Written by 6:52 pm Essay, First Person, Visual Art

Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico

Lessons from a master in living with beauty: Georgia O’Keeffe’s home beckons for a 15-hour drive across the American Southwest.

1.

Even at 97, Georgia O’Keeffe woke each morning at 6 o’clock. Often she stirred earlier and elevated her legs (which tended to swell) for 20 minutes as her caregiver lit piñon logs in the studio fireplace and walked across the courtyard to fix breakfast. O’Keeffe favored wheat toast spread with honey, though she no longer baked her own bread.

In photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe during that period, clothes lay lightly on her body like a second skin. She hired a local seamstress in New Mexico to copy her favorite dresses in various fabrics and shades and hem the sleeves to 3/4 length, so she could move her arms freely. If her underdress shifted during the day, O’Keeffe pinched and straightened the white cotton until it rested in an even line across her wrists.

She had particular ways of doing things, asked people to run their hands through warm water before touching her skin in winter, held the last three fingers of her hands straight and together with most gestures, traced her middle finger from her forehead to the tip of her nose when she was thinking.

Are these small habits worth noticing?

2.

As a young teacher in Texas, Georgia O’Keeffe was greatly influenced by art educator Arthur Lesley Dow. “This man had one dominating idea; to fill space in a beautiful way—and that interested me. After all, everyone has to do just this—make choices—in his daily life, when only buying a cup and saucer.”

I saw photos of Georgia O’Keeffe’s house in Abiquiu, New Mexico and admired that her objects didn’t stand in the way of light. I wanted to see the space myself, so I drove from my apartment in Los Angeles to her home in Abiquiu.

The trip takes more than fifteen hours, if you don’t count stops along the way. The highway begins with five lanes; as hours pass, it narrows to two. Space between cars doubles, then triples, then sometimes you’re alone on the road. Land stretches for 40 to 50 miles without buildings—no gas stations, no restrooms, not even trees.

My arms burned through the windows of my car. I listened to a mix of music from an ex-boyfriend and a book on the curve of space-time. I drank water with crushed ice from the soda fountain at the gas station. I ate every crumb of a single-serving-size bag of salt & vinegar potato chips and my fingers were sticky with grit until the next “rest stop” with locked vending machines and lukewarm drinking water. There were no mirrors in the bathrooms, nowhere to look but out.

Sunsets in New Mexico are unlike sunsets anywhere else. Most homes and businesses are only one-story, so nothing blocks the view. Blistering oranges, melancholy pinks, persistent violets linger across the sky for what feels like hours. The variations in light change the landscape, as waves change water. I had to keep replacing what I expected to see with what I actually saw in front of me.

The hour-long tour of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu home began at 9:15 a.m. and cost $40. When someone asked the tour guide to tell us something only a local would know about Georgia O’Keeffe, she said Miss O’Keeffe (who did not like to be called Mrs. Stieglitz) gave money to build a nearby elementary school. O’Keeffe’s only stipulation was the school couldn’t name anything after her or publicize her contribution.

Most rooms are roped off, so we only glimpsed the home through open doorways—a forest green Knoll “womb” chair angled attractively toward a window, Paul McCobb chairs tucked gently beneath the dining table, a Noguchi lantern hung gracefully overhead. I forget lots of details, because our guide asked us not to photograph the interiors, even through windows. She didn’t explain further, but I imagine an object might move slightly from photo to photo, and if people saw one alteration, it would disturb the illusion that everything was exactly as it used to be.

Our group shuffled softly from one room to the next, ducking through low doorways, and careful not to stand too close to the adobe walls (as instructed). Despite the relative quiet of our tour, the Abiquiu house has a modern sound system, so Georgia O’Keeffe could (and did) listen to music throughout her home—Bach Suite #2 for unaccompanied cello in D minor, Wanda Landowska performing Monteverdi, Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor. O’Keeffe often said that she painted because she could not sing.

Tanya J. Ramsey

At the end of the tour, we crossed a courtyard from the main house to Georgia O’Keeffe’s separate painting studio and bedroom. The studio was filled with muted light from skylights covered by thin white screens. A large rectangular window dominated the right side and framed the Chama River Valley: low brush, twisted trees, and a russet mesa rising slowly against unyielding blue.

The view from O’Keeffe’s studio looked like a painting, but I did not see the distinct and piercing sadness of lapis blue from Black Mesa Landscape, the gentle pastel caress of Purple Hills Ghost Ranch, or the heroic pallor Pedernal. As Georgia O’Keeffe said herself, “I long ago came to the conclusion that even if I could put down accurately the thing that I saw and enjoyed, it would not give the observer the kind of feeling it gave me. I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at—not copy it.”

As our group walked out past juniper trees meticulously trimmed to resemble Japanese bonsai, the guide pointed to an arrangement of smooth oval stones. When Miss O’Keeffe was alive, her then-gardener (his grandson is the current one) saw her carefully arrange the stones, and after she left, playfully nudged one out of place. The next day he checked to see if O’Keeffe had noticed, and sure enough, she had returned the stone to its former position—and moved a different one to see if he would notice. Their exchange went on like that for years, the stones continually moving in and out of place. I stretched my hand toward the pile and the guide added, “No one moves the stones anymore.”

On the way home, I stayed overnight at an experimental urban laboratory called Arcosanti in Arizona. Its architecture is designed to accompany, not dominate, the landscape. They sell bells and accept paying visitors. Rooms are beautifully designed but worn. During the night, ants crawled under the glass door. The fan blew hot air across my collarbones. I thought about absences, had trouble sleeping. The desert pulses.

3.

Back in Los Angeles, I went to the library and checked out as many glossy books as I could carry. My favorite was “My Faraway One,” a selection of Georgia O’Keeffe’s letters to Alfred Stieglitz, even though it weighed more than four pounds. I didn’t understand its size until I learned that just one of Alfred Stieglitz’s letters was 42 pages.

Correspondence like theirs is rare. I tried to flip through quickly, but each page caught my full attention. My hands lingered, marking particular favorites with tears of notebook paper. Every line of beautiful cursive script is pressed into paper as intentionally and forcefully as it would be pressed into skin. The sentences often end in dashes instead of periods, so each idea is connected intrinsically to the next.

Early on, they present aspects of themselves they imagine the other would most admire. O’Keeffe writes of climbing mountains and implies sensuality, “My lips are greased and I’m in bed—Rouge is the only thing I know that helps the chap.” Stieglitz writes of isolation in his busy 291 gallery, his desire to be understood as someone pure, set apart from everyday concerns. 

They note the time they write (Stieglitz writes one letter at 8 a.m., 8:15 a.m., and 6:20 p.m.), sounds from behind closed doors, who they saw, what they think about, and in a general sense, whatever matters at the moment and who they hope to be (to themselves and each other).

Stieglitz promises to teach O’Keeffe to love herself as he loves her. They are both so on the line at that point, you almost imagine they could learn to love themselves from each other—finally rest their full weight against another person and not fall. It’s like their bodies are pressed against either side of a glass wall that moves with their breathing. 

It’s hard not to hope for them in these early letters.

After Georgia O’Keeffe moves to New York to live with Alfred Stieglitz (first in his niece’s studio apartment, and then for many years at his brother’s home), they both struggle to let go of the person they imagined over those years of correspondence and see each other as they are day to day. He has affairs. She visits New Mexico alone and writes back, “I am growing very tall and straight inside — and very still — Maybe you will not love me for it — but for me it seems to be the best thing I can do for you… there is nothing to be kind to you if I cannot be me.”

There are moments in her letters when I want to clap.

 4.

Georgia O’Keeffe survived that great love. She survived its loss and Stieglitz’s death. She moved to New Mexico alone, traveled the world with a sculptor 58 years her junior (who made her laugh), painted her southwestern landscapes. Even in her nineties, Georgia O’Keeffe slathered her hands with cream each night, because, she told her caregiver, people always admired her hands. Why should they stop?

Alfred Stieglitz photographed Georgia O’Keeffe’s hands many times. In the photos she is often posed in front of her paintings or grasping the fabric of her clothes. She has supple, long fingers which seem to curve around every object they touch. For someone with such a disciplined body and character, the shape of her hands seems incongruously delicate. They are beautiful without severity—it must have taken a great deal of effort to keep them that way.

Skimming through most biographies of Georgia O’Keeffe, I see accomplishments, notable relationships, specific dates of importance—hanging like static points in a moving line. I can’t fully imagine the spaces in between, but I suspect that those are the ones that matter most—how Georgia O’Keeffe spent her hours on ordinary days, arranged her home when no guests were coming, wrote letters to the man she loved when their love wavered—and perhaps if I could find corollaries, I might see how to move more gracefully through empty spaces in my own life, “to fill space in a beautiful way”…. even, and especially, when no one is watching.     

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