Tag Archives: Georgia O’Keefe

When Clouds Come Into View

img_0008

As my friend and I drove to Ghost Ranch outside Abiquiu, New Mexico, I tried to imagine the dirt road as Georgia O’Keeffe would have driven it in her 1930s roadster. Red rock towers spindled along the narrow highway as we left the Rio Grande valley and ascended the Colorado Plateau. We were on our way to Ghost Ranch as part of the Women Writing the West conference in Santa Fe, but it was a woman painting the Southwest who was on my mind as we drove.

The Ghost Ranch tour was led by Leslie Poling-Kempe, author of Ladies of the Canyons: A League of Extraordinary Women and their Adventures in the American Southwest, a study of the circle of East Coast women who came to New Mexico in the early 1900s to create lives independent of repressive Victorian gender roles. Kempe’s remarkable history of these women is this year’s WILLA scholarly non-fiction award winner and is an impressive work of research that re-illuminates the lives of women whose marks on the Southwest had almost faded from view.

img_0046

One of the ladies of the canyon was Carol Bishop Stanley, a trained musician who came to New Mexico on an adventure, married first one cowboy, then another, and never left. Her first gambler husband won a reputedly haunted, remote camp outside Abiquiu from cattle rustlers in a poker game. Stanley became owner after their divorce, named the place Ghost Ranch, and built it into a successful dude ranch and refuge for wealthy families from back East. We toured Stanley’s original adobe home and headquarters with its low ceiling and rustic wooden furniture. Ghost Ranch itself is now owned by the Presbyterian Church and is open to anyone for day or overnight visits. Part of our tour was a preview of a new exhibit at the Ghost Ranch museum about some of the ladies of the canyon, including diaries, photographs, and artifacts of their day.

img_0042-version-2

Georgia O’Keeffe first visited Ghost Ranch in 1934 and in 1940 bought a piece of the property with a house that had been built by Alfred Pack, who purchased Ghost Ranch from Carol Stanley (read Ladies of the Canyons for the whole story). While O’Keeffe’s house was not part of the tour, we did see the casita she rented when she first came to Bishop’s Ghost Ranch.

img_0074

We could also view the Pedernal in the distance, a flat-top mesa in the Jemez range that O’Keeffe painted many times as the colors changed with light and season, joking that it was her private mountain since God had promised to give it to her if she would paint it often enough.

img_0079

After the tour and exhibit, my friend and I hiked into Box Canyon, so called for the geological formation that created a natural corral for the rustled cattle once hidden there. We followed red dirt trails uphill, past abandoned hogans, toward a plateau of scrub pine and high stone buttes ringed with cottonwoods, now ablaze in the October sun. As I hiked, I tried to place myself in O’Keeffe’s paintings, imagining what the artist might have seen as she hiked a path much like ours.

img_0091-version-2

At the top of the rise, before the trail split into two, I stopped. Looking up from where I stood at the edge of a deep arroyo, it seemed the clouds were rising one at a time from the depths of the canyon, rather than floating across the sky. I thought of O’Keeffe’s paintings like Above the Clouds I, a canvas of oval clouds filling the sky to the horizon line, or In the Patio VIII, with its dots of clouds hanging over her adobe home. I could see why these New Mexico clouds appealed to O’Keeffe and how her particular style of painting them straddled a line between abstract and representational, as her work generally did.

On previous trips to New Mexico, I hadn’t noticed how the clouds in that high desert region could differ from the clouds in Colorado that barrel over the Rockies and drape across the Front Range sky. Like the clouds in O’Keeffe’s paintings, the clouds at Ghost Ranch that day were distinct from one another, individual even in their similarity. As my friend and I continued onto the plateau and threaded our way through astounding rock formations towering far over our heads, I kept an eye on the clouds drifting in that trick of the horizon up and over the buttes.

img_0112

According to O’Keeffe’s biographer, Laura Lisle, in Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, the artist began to consider painting clouds in the 1960s when she started traveling by plane. Her first oil portrayed a solid mass of clouds under a sky. Next she broke the bank up into smaller clouds, and then placed more blue between them, creating, as Lisle writes, “an inviting path of stepping stones into infinity.” Whether this metamorphosis from large mass to smaller shapes was inspired by the clouds of her New Mexico home, I don’t know, but the evolution from clouds by plane to clouds over her own patio does seem likely. Whatever its inspiration, the oversized cloud panorama she exhibited in 1966, Sky Above Clouds IV, was unlike anything any artist had painted before.

Two weeks after visiting Ghost Ranch, I hiked with my partner John in Rocky Mountain National Park just a half hour drive from our home. I wanted to compare our clouds with the ones I’d viewed in New Mexico. Just as I remembered, small clouds are rare here except as part of a larger pack. What’s more, in the Rockies, the mountains are so dominant, it’s easy to overlook the sky. Each time we hiked up and around a switchback, a new vista stretched before us, like another layer of a painting hidden, until then, from view. As I tried to let the majestic peaks recede in my vision, the clouds suddenly came forward, reversing background for foreground, earth for sky. With surprise, I realized that the clouds before me were as big and even bigger than the mountains, so massive in size, even their shadows could cover an entire mountain from peak to base.

img_0528

One mark of a great artist is how they inspire us to look at the world in a different way. I love O’Keeffe’s work for many reasons—her fierce commitment to her art, the trails she blazed for women, her recognition of beauty in common or traditionally “feminine” objects, and the emotional sense of place she worked to portray. But it wasn’t until I visited the land on which she walked that I understood the way her art inspires us to transcend what we see with our eyes into a larger vision. Whether the genius of her work is found in color, shape, scale, juxtaposition, or craft, her paintings capture something more than the sum of their parts. They offer us the opportunity to see both into the essence of an object and beyond its earthly form. O’Keeffe’s work teaches us that new perspectives are within our reach if we take the time to look.

img_0059

Photographs by Kayann Short

9 Comments

Filed under ecobiography, memoir, women's writing

Taos Portrait Found

I’ve been looking for this picture for years. I knew that I had stuck it in a book at some point in my various moves, but I didn’t know which book, although I’d searched through many. The picture was taken in Taos and I knew the book had something to do with that region, so occasionally I’d think I’d remembered the title and searched through the pages of that book. For fifteen years, I hadn’t been right.

And then, when I wasn’t looking for this photo at all, I found it, tucked not inside a book but between two books by Linda Hogan, one of my favorite authors. Recently I’ve been purging my book collection to make room on my shelves for books brought home from my office and for artifacts I’d like to look at from time to time. I was rearranging books by Native American authors when I picked up Hogan’s Dwellings, a book I use in teaching, to place it with Hogan’s other works on the shelf—and there was the envelope between two of her novels. I knew immediately that the picture was there, even though I had forgotten that I’d put it in the envelope at all with others from that trip.

It’s not surprising to me now that the picture was with Hogan’s works. Not only is she a favorite author of mine—I’ve taught her novel Solar Storms in my coming-of-age in women’s lit course for years—but she even writes about losing and finding objects in an essay in Dwellings called “The Feathers.” Here she details discovering that her granddaughter’s umbilical cord was missing from the black pot where it was kept. She searched her entire house, looking several times in a cedar box where she kept other important items, but the cord wasn’t there. After performing a ceremony to call the cord back, she returned to look again in the box, only to find that the feather she kept there was now missing too. Getting down on her hands and knees to look for the feather, she found it pointing toward the umbilical cord on the floor she had already searched.

So here’s the picture, found again, of me in 1996 standing in my blanket coat in front of the adobe church in the Old Taos plaza. Over the last fifteen years, I had remembered the picture differently: in my remembered picture, I could see the colors of the coat (navy, purple, and tan) as my body cast a long shadow across the adobe, and the look on my face wasn’t so severe. I had made the picture in my mind more vivid and stylized than the picture actually was. Call it the O’Keefe effect.

Even though the photograph doesn’t quite live up to my memory of it, I still like this picture of me. This was my first—and for now, only—trip to Taos and Santa Fe, and I loved the area, especially the church I’m standing against. I had never been that close to something that old, that sacred, built out of the earth itself as if it had grown there from the very mud of which it was created. I felt—as the picture depicts—very small standing against the back of the church but safe at the same time, perhaps because the wall seemed so solid and so warm on that early spring day. I’m not casting a shadow because, in the photo, I am the shadow, the only darkness against the light of the adobe, absorbing rather than reflecting the power of that place. I imagined why artists like O’Keefe had been so drawn to the Southwest—the textures, the heat, and the severity of light that draws our eyes to the shadows in relief like the pattern of a Hopi design.

When this picture was taken, I was just starting my career at the university and was about to buy the home where I would raise my daughter. I wasn’t young, but I was starting out once again on a new phase of my life. Now, fifteen years later, that career is finished, my daughter is raised, the home sold, and I’m once again facing new and exciting changes in my life.

This picture reminds me that we sometimes find ourselves in unexpected places that we don’t even realize we’ll remember years hence. Sometimes our days seem so settled, so sedentary or even senseless, that only looking back across our lives tracks how far we’ve come. Perhaps I’ve searched for this picture from time to time because I needed that reminder. Perhaps I’ve found it now because I’m ready for another change.

2 Comments

Filed under ecobiography, memoir, women's writing