Georgia on my mind |

Georgia on my mind

special to the daily
Special to the Daily/Carolyn Schwartz

We are sitting in well-weathered Adirondack chairs on the porch of an adobe cottage my husband and I are calling home this week at Ghost Ranch Conference Center. As the sun goes down, we watch as the corrugated mesas and sandstone palisades that loom over the 21,000-acre property slowly change hues: from magenta to ocher to sepia to salmon to lavender to pale pink. It’s as if someone is pulling switches to provide the “lighting” part of a sound and light show.

Watching this same phenomenon, artist Georgia O’Keefe once wrote: “Color is one of the great things in the world that make life worth living.”

It’s no wonder the artist chose to live and work in this part of the southwest for nearly 40 years of her very long life!

Since her death in 1986 (at the age of 98), thousands of pilgrims, both artists and appreciators, have sought O’Keeffe’s essence in the serene landscape of the Rio Chama Valley she once called “her back yard.” “Sometimes I think I’m half mad with love for this place,” she said of the countryside. “I’ve climbed and poked into every hill and mountain in sight.”

From the moment I first drive through the area, I vow to do the same thing.

To make that happen, Bill and I sign up for a week-long class at the former working cattle ranch (owned by the Presbyterian Church since 1955) to which O’Keefe migrated each summer and fall from her primary home in the village of Abiquiu, 12 miles south. Our class, called “Hiking to Ancient Sites, Ancient Waters ” and led by an accomplished archeologist and a naturalist from the ranch, will be our introduction to the history, culture and geology of the region. Each day, we are shuttled to a trailhead that subsequently leads us to a mesa top where, for a thousand years or more, early inhabitants of the area established their pueblo homes, worship sites, and systems of defense. Those of us with keen eyes find physical evidence of their presence in the form of primitive tools, pottery shards and petroglyphs, carved into rock cliffs. (the portable items are meticulously left in place, to be sure!)

At the end of each hike, we return to the ranch for a hearty cafeteria-style meal, some camaraderie with those who have come to take a workshop, to hike into the nearby canyons or to simply relax in the exquisite and peaceful atmosphere that is surely like no other on earth.

During our week at the ranch, O’Keefe is never far from my mind. On our hikes, we are aware of the colors that inspired her–the rich greens of junipers and pinyon pines, the muted gray of sagebrush, the bold terra-cotta of the earth. From an alfalfa-field viewing area at the ranch, we see the fire-red hills she painted, with their undulating vertical folds that end in mounds resembling elephant feet. From the steps of our front porch, we see the artist’s beloved Cerro Pedernal, the flat-topped 9,862-foot square-topped mountain she painted more than a dozen times. The artist had an almost spiritual affinity for Pedernal. “It’s my private mountain,” O’Keefe once told a friend. “It belongs to me. God told me that if I painted it enough, I could have it.”

One day we play hooky from the group hike and explore trails on the ranch property itself, surely walking in O’Keefe’s footsteps here as well. We stop to photograph blooming cholla cacti as we follow a small stream into an ever-more narrow box canyon. We scramble over boulders until it appears we can go no further, then sit for a moment to relax and enjoy the silence. No wonder visitors to the ranch come to meditate in this magical place.

Late the same afternoon, we follow an easy three-mile round-trip trail that leads to the top of Chimney Rock Mesa for a spectacular sunset view of the ranch’s signature rock spires, the entire Chama River Valley and the Abiquiu Reservoir beyond. After a final blast of intense light over the panorama, ever deepening shadows fall as the sun goes down.

There is even a reminder of O’Keefe in one of the ranch’s two small but excellent museums. At the Ruth Hall Paleontology Museum, visitors experience the on-going process of uncovering fossils from the ranch’s own quarry known throughout the archeological world for its cache of intact dinosaur skeletons. They also discover that one specimen, found in 1947, is named Effigia O’Keeffeae in honor of the ranch’s most famous resident.

While we’re in the area, we check out other locations where O’Keefe set up her easel. At one of them, there’s a vast outcropping of pure white rock pillars called Plaza Blanca. On acres of land belonging to the Dar Al Islam Mosque not far from Abiquiu village, the sun-bleached sandstone monoliths seem incongruous in this land of brilliant red, purple and gold. O’Keefe captured the ethereal late-afternoon light on Plaza Blanca in her painting, “From the White Place 1940.”

Because we’ve failed to make reservations far in advance, we have no luck joining a one-hour tour of O’Keefe’s primary residence near Abiquiu’s plaza. The 5,000-square-foot home, dating from the Spanish Colonial era, is part of an adobe-walled oasis, enclosing shade trees, flower beds and a vegetable garden that O’Keefe tended herself. It is said that the interior contains an eclectic mix of simple Midwestern furniture and utilitarian objects along with elegant design elements like floor-to-ceiling windows inspired by the lofts of New York City (O’Keefe was born in Wisconsin and lived in Manhattan as a young woman.) The house is also said to contain souvenirs of the artist’s passions: stones, antlers, fossils and cow skulls, the latter appearing in dozens of the painter’s images of the southwest. She purchased the property in 1945 from the Catholic Church and took up full-time residence in New Mexico in 1949. Many of her best-known works were inspired by this house and by the views she enjoyed from her own front porch.

“I wish you could see what I see out the window,” she wrote friends back in New York City. “The pink earth, the yellow cliffs, the full pale moon about to go down in an early morning lavender sky. Orange and purple hills and scrubby dull green cedars. It is a very beautiful world.”

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