The rocks of Georgia O’Keefe

In 1929, at the age of 42, Georgia O’Keefe traveled from her home in New York City to northern New Mexico. There she fell in love with the landscape and culture and returned each summer for 20 years. She learned to drive and bought a Ford Model A that she used to explore the region, and in 1940 she bought a small house in Ghost Ranch. In 1945 she bought a larger home in Abiquiú, and in 1949, after her husband Alfred Stieglitz died in New York, she became a permanent resident. She lived in New Mexico until her death in 1986 at the age of 98.

In early June, we traveled to northern New Mexico where we visited Ghost Ranch, her home in Abiquiú (a short distance south of Ghost Ranch), and the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe. Although best known for her paintings of flowers, as a geologist, on this trip I particularly admired her paintings of landscapes with brightly colored rocks.

We stopped to photograph these rocks, with their vivid colors, along the road between Abiquiú and Ghost Ranch. What artist wouldn’t be inspired by this landscape! The rocks in this region were all deposited during the Mesozoic Era (251–66 million years ago). This exposure consists of the Triassic Chinle Formation (purplish rocks), overlain by the Jurassic Entrada and Todilto formations (red and whitish rocks). More about these formations later.

Ghost Ranch

The name “ghost ranch” is derived from “El rancho de los brujos” (“ranch of the witches”), the name Spanish cattle rustlers applied to the area to discourage neighbors from visiting. When Georgia O’Keefe arrived it was a dude ranch owned by Phoebe and Arthur Pack. In 1955 the Pack family donated the land to the Presbyterian Church, which continues to operate the ranch as a retreat center. A skull that, early on, marked the entrance to Ghost Ranch, was painted by O’Keefe and eventually became the ranch’s symbol. O’Keefe described the rock walls of the ranch as “her curtains”.

It is still possible to see O’Keefe’s small house at Ghost Ranch. Note the skull above the doorway. O’Keefe enjoyed painting many elements of nature, including skulls, shells, rocks, trees and flowers.
Visitors to Ghost Ranch can take tours by horseback or by walking. A $10 pass is all you need to spend a day wandering around the property. Because of wildfires in the area, many of the trails were closed during our visit, but we could still do a 8-km (5-mile) loop that provided stunning views of the ranch and rock outcrops. The rock cliff shown above, like the cliff in the top photo, consists of the Triassic Chinle and the Jurassic Entrada and Tobilto formations. At higher elevations, but not visible here, are rocks deposited during the Cretaceous Period. Note the shadow on the rocks in the background. In her paintings, O’Keefe captured the rocks around her in all of their “moods” and colors, during changing seasons and times of day.
In addition to colorful rocks, O’Keefe often painted dead trees and her favorite mountain, Cerro Pedernal (meaning “flint hill”). This flat-topped mountain (right side of photo) was created by volcanic processes and contains flint that native people used to create stone tools. O’Keefe painted Pedernal various times, in different seasons. This view is westward from a high trail north of the valley where the Ghost Ranch buildings lie. The lake between Ghost Ranch and Pedernal is the Abiquiú reservoir.

Georgia O’Keefe Home and Studio (designated National Historical Landmark in 1998)

We were fortunate to get last-minute reservations to tour O’Keefe’s permanent home in Abiquiú, a small settlement 22 km (13 miles) south of Ghost Ranch and 80 km (48 miles) north of Santa Fe. The original structure, in ruinous condition, dated from the 18th century. O’Keefe rebuilt and expanded the buildings and the exterior gardens.

This photo shows the western wall of O’Keefe’s Abiquiú home and the garden she created. Staff continues to plant the same vegetables today. O’Keefe liked to eat from her garden as much as possible—of course, she had the resources to hire people to help her in the garden and to cook her food. An interesting feature is the acequia, the Spanish word for community irrigation ditches, here shown around the edge of the garden. Each irrigation recipient is assigned a specific time when water flows to their acequia. Incredibly, the home still receives water during the same time it has for many decades—two hours every Monday morning!
The interior of the Abiquiú home is modern, with mid-century-style furniture and large picture windows that presaged a future popular style. This room is O’Keefe’s studio, with an expansive view of the exterior landscape. Adjacent to the studio is her bedroom, with equally stunning views. The day bed in the studio (right side of photo) was for the caregiver who lived with O’Keefe during her declining years. Note the white abstract sculpture (left side of photo next to fireplace grate) that O’Keefe created. Also note the objects on the window sill.
As shown in the photo of O’Keefe’s studio above, everything in and around the house has been left just as it was when she vacated the premises. Throughout the house are many objects O’Keefe collected—mostly pieces of nature such as shells and skulls. She was clearly a lover of rocks! There are small collections in most rooms of the house, and this rather large collection on a boulder outside her studio.

Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe

After seeing the places O’Keefe inhabited during her nearly 60 years in New Mexico, we needed to see her art work exhibited in a Santa Fe museum.

This is a one of many photos in the museum. I developed a deeper appreciation for O’Keefe’s life and art after learning more about her intrepid nature and the breadth of her artistic skills. She is best known for her paintings of flowers, but it is her paintings of the New Mexico landscape that speak most to me. This photo captures O’Keefe’s life in New Mexico—in her signature black dress and hat, walking steadfastly toward a cliff of colorful rocks.

Resources

Ghost Ranch web site: https://www.ghostranch.org/.

Georgia O’Keefe Museum web site (includes museum in Santa Fe and home/studio in Abiquiú): https://www.okeeffemuseum.org/.

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6 Comments

  1. Kim — a r t i c k l e host on June 15, 2022 at 10:10 pm

    As an artist and rock lover, this is my favorite post to date! I would have loved to meet Georgia. Great entry, Karen. Thank you.

    • Landscapes Revealed on June 15, 2022 at 10:33 pm

      I did think of you when writing it – glad you like the post!

  2. Julie on June 16, 2022 at 1:56 am

    Nice article Karen, I also have always had a soft spot for O’Keefe

    • Landscapes Revealed on June 16, 2022 at 8:57 am

      Thanks Julie!

  3. Barbara on June 16, 2022 at 3:37 am

    Very interesting information, Karen. Sounds like you had a wonderful trip!

    • Landscapes Revealed on June 16, 2022 at 8:58 am

      Thanks Barabara – there is more to come about New Mexico!

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