Destinations

The Faraway Nearby

Exploring Georgia O’Keeffe’s New Mexico.

With its Knoll Womb Chair, knockoff Mies van der Rohe coffee table, and McIntosh hifi inside thick adobe walls, O’Keeffe’s living room showcases her marriage of traditional Southwestern and modern sensibilities. The large window, banked with collected rocks, looks out to the garden.
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“IT HAD ALWAYS seemed to me that the West must be wonderful,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote at age 88 in her short, elliptical autobiography. Ever since her childhood, “There was no place I knew of that I would rather go.”

There was no place I would rather go to celebrate my 40th birthday than to Georgia O’Keeffe’s beloved northern New Mexico. How better to enter the second half of life than in the landscape of one of our country’s most famous old women and artists? Forty was far from old, but I could still call myself a writer.

My pilgrimage was past due. When my world closed around me like a shell — in part due to a pandemic, also because I was the new mother of an infant — New Mexico called to me like the oceanic interior of a conch. O’Keeffe’s wide panoramas of colored cliffs, layered like sand paintings, those heedless blue skies, all promised a cure. My ailment was a mind overburdened with preschool applications and singing bilingual battery-operated toys. Like O’Keeffe, I demanded more than a room of my own; I needed an expansive landscape to dream into.

In that openness, I would begin to think as O’Keeffe had, “of filling the space in a beautiful way.” When she encountered this idea early in her career from teacher Alon Bement, it would shape not only how she painted but the way she lived. Every detail had the potential to create harmony.

“Where you have the windows and door in a house. How you address a letter and put on the stamp. What shoes you choose and how you comb your hair.”

The space, after all, is our lives.

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Already a successful artist known for her paintings of flowers and the New York City skyline, in 1929 Georgia O’Keeffe began to spend nearly half of each year in the rugged country north of Santa Fe. She did not seek respite from motherhood but from a man.

Other people, however much we love them, have their own inconvenient preferences for how to fill life’s spacious hours. O’Keeffe’s husband, photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, could fire off as many as 12 letters in a day and was well-suited to life bandied between bustling midtown Manhattan and verdant Lake George in upstate New York. Their shared lives were filled with weekend guests and dinner parties with his extended family often afoot. For O’Keeffe, it was too much — too many people, too many close green leaves — and not at all conducive to work.

Other people also have their own hearts. Stieglitz had fallen in love and was having an affair with a younger woman. His choices now impinged on O’Keeffe’s. Spending half of each year in New Mexico would grant her more space of her own in which she could live and paint as she pleased.

“I would rather come here than any other place I know,” O’Keeffe wrote to Stieglitz from New Mexico. “It is a way for me to live very comfortably at the tail end of the earth so far away that hardly anyone will ever come to see me, and I like it.”

I wouldn’t see anyone either. On the way out of Santa Fe I stopped for provisions: a loaf of bread, peanut butter, and jelly; cheddar Goldfish; a frozen Indian meal. This is the vacation diet of a woman weary of wondering “what’s for dinner?” But in the produce section I peered into a stroller to glimpse a fat-legged baby holding a giant artichoke. My heart panged. Two things can be true at once.

An airy stillness pervaded the space, and Georgia O’Keeffe’s unifying vision soothed my nervous system.

“I’m sure she misses you,” the rental car agent reassured me as I shared more than was strictly necessary about the nature of my trip. The wind lashed our faces in the parking lot, and he upgraded me to a 4x4 I was soon grateful for. On the dirt roads to a remote casita west of Abiquiu Lake, I saw more cows than people. That first night, the cows were outnumbered only by snowflakes, and on the second and third nights, stars. I ran a bath and read Roxana Robinson’s fat, fabulous biography, “Georgia O’Keeffe.” Through the bathroom window, the mountains dimmed to lavender in the dusk.

“The difficulty in getting out here was enormous,” O’Keeffe said, “but I came.” For both of us, it was a matter of emotional and artistic survival.

Artists — especially the kind who are women not born to independent wealth — must determine how they will negotiate life and art, must land upon the workable arrangement between the tethers of love and human relationship and the freedom required to hear one’s own voice. New Mexico offered O’Keeffe’s middle path: a splitting down the center.

She drove right in. In New Mexico, O’Keeffe purchased a Ford Model A for $660. She named the car Hello and made it her mobile studio. By removing the front passenger seat and unbolting the driver’s seat to face backwards, she used the backseat like an easel. The country is vast and the roads were slow then, and still O’Keeffe drove to places so dear she gave them names of her own. The badlands 170 miles northwest of Santa Fe became her Black Place, a spot that looked to her like “a mile of elephants”; the limestone cliffs of Plaza Blanca, her White Place. She ventured to these locations with friends to camp overnight and paint all day, Hello packed with camping gear, coffee, and venison.

“I think I never had a better time painting — and never worked more steadily and never loved the country more,” she wrote.

In 1934, it was the man who taught O’Keeffe to drive who first showed her Ghost Ranch. As O’Keeffe told the New Yorker in 1974, “I knew the minute I got up here that this was where I would live.”



Ghost Ranch wove such a spell on me, too, with its red hills and pink cliffs, that I returned on two separate days. On my hike up to Chimney Rock, the unrelenting wind blew my mind free of tasks and to-dos. Instead, I rolled a single sentence around my mind, switching and rearranging words until they harmonized in my ear. When had I last considered a single sentence so carefully, as though it were holy as a mantra?

At the peak, the wind threatened my hat, and I felt at once buoyant with joy and grounded with reverence. Before distant purple mountains stood Cerro Pedernal, which O’Keeffe called, “my private mountain. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.” I sat on a rock.


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Another hiker arrived at the summit. “Sorry to disturb your peace,” he said. The climb and view had rendered me suddenly sage, apparently. “The peace is for sharing,” I said. “Well,” he said. “Onto the next thing.” What’s the rush? I wanted to say. What else could there possibly be? Somewhere back there was O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch home, purchased for $3,000 in 1940. But the house is closed to the public. If I wanted to see how O’Keeffe lived — how she filled the space of home — I’d have to head back into the village of Abiquiú, which is what I did, my own car packed with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

About an hour north of Santa Fe, hidden up the hill from U.S. Route 84, past the small post office across from Bode’s General Store, lies the small village of Abiquiú, New Mexico, which Georgia O’Keeffe also called home. Alfred Stieglitz died in 1946, and soon after, in 1949, Georgia O’Keeffe began to live year-round in New Mexico. Almost until the very end, when she needed to be closer to town for care, O’Keeffe spent spring and summer at Ghost Ranch, fall and winter in her Abiquiú home.

The artist’s work goes on and on. It is endless effort, just as life in New Mexico can be.

The Abiquiú home and studio tours run by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum book up quickly, and it’s not difficult to see why. For those who love art and life in near-equal measure, the experience is a holy one. Though O’Keeffe died in 1986, one feels her hand in every choice and detail, as if she’s just stepped out. The piles of rocks she collected on walks, scattered throughout the rooms. Curtains of raw white muslin tacked to low bookshelves. Geraniums banked on the kitchen windowsill. Clean wood slabs laid atop plywood sawhorses forming the simplest tables. Ovenproof Ruska ceramics ready to warm single-serving enchiladas. A metal Sears and Roebuck cabinet built into the thick adobe wall, champagne flutes waiting inside like a stylish secret.

For health-conscious O’Keeffe, who had grown up on a farm in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, part of the Abiquiú home’s appeal was its coveted water rights. On Sundays, water flooded in, allowing a garden of lettuces, squash, corn, peas, and radishes to flourish, along with and a small orchard of Mission fig, peach, and apricot trees.

In O’Keeffe’s pantry I spied a mill for grains, baskets of dried beans, crocks for pickles, bowls for salads. A padlock hung from the cabinet latch — maybe a glass at lunch if she had guests, said Pita Lopez, projects director at the O’Keeffe Museum and a former caretaker of the artist. How powerful to see the same stuff of our ordinary lives there in a great artist’s, right down to the overinvestment in Chemex coffee carafes.

An airy stillness pervaded the space, and Georgia O’Keeffe’s unifying vision soothed my nervous system. When she was taken with a shape or a form, O’Keeffe returned to it. Again and again she painted pelvic bones, a ladder, a door in her patio. She owned multiples of the same Eames chair, had copies made of a single Neiman Marcus wrap dress. An Alexander Calder mobile hung from a ceiling; she pinned a similar-shaped design to her lapel in the form of a brooch. She indulged — no, she trusted — her obsessions. She let them replicate, filling her spaces not only in a beautiful way, but in her way, abiding her aesthetic instincts. It was the reminder I needed: that I could live with art, too, that with every choice, no matter how minor, art could live through me.

The next morning, I returned to Ghost Ranch to hike the Kitchen Mesa Trail. I was beginning to miss home. In the shadow of Pedernal, I could see my own efforts to fill my space with the people I loved, of course, as well as the cherished objects I’d moved from one rental to another. The blue-and-white bowl I carried home from a trip to Copenhagen, filled with mandarins on the kitchen table in winter. The refrigerator shelves lined with glass jars — canning jars, empty peanut butter jars — full of pesto, roasted beets, stewed cranberry beans. I saw how I was drawn, time and again, to constraints that would simplify my problem-solving. Each week, I cook whatever arrives in the waxed cardboard box from our CSA. I write when the baby is asleep or cared for by someone else. Travel reveals what’s within us; within me space yawned open again.

In my own studio, I’ve had a photo pinned above my desk for years of Georgia O’Keeffe holding one of her paintings in the desert. The picture is from her “Pelvis Series, Red With Yellow” (1945). The pelvis’s sculptural holes, its obturator foramen, offered a frame. How would she fill the space in a beautiful way?

Initially, the photograph said something to me about the singularity of O’Keeffe’s vision, and how each artist must honor her own. It says that to me still, as well as something more about commitment. The artist’s work goes on and on. One never pats her hands and is done. It is endless effort, just as life in New Mexico can be, where the seasons are not subtle. The landscape, chiseled by the elements, is the dramatic proof of that. That’s the sentence I worked out as I hiked miles at Ghost Ranch: It’s difficult enough to live by rote design, and an exceptional feat to live a life of one’s own making. It’s the work of an artist, really.

For many years, O’Keeffe’s life had been cleaved in half between New York and New Mexico. The New Mexican landscape changed her thinking about light and form; it was “not a country of light on things” but “things in light.” Looking at her 1937 painting “From the Faraway Nearby,” we feel something of the ambivalent structure of her life and the double bind it fixed her in: the longing for distance, the loneliness of great space, the contentment of solitude, to say nothing of its necessity.

After Stieglitz died, O’Keeffe made two homes on separate spots along the same road, the one that leads to and from Santa Fe. The road that brought visitors, wanted and unwanted; the road to the rest of the world. The road, too, became one of her repeated subjects. On my tour of her Abiquiú home, I stood for a long time in O’Keeffe’s bedroom and looked at a print of “Winter Road,” painted in 1963. I looked back and forth from the view to her vision of that view. I saw how reality filtered through devoted personal vision becomes art. It requires relentless courage. From her bed, O’Keeffe could see not only the road but the Buddha’s hand that hung beside a small adobe fireplace. The mudra means “fear not.”

Where to See Georgia O’Keeffe’s Art

  • Cleveland Museum of Art

    The Cleveland Museum of Art, arguably one of the best museums in the country, is home to a number of O’Keeffe’s flower paintings and photographic portraits of the artist by Alfred Stieglitz and William Clift.

  • The Museum of Modern Art

    MoMA is home to 13 works by O’Keeffe, including forays into abstract painting like “Abstraction Blue,” made in 1927. “I decided to start anew,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote to a friend in 1915, according to MoMA, “to strip away what I had been taught — to accept as true my own thinking.”

  • Art Institute of Chicago

    The Art Institute of Chicago holds over 22 Georgia O’Keeffe paintings, including flower paintings and those of shells and bones. The Institute was also the site of the artist’s first retrospective in 1943.

  • National Gallery of Art

    The National Gallery of Art holds 31 paintings and drawings by O’Keeffe, including her famous series depicting the Jack-in-the-pulpit wildflower.

  • Cleveland Museum of Art

    The Cleveland Museum of Art, arguably one of the best museums in the country, is home to a number of O’Keeffe’s flower paintings and photographic portraits of the artist by Alfred Stieglitz and William Clift.

  • Art Institute of Chicago

    The Art Institute of Chicago holds over 22 Georgia O’Keeffe paintings, including flower paintings and those of shells and bones. The Institute was also the site of the artist’s first retrospective in 1943.

  • The Museum of Modern Art

    MoMA is home to 13 works by O’Keeffe, including forays into abstract painting like “Abstraction Blue,” made in 1927. “I decided to start anew,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote to a friend in 1915, according to MoMA, “to strip away what I had been taught — to accept as true my own thinking.”

  • National Gallery of Art

    The National Gallery of Art holds 31 paintings and drawings by O’Keeffe, including her famous series depicting the Jack-in-the-pulpit wildflower.

Our Contributors

Sarah McColl Writer

Sarah McColl is the author of the memoir “Joy Enough” and the newsletter “Lost Art.” She teaches creative writing and lives with her family in Northern California.

Martien Mulder Photographer

Dutch-born Martien Mulder combines portraiture, architecture, landscape, and still-life photography. She lives in New York, and her clients include commercial brands, cultural institutions, magazines, and newspapers. Mulder’s work has been exhibited in New York, Amsterdam, and Tokyo, and she has published two books.

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