight, she had to execute her watercolors quickly, and make them abstract and paired down. This was how the foundation was laid for what would eventually become her trademark style. During a trip to New York in her student days, she met Stieglitz, who was 20 years her senior, and in 1918, she accepted his financial support and relocated to New York. Stieglitz was married, but what began as a professional relationship soon evolved into a passionate affair, and they were married in 1924.
It was Stieglitz who organized the first exhibition of Georgia’s artworks in New York in 1923. Her subjects reflected the emergence of the modern city, as well as untouched countryside, natural subjects, and nude studies of herself, sometimes executed in abstract perfection using solitary brush strokes, and sometimes in detailed oils and pastels–but always featuring the same bright colors. Georgia lived in New York for 11 years, spending her winters in the city and her summers in the Stieglitz family’s summer residence at Lake George. She produced and sold enough paintings that by the end of the 20s, she was more or less financially independent–a rather unique situation for a woman in those days. Her aversion to the social requirements of city life grew stronger, and she found herself constantly distracted from her work. She passed by Santa Fe when traveling through New Mexico in 1917, and she had dreamed of returning there ever since.
We’re going to back up a little here: while Georgia was first setting out on her path in classical painting in the early 20th century, a New York Socialite called Natalie Curtis headed out west. She had grown weary of the educated upper-class world where she grew up, but her privileged position nonetheless afforded her the means and opportunity to set out on an expedition without any particular objective. She abandoned a promising career as a concert pianist and started on a new life project: in her meetings with members of various aboriginal peoples, she was captivated by their culture of singing and music and began to note down and record what she heard. These expeditions attracted wonder and excitement, and she produced a series of books, the first of which was The Indian’s Book from 1907. She was an early proponent of the equal rights and value of all Americans, and she continued to preserve music from the North American Native and African-American communities throughout her life. As a result of her travels, she befriended Carol Stanley, a woman who had used her inherited wealth to build some of the first “Dude Ranches” in New Mexico–tourism businesses that offered well-to-do city folk the opportunity to come and experience the life of a cowboy or cowgirl. San Gabriel, the dude ranch that Carol and her husband Roy ran, was one of the most frequented and exclusive summertime destinations in all New Mexico. In Lesley Poling-Kempe’s book Ladies of the Canyons (Arizona University Press), Carol, Roy, and their employed cowboys and wranglers appear in the typical western wear of the 1910s and 20s: white or plaid shirts, a bandana around the neck, slacks or jeans under wide chaps, with silver Concho buckles, high-heeled boots and hats with tall, rounded brims that were folded up at the sides. Carol and other women wore the same hats and boots, only with skirts or wide, suede pants with fringes at the hems, wide belts over white shirts, and large, triangle-folded scarfs tied over their chests, all topped off with squash blossom necklaces. It’s a killer look.
In 1917, Natalie was residing in Santa Fe with her husband, the artist Paul Burlin. That same year, another New York socialite, Mabel Dodge Luhan, arrived in Santa Fe after her then-husband convinced her that they should relocate to the Southwest. She soon realized that there was nothing for her to “discover” in Santa Fe, as women like Natalie had already been there long before she arrived. Instead, she headed for the nearby village of Taos, where she eventually founded a center for artists. In 1929, Georgia O’Keeffe would spend four months there while she searched for a place where she could indulge herself in her creative work without any disturbances.
Finding Your Way Back Home
Earlier that year, the stock market collapse and Roy’s gambling and drinking habits had brought the San Gabriel ranch to its knees, and it was declared bankrupt. The year before that, Roy had won the deed to an abandoned ranch at Piedra Lumbre (which means, approximately, “the valley of shining stone”) in a poker game. The property was in a landscape dominated by the wide-open plains and wind-worn rocks, mountains, and hills that surrounded the flowing Chama River, and was crowned by the majestic Sierra Pedernal mesa. It had been called the Rancho de los Brujos ever since the days when the Archuleta brothers used to hide rustled cattle in the protective shade of the cliffs, and kept people away by spreading rumors that the site was haunted by brujos–witches, spirits, and ghosts. In 1929, Carol was registered as the owner of what she would come to call the “Ghost Ranch,” and in 1931, when she moved into a run-down, crooked adobe casita by herself, bringing along her remaining belongings from San Gabriel, she had no idea how iconic the place she was founding would one day become.
Forestry millionaire Arthur Pack and his family arrived at the almost-ready-to-be-opened Ghost Ranch in 1933. They purchased land from Carol and built a new adobe house, which they christened the Rancho de los Burros. Pack brought several of his wealthy friends there, and one of them would eventually tell Georgia about this remote place. It took her a few attempts to get to the ranch; it was notoriously hard to find, and there was nothing but a white cow’s skull marking the right exit from the road. After spending endless days driving her Ford Model A along the undulating, uneven dirt roads of New Mexico, searching for a place where she could create without being burdened by social expectations, she found the perfect place–which just happened to have already been built and developed by another woman. In 1934–5, when Georgia began her first long stay at Ghost Ranch, she never mentioned Carol by name. Arthur Pack bought Carol out in 1935, and in 1945, Georgia purchased the Rancho de los Burros from him. In the end, Arthur donated the remaining ranch to a church, which still runs it to this day. That same year, Georgia also built a house in Abiquiu, which was a 20-minute drive from Ghost Ranch. She renovated it extensively, and just as she had done before, she had large windows installed to allow her to fully appreciate the views from inside her rooms, and create the perfect environment to paint in. Her house in Abiquiu was square-shaped and surrounded an open courtyard. A door along one of the walls there would become her favorite subject to paint, along with the view of Sierra Pedernal. Georgia claimed Ghost Ranch as “hers” at first sight, and she would later describe Sierra Pedernal as her “private” mountain. “God has told me that if I paint it enough, it will be mine”. Now, she was living at Ghost Ranch in the summers, and in Abiquiu in the winters.
When I visited Ghost Ranch in November 2018, it was wintertime in New Mexico. A snow storm caught us by surprise in Albuquerque the night before, but in the morning, the sky cleared up, and as we approached the red mountains I couldn’t wait to see, the day grew beautiful, blue, and bright. We had booked a horse back trail ride–a one-hour guided tour on horseback that takes you to some of the places that Georgia O’Keeffe featured in her paintings. Nothing could have prepared me for the emotions that I experienced as I, perching on the rather boisterous, but adorable, horse Nacho’s red-brown back, followed the tour, and finally found the answer to my question: did the places really look like they did in Georgia’s paintings? Did she filter the landscape and its colors through her own masterful and artistic mind, to express her indomitable spirit? The answer is clear, and powerful: no, she didn’t. It really looked like that–and it still does! I grin foolishly when I recognize the subject of Gerald’s Tree 1 from 1937; the gnarly juniper is still there, looking exactly like it did when Georgia depicted its silvery, pale bark against the saturated, massive red rocks and the pale green of the sage shrubs that cover the ground. I see the “White Place”, and the exterior of her house (which is not open to the public) tucked into the greenery, as though forever bowing down before the mythic Sierra Pedernal–and it brings me to tears. I’m crying because I’m actually experiencing first-hand the very same unrelenting nature that Georgia witnessed, seeing her whole, astounding palette of earth tones with my own eyes, experiencing a small taste of the ranching culture of the past, and also realizing that it would be more difficult for me to leave the city and move to these open expanses than it was for Georgia. This is the kind of place you want to live. Touring the house at Abiquiu the next day produces the same emotions–albeit in a less relaxed way. Photography is not allowed there, so I frantically sketch all the details that remain just as she left them and the house shortly before her death in 1986. The three sculptures that she made. The soft, curved Hopi style fireplace in the white, plastered wall. The handwoven bedspread made of single-filament, white, cotton yarn. The windowsill collection of rocks, shells, horns, fossils, and other objects that Georgia gathered during her walks. The Navajo woven pillow. The recessed couch with simple cushions where she would sit to listen to music next to the conspicuously expensive record player. The kitchen, with its open shelves full of various tea and coffee pots, glasses and crockery arranged by color, and a stainless-steel yoghurt maker. A beige section of wall above the plastered white strikes a contrast against the dark brown log beams in the ceiling, pots of geraniums and other plants which are still being watered and replanted, a plywood dining table, and a view into the dining room, where the angle of the window causes a slanted beam of light to hit the opposite wall.
I feel at home – I feel quiet – my skin feels close to the earth when I walk out into the red hills as I did last night – my cat following along like a dog
The Circle is Completed
Georgia was famous for always following her own mind, and there is interview footage from the 70s where the reporter asks her what she did to get “permission” to go to New Mexico for months on end without Stieglitz before moving there permanently after his death in 1946. “I didn’t ask for permission, I just went!”. When I visit the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, the first thing I see is a film in which Georgia relates how she, a young female artist in the early 20th century, was ridiculed by her male peers for choosing flowers and brightly colored landscapes as her subjects. She says that she did what she wanted anyway, because “no one can tell you how to paint a landscape–you have to find that out for yourself”. My visit is made complete when I get to see the original copies of some of my favorite paintings, just one day after getting to see the places where they were made. Fortified by Georgia’s words about always following your own mind, we make a cheeky stop along the road and fill an empty canteen with a sample of the characteristic red dirt. When I’m back in my own studio, at my own loom, I dye a yarn a bright orange-pink shade using pigments extracted from it. Inspired by a crack in a door in the house at Abiquiu, I make a sketch. The form is new to me, abstract, and I can see the square silhouette of Sierra Pedernal emerging from the lines. I start on a new weave, and the circle is completed.