In 1960, Georgia O'Keeffe told a Newsweek reporter, "Once you've been to New Mexico, it will itch you the rest of your life." O'Keeffe made her home in Northwest New Mexico from 1949 until her death in 1996.
Georgia O'Keeffe's home and studio in Abiquiu, 55 miles north of Santa Fe, is open on a limited basis between March and November. Booking early is essential, as there is a six-month waiting list for the one-hour tour.
Herb Lotz Photo Courtesy of Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Santa Fe Stories: Everything O'Keeffe

Home & studio, museum keep iconic artist's legacy alive

By TERRY MATHEWS, News-Telegram Arts Editor

August 29,2008 - It's hard to remember a time when I wasn't aware of the work of the great American artist Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1996). Her use of white skulls and bones against the blue New Mexican sky are part of our country's rich, cultural legacy.

O'Keeffe, born in Wisconsin, was educated at the Art Institute of Chicago (1905-1906) and the Art Students League in New York (1907-1908) and took summer courses at the University of Virginia in 1912.

It was while she was teaching school in Amarillo (1912-1914) and at West Texas State Normal College (1916-1918) that she made her first treks into the rugged outback of the Southwest.

"You know I never feel at home in the East like I do out here - and finally feeling in the right place again - I feel like myself - and I like it," she wrote in a letter. "Out the very large window to rich green alfalfa fields - then the sage brush and beyond - a most perfect mountain - it makes me feel like flying - and I don't care what becomes of art."

Georgia O'Keeffe, 1956
The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, located at 217 Johnson St. near Santa Fe's historic plaza, opened on July 17, 1997, welcoming more than 300,000 visitors during its first three years of operation.
Herb Lotz Photo Courtesy of Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

When the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum opened its doors in 1997, it became the largest single repository of her work in the world, according to the museum's website. It is also the only art museum in the world dedicated to the work of a woman artist of international stature.

Open daily, the museum is home to over 3,000 works, including 1,149 O'Keeffe paintings, drawings and sculptures that date from 1901 through 1984, the year failing eyesight forced her into retirement. Since opening its doors, over 140 artists have been exhibited at the museum.

During our recent visit, the museum was hosting an O'Keeffe-Ansel Adams retrospective (see inset, right). In addition to the museum's permanent collection, upcoming exhibits include Georgia O'Keeffe and the Camera, The Art of Identity, Sept. 26 through Feb. 1, 2009; Modernists in New Mexico,Works from a Private Collector, Feb. 13 through May 3; and Debating Modern Photography, The Triumph of Group f/64, May 22 through Sept. 13.

Another way to get in touch with the O'Keeffe essence is to visit her home and studio in the small village of Abiquiu, about 55 miles northwest of Santa Fe.

O'Keeffe made her first trip to the area in 1929, when she was a guest at Ghost Ranch, a "dude ranch" owned by heiress and Taos art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan.

In 1940, O'Keeffe purchased the Ghost Ranch house where she had stayed as a guest. Along with the house came a view of a flat-topped mesa called the Pedernal, which O'Keeffe loved and painted repeatedly.

"It's my private mountain. It belongs to me," she said. "God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it."

While the Ghost Ranch house was accessible in the summer, it was too remote and difficult for the artist to manage during the long New Mexico winters.

In December 1945, she bought the adobe house in Abiquiu, then in ruins, from the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. With her friend and confidant Maria Chabo, O'Keeffe spent the next three years restoring the 18th-century structure. In the meantime, O'Keeffe's husband, New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz, had died, leaving her free to finally make the move west in 1949.

The home and studio are open on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from March through November. There are only five tours per day, unless you count the special tours on Friday at 3:30 conducted by someone who worked for O'Keeffe for 10 years. Six months before you arrive, you must call the office in Abiquiu. A nice lady named Joyce asks you what dates you're going to be in the area, then she sees if there is anything available. If you're lucky, Joyce will have a slot or two for you. After you give her your credit card information, Joyce will mail a confirmation, along with a list of the tour rules, which include:

Guests meet at the Georgia O'Keeffe Home and Studio Tour Office next to the Abiquiu Inn and are taken by shuttle to the Abiquiu house. Tours are limited to 12 people.

Note-taking, tape recording, or sketching anywhere on the property is not permitted.

To protect this unique historic site, we respectfully request:

No food or drink except water.

No cameras (video, film, or digital).

No backpacks or large bags.

It's at this point that you ask yourself: Is a visit to Abiquiu really worth it?

The answer is: Yes. Yes. And yes.

From the moment you step off the little jitney into the spacious parking lot, you know the place is special.

The first stop is in O'Keeffe's extensive gardens. She grew everything she needed, including fruits, vegetables and a wide array of herbs. It's from the garden path that visitors get a look into the home's large but sparce living room, which houses one of O'Keeffe's many collections of black rocks.

From the garden, the docent leads everyone into O'Keeffe's courtyard. One of the tour's most dramatic moments comes when the guide holds up a photo of O'Keeffe, taken by famed photographer Yosuf Karsh, sitting on a bench just off the courtyard. (See photo below.)

Standing in that space gave me goose bumps. I felt as if O'Keeffe was still there, sitting right there in front of me, serene and in total command of her world.

We entered the home through the laundry room. Since the place has been left intact, the appliances are old and clunky, but interesting nonetheless. When the home was wired for electricity, O'Keeffe chose to use only single light bulbs hung by a wire from the ceiling in all of the rooms, save the formal dining room, which boasts a Japanese-inspired lamp shade.

In the kitchen, we were able to see O'Keeffe's impressive collecting of tea pots, dried herbs and favorite tea tins. From its broad windows, she could look out over her front garden, a walled courtyard and across the river into a wide valley.

From the kitchen, we were able to peek into the dining room and see yet another view of the living room.

As we moved from the house through the front garden, the docent pointed out that O'Keeffe was practicing eco-friendly landscaping as early as the 1950s. The guide also told us that the native plants are irrigated once a week, when water is released to the property from a local dam.

For some visitors, the most important part of the tour is the artist's studio.

The space is occupied by one very large room that opens up to the east, and two smaller rooms, including a private bedroom with a traditional kiva fireplace and small bath.

The last stop on the tour is an overlook that reveals the winding highway that led O'Keeffe to Abiquiu so many years ago.

From 1949 until 1984, when ill health forced her to move to Santa Fe, Georgia O'Keeffe lived at Ghost Ranch or Abiquiu, taking her inspiration from the "stunning vistas and stark landscapes that had inspired her."

About death, O'Keeffe said, "When I think of death, I only regret that I will not be able to see this beautiful country anymore... unless the Indians are right and my spirit will walk here after I'm gone."

After O'Keeffe's death in 1986, Juan Hamilton, her long-time companion, scattered her ashes on the top of the Pedernal. The beautiful mesa she loved so much is now, and forever, hers.

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General admission to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum is $8, $7 for senior citizens (age 60 and over) and $4 for students.

From 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday, admission is free.

Docent orientation tours are available each morning at 10:30 at no extra cost.

Highly recommended is the state-of-the-art audio tour. The audio tour provides information about each exhibition and how the artwork relates to the history of American Modernism (1890s - present). The cost is $5 per audio tour.

The museum will be closed from Sept. 8 through Sept. 25 and again from Feb. 2 through Feb. 12, 2009.

Tickets for the Home and Studio Tour are $30 per person and $25 for senior citizens. They do not offer refunds.

For more information and available dates and times for the Georgia O'Keeffe Home and Studio tour, call 505-685-4539 or visit the museum's website, www.okeeffemuseum.org

Suggested reading: Georgia O'Keeffe: A?life, by Roxana Robinson (paperback) - $26.95; A woman on paper: Georgia O'Keeffe, by Anita Pollitzer (out of print, but available at online resources like Powell's Books); and Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O'Keeffe, by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp (hardcover) - $35.

Editor's note: This is the fourth in our series about "The City Different." Visit our website at www.ssnewstelegram.com to read other Santa Fe adventures. Our final feature on two of Santa Fe's finest restaurants will run next week.

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