O'Keeffe in Taos

Ninety years ago, the heralded artist began her life in New Mexico

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It was the summer of 1929 when Georgia O’Keeffe and good friend and fellow artist Rebecca “Beck” Strand (later Salsbury James) packed their bags for the Land of Enchantment. It was a long, but seemingly necessary journey from The Big Apple to the big sky.

O’Keeffe was depressed. Her latest yearly exhibit at the Intimate Gallery in New York City had been badly reviewed by the critics. She was worried about her significant other Alfred Stieglitz, photographer and modern art promoter, who was recovering from a heart attack.

O’Keeffe often thought of New Mexico. She first visited in 1917 and always vowed to return. Stieglitz didn’t want his love to leave. But realizing New Mexico was her spiritual home by the way she spoke of it, he asked Strand to accompany her in hopes O’Keeffe’s happiness would return.

After arriving in Santa Fe, the two women attended a corn dance at San Felipe Pueblo. Traveling by bus, O’Keeffe happened to see from one of the windows friend Tony Lujan in the crowd. He was from Taos Pueblo. With him was his wife, Mabel Dodge, a wealthy, bohemian supporter of the arts. O’Keeffe met the couple on the earlier visit to New Mexico. She leaned out the window and caught his eye with a wave. Dodge Luhan (she changed the spelling of Tony’s last name due to constant mispronunciation) insisted they come to Taos and be her guests. So began O’Keeffe’s life in New Mexico.

Upon returning to the place that touched her heart so deeply, O’Keeffe’s mental health did indeed improve. Her life and her artwork would never be the same again.

“I felt as if something was ending and another was beginning,” O’Keeffe once said.

She began to feel more like her true self, integrated with parts of her personality that had been submerged in New York City. In awe of the light and landscape she announced, “Half my work was already done for me in New Mexico.”

Settling in

O’Keeffe enthusiastically began exploring her new country. She bought a Model A, but didn’t know how to drive. Lujan, John Collier (American social reformer and Native American advocate) and Strand tried to give her lessons, but gave up after one try. It wasn’t her fault, O’Keeffe exclaimed, that Taos’s bridges were only wide enough for angels to fly over.

Dodge Luhan offered O’Keeffe a studio to use that faced Taos Mountain. In front of it ran the acequia madre that divided Taos Pueblo land from the Luhan property, just off Kit Carson Road. O’Keeffe often slept on the roof so she could experience the stars’ brilliance. It wasn’t unusual for her to sleep on the roof of wherever she was staying. “The night light can now come into me,” she expressed.

Her inspiration

A favorite O’Keeffe activity was an after-dinner ride into the foothills atop Dodge Luhan’s white horse. She would rein in the steed, inhale the sweet air, take in a distant landscape and watch the day’s sunlight fade.

One of her favorite landscapes she could see about 50 miles from Taos was Cerro Pedernal (“flint hill”) just south of Abiquiú Lake, the area of New Mexico she is most associated with. “Pedernal” became her own. She painted the flat-topped mesa more than 100 times and was convinced God had given it to her.

The bleached animal bones she found while walking across the hills and mesas were her “flowers of the desert.”

“They don’t seem dead at all, but very lively,” she said of her finds. O’Keeffe packed barrels of bones and shipped them back East to Stieglitz. He thought she was crazy and wasting money — until she was paid a high price for one her bone paintings.

“Send all the bones you want to,” he told her.

O’Keeffe went on to paint the Penitente cross by the morada (Penitentes' gathering place) behind the Dodge Luhan property and other crosses. She painted Taos Pueblo, San Francisco de Asís Catholic Church, a tree on the D.H. Lawrence ranch (that still stands), Mexican paper flowers, wood carvings, wild flowers, hills and sky around Taos.

The Ghost Ranch

If not for Mabel Dodge Luhan’s accusation that O’Keeffe was having an affair with Tony, maybe the famous painter would have stayed a little longer in Taos. Having none of that, O’Keeffe packed her bags and never spoke to Dodge Luhan again. Even though Dodge Luhan was generous, in spite of herself she always put her wrong foot forward. O’Keeffe’s work was the most important thing in her life. Gossip was like a noxious weed.

She eventually found a home at the Ghost Ranch in Abiquiú. Santa Fe and Taos really were not places she considered making her permanent home — wherever she was going to put down her Southwest roots, she wanted to be the only painter in town interpreting the land. And for many years, she was the only painter in Ghost Ranch country.

After relocating, O’Keeffe would come back to Taos to visit friends and to paint. Here she met photographer Ansel Adams. They became close friends. She bought a piano so Adams could play (he was trained as a concert pianist) when he visited her in Abiquiú. O’Keeffe loved music and said she tried to learn to play the violin, but it was too hard on her fingers. She also wanted to sing, but didn’t have the talent. Instead, she hoped people could see the music that she painted.

She also went back to New York, mostly in the winter and spring, even though the long separations put a strain on her relationship with Stieglitz. He never came to New Mexico. After his death in 1946, Ghost Ranch became her permanent home.

O’Keeffe died on March 6, 1986. She was nearly 100 years old. Her ashes were scattered on her Cerro Pedernal.

Roberta Courtney Meyers is a local storyteller, composer, playwright and poet who grew up knowing many of Taos’s famous and infamous.

 

 

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