O’Keeffe Country Redux



Georgia O’Keeffe is on everyone’s minds lately.

Or so it seems. Wherever one looks – in print or on the WWW, O’Keeffe’s shadow looms large. Perhaps because as Roberta Courtney Meyers wrote in her piece for the Taos News last week, it was 90 years ago, in the summer of 1929 when Georgia O’Keeffe and good friend and fellow artist Rebecca “Beck” Strand packed their bags and left for the Land of Enchantment, not quite a centennial, but getting close!

In March, I noted in my piece Work By Women Goes Global, that the eyes of the Art World, were setting their sights on New Mexico once again. Last week too, Artsy published an opinion piece on the subject; (Why Are So Many Artists Drawn To New Mexico?) heavily featuring O’Keeffe.

Architectural Digest just reprised a piece first published in 2002.Here in this unpretentious, U-shaped structure, situated in a remote area of the ranch,” the Magazine muses, “ O’Keeffe spent each summer and fall of most of the last 40 years of her long and prolific life. (She died in 1986 at the age of 98.) Its adobe walls seemingly an extension of the earth itself, the Ghost Ranch house (first shown in Architectural Digest in June 1981) nurtured her love of nature. Its picture windows frame views of majestic cliffs and mesas.”

And meanwhile the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe has named Cody Hartley as its new director. Hartley has worked with the museum since 2013 and has served as director of curatorial affairs and senior director of collections and interpretation. The Museum released  a statement saying, “It was important to us not just to have someone who is a strong leader in the cultural sector, but a person who really understands the heart of the O’Keeffe.(Museum.) Cody is a true visionary, and we know he’s going to push the museum in bold directions.”

Not to be left out of all of this flurry of O’Keeffe activity, the Santa Fe Opera has jumped on the proverbial bandwagon as well! “The Beyond,” a minimalist landscape oil by Georgia O’Keeffe. will be the first SFO poster of O’Keeffe’s work in a collaboration between the opera and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

When O’Keeffe purchased seven acres at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico, she said she wanted enough land for a house and a horse. She complained that the owner sold her only enough land for a sewer. Of course, she got all she needed, with the added advantage of the spectacular vistas that inspired some of her best-known works. On horseback and on foot, she enjoyed unspoiled views of the dramatic rock formations on the ranch, where she lived and worked for part of the year during the 1930s and ’40s.

Today, visitors to Ghost Ranch can join the artist in spirit as they take a six-mile trail ride through the property where Georgia O’Keeffe lived. The house is part of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum’s assets. It is not open to the public, but a tour of Georgia O’Keeffe’s historic adobe home and studio nearby, offers an experience of the environment in which she lived and worked.

Most everyone who walks into the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum has a preconceived notion of the artist they’re looking for: their Georgia, the artist whose life’s work has been defined in part, by flowers and bones. Non threatening, easy on the eye, these works have come to seal the artist in a box not of her making. In truth her work was about solitude and surrender – her process itself, a Zen practice –  the desert, and her interpretation of it, served that process. She was a cartographer, mapping out her own territory; traversing unknown interior and exterior landscapes, braving new horizons as a woman and an artist.

And for me, it is O’Keeffe’s paintings of the Black Place (Nageezi), that she made from 1936 to 1949, that truly capture the essence of what kept the artist in New Mexico.

It was a landscape she visited often and one where petroglyphs of cranes that can be found throughout the area possibly served as deeper inspiration for these mysterious paintings. O’Keeffe’s Black Place paintings aren’t often shown together, and, when they are, her obsession with painting a particular site over and over, becomes obvious.

As with other series she made, including those of the White Place, her renderings become more and more abstract over time, transforming the paintings into extremely emotive forms where the strange colouration of pink and charcoal becomes a language in itself. These are some of the most compelling and powerful paintings of the artist’s career, in their depth of grayscale and the somber stillness they convey to the viewer.

Perhaps it was the petroglyphs that called her back time and again, in an attempt to decipher the messages left behind with the footsteps that had criss-crossed these hills before her; the ghosts of an ancient past? The crazy graffiti that had been left on the rock face from Abiquiu to Santa Fe possibly captured her imagination and inspired her as she collected the bones and stones she displayed on shelves and ledges throughout her home.

You don’t have to go all the way to the Black Place to see this ancient graffiti however, or to find inspiration in the landscape.  Georgia roamed these hills all the way from Taos to Santa Fe! And in fact a day trip to Santa Fe (and a visit to the O’Keeffe Museum), will have you killing two birds with one stone, and realizing it’s all O’Keefe country.

Thousands of petroglyphs can be found along the mesa above the Santa Fe River.  A few of the panels are thought to go back to the Archaic Period (around 8000 to 2000 BCE., but most of the petroglyphs were created by Puebloan people living in the area between the 13th and 17th centuries.  Their descendants now live down the Santa Fe River along the Rio Grande at the Cochiti and Santo Domingo Pueblos. The La Cieneguilla Petroglyph Site is very close to the city of Santa Fe and a short hike off the Paseo Real. The area is overseen by the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management.  

The best place for a good viewing of petroglyphs is to take the path towards the basalt cliffs – veer left and walk until you see an opening in the fence, then follow the path through the border fence and up the boulder covered slopes. Small footpaths will lead you around. The rock art is generally near the top of the ridge, but look in every direction. There are petroglyphs everywhere you turn!. The area is known for the large number of humpbacked flute player images (Kokopelli), and a variety of bird figures. The site is also of interest to those tracing the route of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, as the ancient road passed through here as well.

A 1991 archeological survey recorded over 4,400 images within less than a mile from the site. Take your time and be careful too. The rocks can be loose or slippery depending on weather conditions. Be mindful to watch and listen for rattlesnakes as the weather warms up.

The site is a short trail hike from the highway, and the BLM has provided some roadside parking. The BLM warns against damaging the area, which is “fragile and irreplaceable.” So do tread lightly. There are no facilities at the site and you want to wear good hiking shoes, bring water, and sunscreen!  

Should you decide to stay the night in Santa Fe, Heritage Hotel’s El Dorado is mere footsteps from the O’Keeffe Museum in case you find yourself pulled back for one more look. Their site is linked below along with the BLM’s link to La Cieneguilla.




BLM/La Cienequilla


All images stock files