One day at school, my art teachers Jenny and Carolynn gave me a book of paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe. I was 12 and O’Keeffe was 96, still living on a 31,000-acre ranch in New Mexico. I didn’t know this at the time, but it would be Georgia’s last year there after summering on the ranch and wintering in nearby Abiquiú for over 50 years and now having lost most of her vision to macular degeneration. She would pass away peacefully in Sante Fe two years later. I studied her astonishing paintings and confessional letters, internalizing her childhood on a dairy farm in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, her breakout in New York in her 20s and her destiny to articulate the Southwest into a masterpiece of modernism. Of the only two photos she ever allowed to be taken of her working, I especially treasured the one of Georgia painting in her customized Ford Model-A — the one she bought so that she could drive out alone into the desert and paint in the back seat. Georgia seemed to embody what was possible for an artist — to live a life that was completely one’s own.
This week, 35 years after my first encounter with Georgia, Peter and I have peeled off the interstate after Phoenix to follow an undulating ribbon of blacktop, cutting through the rippled red hills and polka dot Junipers beneath her cerulean, New Mexico sky. The ridges of the Jemez Mountains and their jewel, the Cerro Pedernal from Georgia’s paintings now bleed beyond the windshield in striped ochre and Indian red. “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me,” she said about the Pedernal. “God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”
How does an artist claim the unclaimable? Stalking her painting locations today has revealed some of the magic of her choices. The answer has something to do with immersion, devotion, a practice, an honouring of the environment in a way that supersedes its documentation and somehow gives more than it takes. Like making a homestead, making a life in paintings — in place — happens over a million hours and miracles. “Come quickly. You mustn’t miss the dawn,” Georgia told her houseguests, before hiking them out to the sandstone cliffs that towered behind her adobe house. “It will never be just like this again.”
PS: “Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.” (Georgia O’Keeffe)
Esoterica: After location stalking at Ghost Ranch, filling up the Wrangler at Bode’s General Store where Georgia had filled up her Model-A and after standing breathless in her Abiquiú studio, we’re now tucked in, tonight in Georgia’s bedroom at Mabel Dodge Luhan’s house in Taos, where she stayed for many summers before moving permanently to the ranch. The vibes are real. Incidentally, down the hall is Ansel Adams’ room, from where my dad wrote his letter to you At Mabel’s house on March 18, 2011.
“Painting is like a thread that runs through all the reasons for all the other things that make one’s life.” (Georgia O’Keeffe)
The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.
“A week ago it was the mountains I thought the most wonderful, and today it’s the plains. I guess it’s the feeling of bigness in both that carries me away.” (Georgia O’Keeffe)
Reply To Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki Cancel Reply
Learn to make water look wet, reflective and splashy! Painting water that looks wet requires some basic knowledge of the dynamics of how water moves and how objects are reflected in its mirror surface. Techniques will be demonstrated to address the various puzzles with which the artist is faced when painting this stunning, fascinating and challenging subject!
This workshop takes place at Port Townsend School of the Arts, 2 hours’ drive from Seattle. For more information, and to register, visit our website: ptarts.org
Julie Gilbert Pollard’s workshop is limited to 12 participants. Save your place today!
Registration deadline: June 5.
A professional painter in both watercolor and oil for over 35 years, I have been creating plein air workshops in Europe for artists to join me since 1996. Plein air is one of the most exciting methods of painting, and I teach a very easy to learn way of capturing the light quickly, that any artist can apply to their own work during our adventures to Europe. Travel for artists is a great way to immerse yourself in painting and make great advances in your techniques by watching other professionals work, and by sharing your own ideas with other artists we all grow! Authentic locations, such as a 12th Century Castle in Ireland, a French Maison in the countryside of France, or an Italian Villa in an historic hilltop village in Italy are carefully chosen. We want our artists and non-painting guests to feel relaxed and at home, with en-suite bedrooms, excellent chef prepared cuisine, and convenient transfers to painting and exploring locations so you can be where you want to be to create. Join me on our next exciting journey!
I know that room! A friend and I stayed in it last September for a week. Waking in the night to see the stars as strartling as spaceships over the reservation brought tears of joy. Thank you for this letter, Sara. I go today to the only show I do each year to share my horse paintings. Stressful for me to leave my farm and animals where my heart belongs. Georgia is one of my heroes. All the best to you.
Wow, wow, wow. Love this letter. Georgia was my first inspiration, too. Thank you for sharing your journey, Sara!!! What you are doing with where you have been is a great gift to all of us.
Excellent writing. Heartfelt.
I need a holiday…
I have always loved reading about the lives of Artists, but I have OBSCESSED of Georgia’s life. As a woman & artist I feel a special connection and I admire her strength in being so independent way before it was admired! She’s my hero and inspiration and I thank you for sharing your
experience. Please share info on how one goes about staying where you stayed and seeing her studio. I’ll pack tomorrow!
Georgia O’Keefe rooted the southwest in my heart. Today you allow it to blossom, once again, Sara. Thank you for continuing these daily inspirations! And I have experienced the immense space of deserts, plains, mountains and oceans all over the world.
Just returned from our annual trip to Taos and Santa Fe. Such a long way from Canada! We usually drive out to Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch but not this time. We have a rubber floor mat with coloured beads at our front door – bought at Bodes several years ago and made by a local artisan who has since gone out of business. We go back every couple of years hoping he will have started making them again – oh, and to look once again at Georgia’s beautiful hills.
Yes, Pedernal, Ghost Ranch, Bode’s! I can feel it all now. So many of my own memories there. Thank you for this morning’s pilgrimage!
Thank you for this posting. I am fortunate to be seeing a special Georgia O’Keefe exhibit at the Nevada museum of Art tomorrow in Reno, NV. Not the SAME as going to New Mexico, but I will thoroughly enjoy it.
A gorgeous letter, Sara! I too paint my adopted homeland for the sheer love I feel for it. Somehow, translating the object of my love into paintings makes me feel like I belong. Thank you for reminding us of Georgia and her inspiring journey. All the best to you and Peter!
What an exceptional piece of writing!! You thread words together as if you were stringing the most valuable pearls on a necklace strand! Very inspirational! You ‘gotta’ write a book or give a seminar or at least throw a house party. Such a gift! And about Georgia….cool! I’ll have to find out more.
My solo trips to Taos and Santa Fe have included many pilgrimages to feel the O’Keefe presence of spirit and mind. I loved being inside her Abiquiu home, and seeing her kitchen, in particular. The polished dirt floor of her living room and the furnishing hand made by other artists. I dislike tours, but I gratefully jumped on the bus at Ghost Ranch to visit the locations whete she painted some of her tineless masterpieces.
My favorite and most moving sojourn was following some divine intuition and actually finding “The White Place”. I was alone all day, wandering with the lizards, through the impossibly sculptural towering white sandstone formations. Each was a unique homage to the forces of time, wind and water. White against that ecstatically blue sky. How perfectly O’Keefe allowed it to flow through her onto the canvas. The land is owned by a faith based group and the way there was completely accessible. I hope it is still so.
Thanks for posting this letter. I thoroughly enjoyed it. This stimulated my interest in O’Keefe again. I have been lucky to have visited the museum in Taos. Have not been to the ranch though.
Sara, this is surely one of your best and most inspiring letters, a little gem. Thank you all the way from N. Ireland.
I’ve always admired the life and work of Georgia O’Keefe, though the books about her have been sitting on my shelf, unopened for years. I’m recently retired and preparing to take up painting more seriously and we’re thinking about a long road trip – this letter has reminded me of the desire to visit “O’Keefe” country.
I love the quote – “It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.”
Thank you for this inspiring letter.
Another artist who made this pelgrimage was Lydia Bauman which resulted in a wonderful project: Looking for Georgia. For those interested, a visit of her website may be worthwile.
Miss O’Keeffe was a savvy business woman. Her estate was 70 Million Dollars.
I have collected rocks since I was old enough to hold and gather them. The desolate gravel road leading to my home has provided these treasures for 45 years. I was intrigued beyond belief when I learned O’Keefee also collected stones. What interesting connections exist between like minded people, artists, and this is why I am so fascinated by studying the journey of artists. Thank you Sara for sharing yours.
A great letter Sara, while reading of Georgia’s painting in the back of her Model A Ford, one could only be reminded of your Dad’s penchant for painting in his little red Austin or in the back of the Bentley. Georgia’s ability to draw the sensuous from hard ground or billowing floral displays is legendary but your ability to engage us all in your emotional traversing of that hallowed ground is truly a gift. Keep up the good work.
Haven’t done a pilgrimage to her part of the US, but was inspired years ago by an exhibit of her work. It was in several rooms, and at the time I was just starting on an art journey of both painting and learning and appreciating artists.
The first room of this O’Keeffe exhibit was shocking. Rather amateurish sketches and uninspiring paintings. The next room’s work showed some promise. As I continued through the exhibit, I realized the organization of the exhibit. The pieces were arranged in chronological order.
My lesson that day was to accept the place in my path where I was, and trust that time and experience would enable me to reach my goals.
Thanks for this, Sara