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October 30, 2007

O'Keeffe Country

For the past two summers I have taken a photography course offered at the 21,000 acre Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico.

The spirit of the place exists in its looming orange landscapes, in the intimacy that develops quickly between strangers, and a solitude that provides the much needed space to listen better to oneself.

If I close my eyes, I can see the turquoise worn rug on the floor of the Ghost House where the course takes place. I can feel the scratch of the simple Teal-coloured cushions on the wooden, arm-chaired couch, and allow my mind to linger on the exact shade of blue of the woodwork around the windows.

In that cool quiet sitting room I have wondered if perhaps it is the spirit of all the others who have spent time there before me – including the most famous Georgia O’Keeffe - that creates the feeling of sacredness. It’s as if all the conversations that have ever taken place within those thick, white, adobe walls, hang dust-like, in the same way petroglyphs indicate the presence of earlier inhabitants in other sacred places.

O’Keeffe, the artist most known to the public for her macro stylized view of flowers, and her detailed replication of the skulls and bones she’d collect on her desert walks, lived for 98 years. She died in Santa Fe in 1986. The man, 30 years her junior who had cared for her in the last 13 years of her life, Juan Hamilton, was with her. What were they to each other, really? He knows. The rest is speculation.

She was originally married to a famous photographer. Alfred Stieglitz ran one of New York's most avant garde galleries, Gallery 291, in the 20’s. I wondered whether she would have become famous had a friend of hers actually obeyed her and not shown her charcoal drawings to Stieglitz? Had he not been 20 years her senior, and able to withstand her self-righteous intensity, would her personality and her art have become as iconic?

When you step outside into the courtyard of Ghost House you are confronted in the distance by Pedernal, O'Keeffe's beloved, sloping, flat-topped indigo Mountain. It’s a constant reminder of her former presence. Her ashes were scattered at its base and she was well-known for having proclaimed, "God told me that if I painted it enough he would give it to me."

She moved to the Abiquiu area, permanently in 1949, three years after Stieglitz died. He’d never seen the ranch preferring to remain in New York or spend time with his large extended family at Lake George in New York state.
She purchased her house Rancho de los Burros sold to her for a steal by Arthur Pack, the millionaire who owned the ranch and started Nature magazine. In 1955, much to her disagreement, he besqueathed the ranch to the Presbyterian Church so that others would be able to enjoy what he and his wife Phoebe had enjoyed for years. Pack also developed the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Tuscon.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe which is the only museum in the United States dedicated entirely to a lone female artist. Events are commemorating its anniversary throughout the summer, each one sure to be on the social calendar of the nouveau riche dripping in turquoise as they enter. They’ve undoubtedly snatched the most desirable tickets including ones to a dinner in late August to be held outside O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu home where a live performance of her favourite chamber music will waft through the evening air. The intent is to allow the guests to experience the majesty of a New Mexican sunset in a way that might give them a minor sense of how it might have been possible for O’Keeffe’s artistic concentration to be captivated for decades.

At the ranch, it’s easy to understand through the magnificence of the rocks, the purity of the ever-changing light and the intimacy of a heat that feels supportive not oppressive, how O'Keeffe's attention could have been captivated by this place for decades.

As soon as I arrived, I could feel the warmth sucking the moisture out of my rain-soaked Vancouverite bones. My skin became a human canvas awash with the pastel light shows of the evenings. My mind, so often scattered and not operating in the present, felt clear.

Standing, just after dusk, on a full-mooned night, looking across the alfalfa fields, I could imagine Miss O’Keeffe out and about in her trade-mark black and white. She had on the wide-brimmed black hat. She had on her sensible shoes, scuffed by the dirt of the road from her exploring. She was still surveying the heaven she had found on earth right here at the ranch.

As someone once said, Ghost Ranch is a place where God’s finger pokes through.

I don't know about that but when I'm there, I feel more alive and I feel more acutely aware of my mortality. It’s the kind of place where the natural beauty goes straight to the heart. There's awe and an ache. It's a place where I understand better what the poet Dylan Thomas might have meant when he was moved to write, "... Rage, rage against the dying of the light..."