A pilgrimage to Georgia O’Keeffe Country, New Mexico

Monday, May 5th, 2014. Filed under: Art Destination Guides Legendary Landscapes

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)
image: P. Hausman Photography

My pilgrimage to Georgia O’Keeffe Country and the artist’s home and studio in Abiquiu, New Mexico, was exquisite and profoundly felt.  Here’s the story, first published on TravelandEscape.ca.***

Pedernal Mesa, New Mexico

The high, dark flat mesa called Pedernal dominates the landscape in Georgia O’Keeffe Country, New Mexico. Photo: Lesley Peterson

We cross the Rio Grande west of Taos, New Mexico, and drive south, heading for the legendary landscape that inspired artist Georgia O’Keeffe. An hour of sagebrush and red rock later, I know we’ve reached O’Keeffe Country when we spot Pedernal, the monumental mesa that obsessed her.

Pedernal With Red Hills (1936), oil on linen, Georgia O’Keeffe.
Collection (and image): New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe.

As we pull over and step out into the wind, it occurs to me that when O’Keeffe asked to have her ashes scattered on Pedernal, she became part of the landscape she loved. I take dozens of photos, climbing back into the car only when my husband reminds me we have an appointment to keep: a tour of the Georgia O’Keeffe Home and Studio at Abiquiu (pronounced AH-bi-kyoo).

All tours begin at the Georgia O’Keeffe home and studio tour office. Tours must be booked well ahead. Photo: Lesley Peterson

The Abiquiu Inn has few rooms so must be booked well ahead. This is a good place to get light meals and refreshments in Abiquiu. Other accommodation is available in Santa Fe and at Ojo Caliente Resort & Spa. Photo: Lesley Peterson

At the tour office, we’re told that all cameras, notebooks, writing and sketching instruments must be left behind in lockers. The guides seem as protective of the site as religious acolytes would be of a temple. The atmosphere in the shuttle is hushed and I feel we are headed for a shrine.


Georgia O’Keeffe’s New Mexico home and studio were created in an old adobe hacienda. Image: Architectural Digest

The house is on a hill overlooking the vast Chama valley, ringed by mesas, the Sangre de Christo mountains in the distance. As the bus climbs, I reflect that this was an incredible journey for a girl born on a Wisconsin farm in 1887. Decades before women even had access to art training at American universities, O’Keeffe worked as an art teacher, gained critical attention in New York and distinguished herself as one of America’s most important artists. Early travels through the Southwest fuelled her desire to live in the land she called “the Faraway” and after the death of her husband photographer Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe moved permanently to the house at Abiquiu. Here she painted and lived alone for decades, becoming an icon of independence and American culture.

Courtyard at Abiquiu

The courtyard at O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu home is hung with animal skulls. Image: Architectural Digest

The guide chats as we pass through O’Keeffe’s garden and enter the old adobe hacienda. I only half listen, distracted by the surreal sensation that I’ve walked into an O’Keeffe painting. The famous courtyard patio and black door are instantly recognizable. We troop through her kitchen and studio. The house’s interior has a surprisingly Modernist aesthetic with white walls, abstract paintings and sculptures, several stereo systems set into the walls.

In the Patio II (1948), oil on linen, Georgia O’Keeffe.
Collection (and image): New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe.

Patio Door With Green Leaf (1956), oil on canvas, Georgia O’Keeffe.
Collection (and image): Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe.

Outside, we peek into O’Keeffe’s bedroom through windows. Too small to permit the entry of tour groups, the room contains only a small bed, like a child’s, draped in white, plus a Hopi-style fireplace.

Karsh portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe

Portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe (1956) by photographer Yousuf Karsh. It was a thrill for me to stand in the exact spot where the photo was taken, under the same great white skull.
Image: Philippe Hausman Gallery.

The tour ends, we retrieve our belongings and drive back to our base in O’Keeffe Country. At Ojo Caliente, a historic site now a resort and spa, we shower off red dust and soak in the steaming cliffside pools. The hot springs at Ojo have been held sacred by Northern Pueblo tribal communities for nearly 3,000 years and we feel the water’s history and restorative power as we bathe.

A dust storm drives us in to dinner but, when we emerge, the night air is crystalline as it can only be in the high desert. The kiva pool glows irresistibly so we grab our robes again. Floating in the womblike water of the red land that Pueblo people believe gave birth to them, I contemplate the cliffs and sky.

Kiva Pool at Ojo Caliente resort and spa, New Mexico. Photo: Lesley Peterson

With the moon only a thin crescent, the night is ultrablack. A blanket of stars seems to drop over me and I panic. Urban born and raised, I’ve felt this before, what old wilderness hands call bush fever, a sudden terror at being lost in the immensity of nature.

Then I recall the sole adornment in Georgia O’Keeffe’s bedroom. On the wall, facing her little bed, she’d placed a bronze fragment of an 800-year-old Buddha: a delicate hand in the mudra signifying “fear not”.

My panic evaporates and I sink back in the steaming water, soaking up the stars and O’Keeffe Country. ***

Georgia O’Keeffe’s bedroom at Abiquiu. Note the little brass hand of Buddha on the far left signifying ‘fear not’. The house at Abiquiu had a bomb shelter as it was only miles from nuclear testing grounds. Image: Architectural Digest

As no photography is permitted at the house in Abiquiu, some of the photos (as indicated) are from an excellent article in Architectural Digest. My own photos here are previously unpublished.

Other stops on the O’Keeffe trail in New Mexico include the town of Taos and the exquisite Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. The New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe is a beautiful adobe building and has several paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe in its collection.

Georgia O’Keeffe hitches a ride to Abiquiu on a motorbike c. 1944.
Image: corn2cottonwoods


Ram’s Head Blue Morning Glory (1938), oil on canvas, Georgia O’Keeffe.
Collection: Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe.

One of my favorite paintings at Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe:
Bella Donna (1939), oil on canvas, Georgia O’Keeffe.


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