Georgia O'Keeffe's Enchanted Inspiration

Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu, New Mexico

By —— Bio and Archives--July 3, 2011

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imageWith few to equal her stature in the world of fine art, the late Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was one of America’s preeminent painters, producing in seven long decades an astounding legacy of roughly 900 paintings that have captivated and inspired artists and connoisseurs the world over.

While she is remembered in large measure for her close-up, occasionally abstract, renderings of flowers - the lily, the hibiscus, the poppy - much of her inspiration was derived from the landscapes of her adopted home, north-central New Mexico; specifically that aesthetically rich terrain 60 miles northwest of Santa Fe known as “O’Keeffe Country.”

Sandstone bluffs, layered and streaked, her beloved flat-topped Mt. Pedernal, adobe buildings and Spanish colonial churches, and doorways, trees and clouds, these were all source material for her unique vision.


Bleached bones in particular became the focus of her gift, an emphasis on skulls and the pelvis. In so doing, she made the Southwest her own, perfecting a style that stressed the elegant simplicity of lines and shapes, both nuanced and exaggerated. And color.

A solitary woman of sorts who wandered the countryside extensively on foot while she could, O’Keeffe purchased a sprawling hacienda in the tiny Spanish hamlet named Abiquiu in 1945 where she lived for approximately 40 years.

She divided her time between a second home she previously purchased in 1940 twenty miles up the road at Ghost Ranch. There, among towering cliffs and stark blue skies she extracted the essential marrow of this tantalizing, juniper-and-sage, high-desert landscape that is both quiet and empty.


One doesn’t have to be a world-renowned artist to appreciate the pull this corner of New Mexico exerted on O’Keeffe, to appreciate the celestial turns of the seasons, the shifting hues that defy capture, or the broken horizons and faraway mountain-top mesas. At opportune moments, this land is a geologic palette dripping with color and light. It’s a swirling geometric world of linear shapes and bends that helped define her abstract style; a lean prose of imagery stripped to its essentials and committed to canvas, so to speak.


And there’s true light up here, as true and luminous as golden honey, a daylight magic hour not lost on the movie industry. Most likely you’ve already seen Ghost Ranch/Abiquiu without realizing it. Films shot in the vicinity include such notables as: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), 3:10 to Yuma (2007), Wyatt Earp (1994), The Missing (2003), City Slickers (1991), Silverado (1985), and All the Pretty Horses (2000). They film here for good reason.


We revisited O’Keeffe Country a couple of years ago after being driven out of the Taos area by a violent black storm that had everyone scrambling for cover. At the last moment we packed up camp and slid south down the highway to Espanola beyond the claws of this belching behemoth that spewed lightning bolts in scads, then rolled northwest up the 84 to tiny Abiquiu.

Fortunately Abiquiu is still a dusty hovel with enough adobe intact to attest to its heritage. And it’s still got the funk, despite invariable pilgrimages by those tendering homage to Georgia O’Keeffe’s former digs. If you’re a true disciple of her work, or just a starstruck idolater, you can tour her walled home and studio, by appointment only, for a price.


I was surprised at the tempered authenticity, the paucity of glitter and cheesy hawkers one would expect to encounter on such hallowed ground. As you enter town, crumbling adobe walls that are little more than piles of melting dirt give you a sense of how old the place really is. From the center of the village, which is nothing more than a large open patch of gravel, bumpy dirt streets radiate outward and upward in no particular order.


A smattering of galleries and artists’ studios flank the Zocalo, if I dare call it that, and are tucked discretely along allies and side streets. Struggling vegetable gardens are protected by vertical coyote stick-fences, red chili peppers hang on plastered walls, and anchoring the village center is hulking St. Thomas Catholic Church still put to good use, especially during holidays like Cinco De Mayo (Yes, you may enter, with respect).

We continued north toward Chama and sneaked up behind that monstrous black storm swooping east. In its wake, a brilliant evening sun pierced through a hole in the sky just as we drove by the Ghost Ranch, saturating Georgia’s hills and cliffs and spires with her precious light. And it was at that moment that I got it, when I understood why New Mexico is called the Land of Enchantment. And I understood why Georgia O’Keeffe had to call this place home for the rest of her long and illustrious life.


New Mexico is known for strong wind, and this spring was no exception as we drove through the yellow and red valley from Cuba bullied by a fierce blow that frothed up the Abiquiu Reservoir in mighty white caps and heaved billowing clouds of dust skyward. Seeking respite from the wind, we settled in to a small campground across the valley just north of Ghost Ranch a few miles, near the base of an enormous amphitheater hundreds of feet high, appropriately named Echo Amphitheater.

The best time to visit is during early morning hours when you’ll have the place to yourself, like I did. Towering directly overhead, photographs don’t do its height and width justice. Sitting among fresh pinion pine and juniper trees with the air scoured clean by that yesterday’s wind, and the sun glowing brightly off sandstone columns, I hooted and hollered nonsense at the wall and listened as my gibberish bounced back in waves, in rhythm. And looking way up I watched the unmistakable form of a Peregrine Falcon swoop and dive and swoop and dive from its perch at the highest point of the sculpted sandstone clam shell.


I thought of a younger Georgia O’Keeffe right here at this very spot in her spacious backyard and envisioned her scrambling through boulders along the base of this great amphitheater, and brought to my mind the memory of her imagined echos resonating with mine as we paid homage in our own space and time to the earth’s crust and shapes and lines and colors, and all things beautiful.



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John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer

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