Tuesday, August 14, 2018

O'Keeffe, Taos, and the Standard Oil Heiress

Georgia O’Keeffe was the reason Marsha and I came to northern New Mexico for the first time almost twenty-six years ago to celebrate our silver anniversary. 
            
 I had little familiarity with her art when earlier that year we went to a retrospective exhibit of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  And, although not really fans of non-representational paintings, we both were, in the jargon of the day, totally blown away by what we perceived as O’Keeffe’s abstract interpretations of the desert southwest – recognizable, yet not realistic.
           
So when we were trying to choose where to celebrate our marriage milestone we recalled that artwork and decided to go see the land that was the inspiration for her non-pictorial pictures.
           
And quickly discovered when that we looked at things a certain way, particularly through a camera viewfinder, they were not that imaginary after all.  And we were forever hooked on the desert southwest.
           
 O’Keeffe’s first home in New Mexico was at “Ghost Ranch” in the town of Abiquiu about forty-five miles north of Santa Fe.  And following the advice of a fellow traveler we had met at breakfast we decided to make her first home our first sightseeing stop.
           
The ranch was then, and today, a Presbyterian Education and Retreat Center, donated to the church by Arthur Newton Pack and his wife Phoebe in 1955.  In the 1930s Pack had been a frequent guest at what was at that time an exclusive dude ranch run by Carol Stanley whose former husband by divorce Roy Pfaffle had won the deed to the property in a poker game sometime early in 1928.  Guests at Stanley’s high desert resort included Charles Lindbergh, Ansel Adams and John Wayne – and for most summers from 1929 to 1945, Georgia O’Keeffe.  Prior to that it had been the property of the Archuleta brothers, cattle rustlers who enjoyed the coverage and invisibility that the canyon provided and had a tendency to murder others who came onto their refuge.  To discourage their neighbors from snooping around the Archuletas spread the rumor that the land was haunted by evil spirits – from which it came to be called “Rancho de los Brujos” (“Ranch of the Witches.”)  Ultimately, and probably inevitably, one Archuleta killed the other – after which a group of local men came to the ranch, and hung the remaining brother and his gang from a cottonwood tree that still stands next to one of the casitas on the property.  On taking over the property Carol Stanley renamed it Ghost Ranch – a friendlier moniker that still captured a bit of its past history.
           
O’Keeffe’s casita could not be visited.  But on the way in to the ranch Marsha and I noticed a tall red rock formation, which we discovered at the visitor center was appropriately named Chimney Rock and was climbable via a three mile round trip trail with a 600 foot rise in elevation.  So, armed with our bottles of apple juice and some small snacks, we set upon our inaugural New Mexican hike at the top of which we found a panoramic view of the landscape which was so inspiring to O’Keeffe.  And to us.  I also personally learned that, with Marsha, I was willing to try things I once would never have thought I was capable of doing.
           
During her summers at Ghost Ranch O’Keeffe learned to drive an automobile. And on one of her motor trips came upon a property in the village of Abiquiu, which she decided she wanted as her own house.  At the time, it was a deteriorating adobe structure owned by the Roman Catholic Church, which for about fifteen years did not want to sell it. O’Keeffe persisted.  Eventually the church relented, and she was able to purchase it in 1945, renovate it, and reside there until 1984 when frailty forced her to move to Santa Fe for the two remaining years of her life.
           
It was this house which was itself the subject matter of over two dozen of her most iconic painting that we finally visited on a recent Friday with our friends Roberta, Doug and Elizabeth from our former home town of Wethersfield, CT who were visiting Santa Fe for the first time.  And who, like us on our maiden voyage to the Land of Enchantment, were drawn here (at least in part) by O’Keeffe’s work.
           
Access to the residence is available only by guided tour through the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, which ferries tourists from the Visitor Center on the grounds of the Abiquiu Inn, through the tiny village, to the 5,000 square foot residence with acequia drenched gardens and a central patio that is one of her favorite subjects.
            
 In O’Keeffe’s mind, “Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.”
           
For example, our tour guide explained, the tiles shown in the picture below, as well as the doorway, are both real.  But the tiles are not on the bottom of the wall.  They actually form the walkway below.  However O’Keeffe noticed that when the light caused a certain type of shadow, the visual distinction between wall and walkway was almost invisible – so, why not build on that semi-illusion.  Recognizable, yet not realistic – abstract but not imaginary.


      
 After our house tour, and a delicious lunch at the Abiquiu Inn the five of us drove out to another of O’Keeffe’s favorite subjects, The White Place (aka Plaza Blanca) – an area of bone white hoodoos (rock pillars that do not maintain the same form from top to bottom).  Now on the grounds of the Dar Al Islam Education Center and Mosque and open to the public it is reachable via a circuitous pair of back roads culminating in an extremely unimproved quarter-mile entryway that could deter even the most devoted O’Keeffe enthusiast if they were not aware of what awaited.  (I cannot fathom how O’Keeffe herself got out here.)
           
It is monsoon season in New Mexico.  And when we got to The White Place the surrounding skies became decidedly non-blue, and the winds began blowing fiercely.  So we limited our visit to a short walk towards the formations and some zoom photos.  But even in the less than ideal lighting conditions I think all of us could see the possibilities, which Marsha, and I at other times on sunnier days have experienced up close and personal.

           
Two days later our quintet traveled the High Road to Taos – stopping along the way at ElSantuario de Chimayó – a Roman Catholic Church, and National Historic Landmark in the village of Chimayo.  Whether you believe or not, there is something about the peacefulness and serenity of old, small Spanish Colonial New Mexican churches that draws you in and wraps its arms around you.
            
 Plus, the dirt in a hole called “el pocitio” in a small closet-sized room is believed to be miraculous, making the church “one of the most important Catholic pilgrimage centers in the United States,” according to the National Park Service, which cares about this because of the site’s Historic Landmark status.  A Prayer Room next to el pocitio contains an amazing number of discarded crutches and rosary beads   And a walking procession of the faithful follows our thirty mile driving route from Santa Fe to Chimayo each Easter.

The youngest among us hunched herself into the tiny room to retrieve two cupped hands of the sacred soil for our group to share.
           
After fortifying ourselves with brunch at Doc Martin’s restaurant in the center Taos –”the best pancakes ever,” according to one of our group – we headed on to Taos Pueblo, constructed between 1000 and 1450 A.D., and “considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the USA” according to their website.  As well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
           
Unfortunately our monsoon luck struck again just as we pulled in to the visitor parking lot.  But armed with umbrellas and jackets we persisted and enjoyed the short walking tour of the Pueblo including Saint Jerome’s Church with its Virgin Mary/Corn Goddess at the center of the altar – a reminder of the forced conversion of the resident Tewa Indians to Catholicism, and of the Native American’s continuing practice of their indigenous Tewa Religion in parallel with their imposed Christianity.
           
Marsha and I first visited Taos Pueblo on our initial foray into New Mexico – on a magnificently sunny day.  And what I recall most from back then was the way in which, as on O’Keeffe’s patio, the luminescence visually rearranged the architectural lines of the multi-story adobe apartments creating another recognizable, yet not realist – abstract but not imaginary scene.
           
The sun came back out during our drive from Taos Pueblo to the Millicent Rogers Museum on the outskirts of town.  The MRM was established by one of her sons and is filled principally with objects from Millicent Rogers' personal collection of jewelry, textiles and baskets.
            
           
Sometimes known as “the Standard Oil Heiress” as the granddaughter of the company’s co-founder (with J.D. Rockefeller) grew up in New York within privilege and wealth.  “Millicent’s life, before Taos, includes the things one would expect, such as travel, homes, marriage [three] and children. But she was also distinctive for her looks and her fashionable style, which resulted in popularity with photographers, clothing designers and fashion magazines.  Apart from photographing well and having a figure for couture design, Millicent had a way of combining fashion elements with an engaging flair, which in turn caught the eye and attention of fashion devotees.  So how does this answer why Millicent collected art of the Southwest? That Millicent approached fashion creatively is the key.”  (MRM website)
           
Looking to recover from her breakup with actor Clark Gable, Millicent came to northern New Mexico in 1947 – saw the light, and never left.
           
"Dear Paulie,” she wrote to her son, “did I ever tell you about the feeling I had a little while ago? Suddenly passing Taos Mountain I felt that I was part of the earth, so that I felt the sun on my surface and the rain. I felt the stars and the growth of the Moon; under me, rivers ran..."
           
While Marsha and I may not have felt a spiritual connection of the same depth as that of Millicent Rogers – or an artistic interdependence as profound as Georgia O’Keeffe’s – nonetheless there is something about northern New Mexico that has both changed us, and at the same time, made us immediately feel right at home.  After a quarter century of visiting we moved to Santa Fe last May.  Monica and Bram (our daughter-in-law and son) visited the area twice – once on their honeymoon – and moved to Santa Fe twelve years before we did.  Monica says that she still sometimes looks around and thinks “I just can’t believe I am really here!”
             
We hope that Roberta, Doug and Elizabeth experienced some of that same northern New Mexican
mystique – and that others who follow them will also.

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